Special note, 12th December, 2014. The argument I made here in the last paragraph has been considered by the Upper Tribunal and rejected. See this link for an explanation. However, the decision of the Upper Tribunal also says two other things: that it is not up to the landlord to decide and there must be an inspection of the room, without which no imposition of the bedroom tax is lawful.
Further note, 3rd April 2016: The Upper Tribunal has now decided that to be a bedroom, a room “…should be capable of accommodating a single adult bed, a bedside table and somewhere to store clothes … , as well as providing space for dressing and undressing.” Joe Haldeman has calculated this to imply an absolute minimum of 65.81 sq ft, and more depending on the layout of the room.
The new under-occupancy rules will mean that people will have their benefits cut when they are deemed to be occupying property that is too large for their family size. This will affect benefits for hundreds of thousands of people – the estimates for Scotland alone run between 80,000 and 105,000 tenants of social housing.
The standard that is being applied is the 1960 bedroom standard, introduced in 1960 for the Social Survey (the first use was in P Gray, R Russell, 1960, The housing situation in 1960, Central Office of Information.) This was intended. more than fifty years ago, to be used in place of the restrictive standard in the Public Health Acts (1936 and 1957).
It’s been reported that Knowsley Housing Trust are in the process of reclassifying the size and type of their bedrooms. This is not as radical as it sounds; they are only reclassifying 566 properties in a stock of 14,000. When I was letting council housing in the 1970s, I had to reclassify properties to help house larger families. Most local authorities had only two- and three-bedroomed properties; very few properties had four bedrooms or more. So where a three bedroom property had a dining room or a ‘front kitchen’ area, reclassifying a downstairs room as a bedroom made sense. Later, a housing association committee I was on routinely arranged for permitted storage space with walk-in cupboards to be pooled, to make something that could be used as a boxroom or small bedroom. If revisiting those classifications means that people can afford the rent, it’s worth doing.
Beyond that, there’s another standard to take into account. For the purposes of the 1936 Public Health Act, there was a minimum size of bedroom. No room less than 50 sq ft (4.65 sq metres) was allowable as a bedroom; any room between 50 and 70 sq ft was classified as a half-person bedroom (only suitable for one child under 10); any part of a room less than 5 feet in height should be disregarded. The 1936 space standard is now contained in England in the Housing Act 1985, s.326 and in Scotland in the Housing (Scotland) Act 1987, s 137. This is still the law. It can’t be claimed that a standard designed for one purpose is conclusive in a different context, but there is at least a reasonable case to make that we know what should be counted as a bedroom, and what should not. If a room is not at least 110 sq ft (10.2 square metres), it’s not big enough for two people over ten, and if it’s not at least 70 sq ft (6.5 square metres), it should not be counted as a bedroom at all.
Additional note, 10th September: A recent tribunal case in Fife permitted a challenge to the definition of a bedroom, discounting a room that was 67 sq ft with a combed ceiling. This is not authoritative but does indicate that the definition of a room is open to challenge.