A question first-time house buyers might put to DUP candidates

Home buyers have to work out how many bedrooms they can afford, so why do housing benefit recipients of social housing not have to do the same?
Home buyers have to work out how many bedrooms they can afford, so why do housing benefit recipients of social housing not have to do the same?

Are you a young couple, searching for an affordable first-time house to buy?

Then here is a question that you could pose to all unionist election candidates, in particular the DUP:

Ben Lowry, News Letter deputy editor

Ben Lowry, News Letter deputy editor

Why, you might ask, should people in council and social housing not have to make the same calculation you are having to make over how many bedrooms you can afford for your family?

The so-called bedroom tax (in fact a long overdue bid to end the state subsidy for unused bedrooms) is opposed by all unionist parties.

The DUP has even been proud to make abolition of this policy a key demand if it holds the balance of power.

Their stance, and that of other unionists, shatters the myth that unionists are pro-welfare reform, while nationalists are opposed.

Senior UUP and DUP politicians do not argue welfare reform on its own merits. They argue it as a way of avoiding the penalty from the Treasury.

Without pressure from London, the two main unionist parties would have pumped out unreformed welfare, however unjust or crazy the payment, money that could be spent on schools, hospitals and roads.

Left to their own devices, there is little indication they would have thought of even the welfare cap in a Province in which thousands of families get more than the current Great Britain cap of £26,000 a year (equivalent to £35,000 a year before tax).

This is a major failing of unionism, which should be at the heart of getting this Province off dependency of all sorts, and getting Belfast back to being the sort of plucky, industrious British city it was once known to be.

Ending the spare room subsidy ought to be a no brainer.

A day-to-day calculation that everyone has to make, whether it be buying a wider seat on a plane, or a larger hotel room, or a bigger house is: can I afford, or am I prepared to pay for, extra space?

In the context of home buying, that question plays out as follows: at any one time, tens of thousands of young families across Northern Ireland are looking to buy a home.

They find themselves at the hard end of the myth that rising house prices are a good thing (incidentally that was another cross-party failure, when barely a local politician spoke out about the last housing boom, that enriched the older generation and bankrupted some of the younger).

Young would-be house buyers in Greater Belfast are typically having to find £20,000 or £30,000 more for their purchase than they would have had to do two or three years ago, a burden caused by the widely celebrated “higher prices”.

Young buyers are having to pay close attention to exactly what sort of house they can afford and where. Many families will be looking at two-bed homes and dearly wishing they could afford to stretch to a three-bed.

But if that third bedroom costs yet another extra £30,000, such buyers might conclude: OK, we’ll stick to two bedrooms and put the kids in bunk beds.

Yet unionists, who condemn Sinn Fein over failing to back welfare reform, do not believe that such a calculation should apply to housing benefit recipients of social housing.

In South Belfast, the candidate of the party that was last time in alliance with the Tories, the UUP’s Rodney McCune said he wants “... the bedroom tax scrapped...”

His DUP rival Jonathan Bell was reiterating that his own party had opposed the ‘bedroom tax’.

On BBC Talkback this week, Gavin Robinson got things upside down when he said: “We’ve put together the money so that we can pay to make sure that [the bedroom tax] is not implemented in Northern Ireland but I would like to see it removed right across the United Kingdom. Because we are interested in standing up for hard-working families ...”

Not, it seems, the hard-working families on modest incomes who pay taxes that are inefficiently spent on a state subsidy for people who have more rooms than they need, the removal of which in Great Britain is thought to have saved £1 billion already.

The UK has been waking up to the injustice that faces many low-paid people who are barely better off, or perhaps even worse off, than some people out of work.

A key plank of improving the lot of such people was the Liberal Democrat policy of taking such people out of tax.

Another key plank is ending welfare excesses so that such cash can be targeted on the truly vulnerable.

But not in Northern Ireland.