There are endless attacks on the cut in spare room subsidy on the grounds that those impacted by reduced benefit are unable to downsize – as there are no smaller properties available. This assertion is then backed up with figures about the number of empty properties. What is ignored is that tenants can swap with those who are in overcrowded conditions. Furthermore, increasingly, tenants are sorting out their own arrangements for swapping rather than being beholden to housing officers. There was an interesting article – in the Guardian of all places – explaining how this works:
Another website, House Exchange, said registrations from potential downsizers were up by 49% year-on-year.
HomeSwapper reported that the number of downsizers had more than quadrupled over the past year in deprived parts of the country such as Fife in Scotland and north Lincolnshire, with the greatest increase in successful swaps occurring in Cardiff, Stoke-on-Trent and Sheffield. House Exchange reports that one in five social tenants in Leeds are actively using the site to look for a smaller home.
So there is some healthy competition in the social housing home-swap market:
The government-backed HomeSwap Direct scheme enables tenants to exchange their property with another council tenant anywhere in the country, as long as they get their landlords’ consent. The scheme relies mainly on mutual exchange websites that social housing tenants can use to list their homes as available for swapping and view potential matches based on their specific requirements.
The sites charge social housing landlords an average of £1 for each property they want to list as an annual lump sum – £3,500 on average, according to HomeSwapper – and landlords must pay this whether or not their tenants choose to use the sites. Tenants then have free access. They can also join a second swapping website privately if they are willing to pay fees of £7-10 a quarter.
HomeSwapper is a nationwide private company used by two-thirds of landlords and covering 70% of Britain’s social housing. Through landlords’ subscriptions, a further 30% of social housing tenants have free membership of House Exchange, a not-for-profit site.
Richard Blundell, HomeSwapper chief executive says:
“There may not be enough empty stock available – but there are 56,000 one-bedroom homes and 147,000 two-bed properties listed for swapping on our site today, and plenty of them belong to people who are living in overcrowded conditions and are desperate to move into bigger homes.”
It doesn’t always work perfectly. The article mentions the case of someone who wished to remain in a small village to be near her mother and couldn’t find anyone to swap with. But according to Mr Blundell, each potential downsizer is offered, on average, 90 properties matching their requirements. Two thirds of the 230,000 properties listed are one or two bedrooms. Surely Labour politicians must be aware of the existence of these websites. Yet they keep peddling the “nowhere to move” myth.
Zena Ecott, a single mother from Bedfordshire, recently swapped via the House Exchange website. She says:
“If you’re downsizing, you do have the upper hand. I had a lot of interest in my house – 20 people got in touch in total – and I swapped with the first person whose home I went to see, a pregnant mother who already had two kids and was desperate to move before the new baby arrived.”
She adds that she is still in touch with the person she swapped with. “It was the right thing to do, but it certainly wasn’t an easy thing to do,” she says.
The real limitation to swapping is that many tenants don’t wish to downsize. If you were faced with finding an extra £15 or moving home wouldn’t you try to find an extra £15 a week? Many have chosen the alternative of getting a job or increasing their hours. Another option is taking in a lodger. Again there are websites available – such as spareroom.co.uk. That website is campaigning for the tax threshold for renting a room to be increased from £4,250 to £7,500. That would be a very sensible tax cut as in easing the housing supply it would help cut the Housing Benefit bill.
In other cases, a son or daughter who has moved out and was getting Housing benefit for their own flat has been persuaded to return home to fill the spare room. This means that for the family home the full Housing benefit is paid but, of course, the total bill is reduced as there ceases to be Housing Benefit paid on two properties. It also means the returning offspring has more inventive to get a job.
As the evidence mounts about the benefits of this welfare reform, Labour opposition to it is looking increasingly untenable.