The Social Tenant, the Law and the UK’s Politics of Austerity


  • Helen P Carr University of Kent
  • Dave Cowan University of Bristol


Social housing, social tenancy, residualisation, ‘bedroom tax’, anti-social behaviour, austerity, fairness, equality, social media, Viviendas sociales, arrendamiento social, residualización, Impuesto dormitorio, comportamiento antisocial, austeridad, equi


This paper considers current cuts to social housing provision in the UK made in the name of austerity. It focuses particularly on the ‘bedroom tax’ —the cut to housing benefit for working-age social housing tenants whose property is deemed to provide more bedrooms than they need. It begins by explaining the long-standing political project of social housing in the UK. This background is important to explain the emergence of a discursively ghettoized population within social housing. We then turn to the ‘bedroom tax’ itself. We consider the two quite separate rationales underpinning its introduction. One rationale —fairness— is the focus of the politicians; the other —under-occupation— provides the focus for policy analysts. Both offer different versions of truth about the social in social housing and both are unconvincing. For us, this is significant because the politics of austerity require the support of public opinion. We then consider some strategies of resistance to the ‘bedroom tax’ which harness the disruptive potential of fairness before concluding that the bedroom tax requires relatively little unpacking to reveal it as an ideological device which operates to increase inequality whilst deploying a rhetoric of fairness.

Este artículo analiza los recortes en las prestaciones de viviendas sociales que se realizan actualmente en el Reino Unido en nombre de la austeridad. Se centra particularmente en el 'impuesto dormitorio' -el recorte en el subsidio de vivienda para inquilinos en edad de trabajar, cuya vivienda se considera que tiene más dormitorios de los que necesitan. Comienza explicando el proyecto político de viviendas sociales, de larga tradición en el Reino Unido. Estos antecedentes son importantes para explicar el surgimiento de guetos en las viviendas sociales. A continuación se centra en el "impuesto dormitorio” en sí mismo. Se analizan los dos diferentes motivos que sustentan su promulgación. Una es la razón esgrimida por los políticos -legitimidad-, la otra –baja ocupación-, la esgrimen los analistas políticos. Ambos ofrecen diferentes versiones de la verdad acerca de lo social en materia de vivienda social y ambos son poco convincentes. En nuestra opinión, esto es relevante porque las políticas de austeridad requieren del apoyo de la opinión pública. Después consideramos algunas estrategias de resistencia al "impuesto dormitorio" que aprovechan el potencial disruptivo de equidad, antes de concluir que es relativamente sencillo revelarlo como un instrumento ideológico que opera para aumentar la desigualdad, a la vez que utiliza una retórica de equidad.



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Author Biographies

Helen P Carr, University of Kent

Helen Carr is Professor of Law at Kent Law School. Her research interests lie primarily in the fields of Housing, Social Welfare and Public Law. She is interested in the regulation of the poor especially the homeless, the asylum seeker, the anti-social and those in need of care. Helen is particularly concerned with the gendered and racialised dimensions of regulation. She is currently completing a book on the governance of housing from the 1830s. She is also working with the Welsh Government on the reform of housing law. Kent Law School. Eliot College. University of Kent. Canterbury CT2 7NS. United Kingdom.

Dave Cowan, University of Bristol

Dave Cowan studied law at Southampton, graduating in 1989. He worked as a Research Assistant at the Law Commission (1990-1991), before becoming a Lecturer at Southampton University (1991-1993), Sussex University (1993-1995), and then Bristol University (1995-). He teaches Property Law and his own optional units, Housing Law and Policy and Complaints and their Redress. University of Bristol Law School. Wills Memorial Building. Queen's Road, Clifton, Bristol BS8 1RJ. United Kingdom




How to Cite

Carr, H. P. and Cowan, D. (2014) “The Social Tenant, the Law and the UK’s Politics of Austerity”, Oñati Socio-Legal Series, 5(1), pp. 73–89. Available at: (Accessed: 23 February 2024).