From April 2013, many of the country's poorest working-age adults in social housing who are deemed to have a 'spare' bedroom, are having their housing benefit cut. The measure, contained in the new Welfare Reform Act, has been dubbed by opponents a "bedroom tax".
Even six months later, the definition of what constitutes 'spare' is tenuous. It hits couples who need separate bedrooms when recovering from frequent illness, or because of disability. It hits separated parents who share the care of their children, and may need an extra bedroom when their children stay. It hurts disabled people living in specially adapted and designed properties.
Of the 660,000 people affected, about 100,000 live in homes specially adapted for disability, the National Housing Federation says. It also estimates that 230,000 people in receipt of disability living allowance will be affected. Those on housing benefit include many who are struggling in minimum-wage jobs. The average cut will be about £15 per week – enough to send some into debt and arrears, and leave them facing eviction.
The public challenge to the Government earlier this year over its welfare reforms by Church of England bishops – including the Archbishop of Canterbury – was, therefore, extremely welcome.
It would have been stronger, of course, if the Church Commissioners had not pursued a policy of selling their social housing over the past 20 years, investing instead in out-of-town shopping centres. The Church would have had more authority if it had been speaking from an unequivocal commitment to social housing.
Like other Churches, however, the Church of England does still have an involvement in social housing through housing associations and other associated bodies. The English Churches Housing Group, for example, is one of the country's largest housing associations, providing homes for more than 18,000 people. This gives the Church a chance to fight back – as other bodies in the sector are already demonstrating.
Knowsley Housing Trust has reclassified nearly 600 family homes as "smaller properties", and has dropped the number of bedrooms they are deemed to have. This will exempt tenants from having their housing benefit reduced. Elsewhere, Brighton and Hove Council, in which the Greens are the largest party, has become the first local authority in England to say that it will not pursue evictions of those who fall into arrears as a result of the benefit cut.
As the Archbishop of Canterbury has now stressed, the Church should also look at the longer-term action that it might take. As local authorities are finding, the new scheme is almost unworkable. There simply are not enough smaller properties for tenants to downsize to, even if they did want to ditch their 'spare' bedroom.
But, as Housing Justice's 2009 report Faith in Affordable Housing (in which the Church of England was a partner) suggested, many churches own land and property, which includes under-used and redundant assets: this might be glebe land, flats, houses, church halls, and other premises. In some cases, they could become a source of income, as well as of social benefit. As many churches have found, it often helps to develop partnerships with housing associations, which have expertise that can help make things happen.
This is a time to be both politically and practically subversive in the face of what the Bishops rightly observed is a growing political consensus that is hurting the most vulnerable. All of the main parties in the UK, including Labour, support the cut in housing benefit. Labour has said that it would not reverse it – or, indeed, most of the other welfare reforms – should it gain power at the next election.
In the face of such a negative consensus, new social housing could become a central weapon in the Churches' fight to protect the poorest.
(c) Jonathan Bartley is co-director of Ekklesia. This article originally appeared as his Church Times column in April 2013, and was followed by Archbishop Justin Welby's statement on the need for the Church of England to engage with the generation of social housing.