March 7, 2013 8.00 am This story is over 103 months old

Barry Turner: Bedroom tax? But what is a bedroom?

The fine print: Local authorities will undoubtedly be hearing more about the ‘bedroom tax’ in the coming months, but the definition of ‘bedrooms’ and ‘occupancy’ might become a big problem for them.

The controversial adjustment to benefits dubbed a ‘bedroom tax’ in the press threatens the income of many living on state benefits. The policy has already hit technical problems, as the original plan was to get those living in ‘under-occupied’ houses to move to smaller accommodation to free up space for families. This has hit the very real issue that there is nowhere near sufficient smaller accommodation for those under-occupying to go to.

Other more technical problems are now beginning to appear which might cause local authorities headaches. One in particular might be a real legal headache. Traditionally a house is described by how many bedrooms it has. A typical local authority dwelling will have three bedrooms, but in many cases the three rooms will vary considerably in size.

Most of this type of houses have what is known as a box-room and this has traditionally been the sleeping accommodation of the children. These rooms by their nature have a small but adequate floor space and will usually easily accommodate a singe bed or bunks.

Also read: Over 1,000 people in Lincoln to be £600 worse off after ‘bedroom tax’

Under section 326 of the Housing Act 1985, it is quite possible that these rooms are not bedrooms at all. Section 326 deals with The Space Standard and requires a certain floor area per ‘person’ in the house. The floor area that can be occupied by an adult must be above 70 sq ft and very few box rooms are that size.

The Housing Act tells us that a room below 70 sq ft is suitable for half a person and a child under ten is apparently such a fraction. So returning to under-occupancy, an empty box room might attract the ‘tax’, but can it be legally sustained?

The problem for any local authority wanting to enforce this is that if the box-room is a bedroom, then any family with a child reaching the age of ten, who currently sleeps in the box room, will be over-occupying the property and the council will be breaching the space standard in the Housing Act.

If the box-room is not a bedroom, then any individual or perhaps couple occupying such a house might not be under-occupying it.

The problem is obvious; many houses will be occupied by mum and dad in their bedroom, big sister in the second bedroom and little 9-year-old (half person) brother in the box-room. On his 10th birthday they must move to a bigger house.

The single person in the two bedroom property occupying the main bedroom cannot take in an adult lodger in the box-room because it violates the space standard and if they leave it empty, they might have to pay the ‘bedroom tax’.

The local authorities will undoubtedly be hearing more about this in the next few months and the definition of ‘bedrooms’ and ‘occupancy’ might become a big problem for them.

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Barry Turner is Senior Lecturer in Media Law and Public Administration at the University of Lincoln.