A tenant has won one of the first tribunal appeals against the bedroom tax.
Annie Harrower-Gray had her appeal against Fife Council’s decision to cut her benefit upheld by a first-tier tribunal in Scotland following a hearing on 26 August.
Under the bedroom tax, social housing households of working age have their benefit cut if they are deemed to have spare bedrooms. The Department for Work and Pensions has not defined a bedroom, saying it is up to landlords to ‘accurately describe the property in line with the actual rent charged’. Councils are responsible for awarding the benefit using information provided by the social landlord.
Fife Council implemented a cut in Ms Harrower-Gray’s benefit, on the basis she is living alone in a three bedroom property, which is owned by Kingdom Housing Association. The tribunal found however that the property has only one bedroom.
Ms Harrower-Gray’s home dates from 1660 and may have at one time been part of a manse, the tribunal ruling says. This means it has ‘an unusual and irregular layout and non-standard apartments.’ The ruling, by tribunal judge Simon Collins QC, added that due to the age of the property and ‘clumsy internal rearrangement’, ‘it is not possible for me to say…whether any particular apartment was originally designed to fulfil any particular purpose.’
The tribunal found one of the rooms in the property had a ‘long established use…as a sitting room’ and not as a bedroom. It said there was no evidence that another small room, near a kitchen, was ever intended for use as a bedroom. Another room is described as having an irregular ‘l’ shape, is small, and has a low combed ceiling and had a ‘recessed dormer window’. It was described by Ms Harrower-Gray’s solicitor as a ‘horrible dark space.’ Mr Collins said: ‘There was no evidence before me to suggest that this room was ever intended for use as a bedroom.’
First-tier tribunal decisions do not set a legal precedent, meaning the ruling will not have a direct impact on any other cases.
Sam Lister, policy and practice officer at the Chartered Institute of Housing played down the significance of the ruling, saying it is limited to the facts of the individual case. He said it does not mean councils have to visit every property to ensure landlords’ descriptions of property sizes are accurate.
He said: ‘This is a pretty unusual property. Given that context you can understand why the judge has said “why haven’t you visited the property?’
He said in most situations a council can be reasonably confident of the property sizes. ‘This kind of situation doesn’t apply where you have standard layouts, which most social housing properties are,’ he said. ‘There can’t be many social housing properties which date back to 1660.’
Mr Lister added that the burden is on the claimant to provide evidence that the housing benefit award is wrong. He said the case does not mean large numbers of appeals would have a realistic chance of success.