8 September 2021

Has the time come for a Boomer Bedroom Tax?


The row over the new Health and Social Care Levy looks, on the surface, like a health story. Or possibly a tax story. But when you get right down to it, this being Britain, it’s a housing story.

Perhaps there are a few older people who will be spared the anguish of selling off wine cellars or art collections. But for the most part, the Government is taxing working-age people in order to make sure retired people don’t have to sell fabulously valuable property to fund their care.

You can make sense of this, sort of, if you squint at it. We don’t generally expect people to pay for their own healthcare, after all. Sternly asking someone why they should avail themselves of the public purse when they have assets to sell feels rather… American.

And as Jacob Rees-Mogg points out in ConservativeHome’s latest Moggcast, it is ‘odd’ that the NHS will pay for your treatment if you have cancer, but not Alzheimer’s. 

But is it, really? Senescence comes for most of us, sooner or later, and you literally get your entire life’s notice. It isn’t unreasonable therefore to expect people to make some provision towards their own care. 

Nor, although no politician can say it, is the NHS actually a very good model of healthcare provision. Moving more commitments onto its model is a lunatic move. Even this week, the black hole that is the Health Service budget has apparently sucked in most of this ‘social care’ tax hike.

These arguments, however, feel almost beside the point when set against the brute fact that working age people will now have yet another drag on their incomes, which are already falling farther behind house prices by the year, in order to protect the asset wealth of retired people. 

Then again, shamelessly socialising the costs whilst banking privatised gains is actually very much in the grain of our housing model. It’s basically what the planning system is for. The propertied vociferously oppose new developments in the name of the community, and quietly bank the proceeds as their own assets appreciate year-in, year-out.

It’s this detail, I think, which has helped to make this such a ‘become the Joker’ moment for young right-wingers. A generation which has already used its vast electoral power to strangle the housing market, pushing endlessly up the age at which young professionals can start families (or even libraries) has now secured a little levy, again paid by those of working age, to safeguard their rents.

Except that given the Government has no actual plan for fixing the structural problems with social care, and seems to be moving it into the NHS’s patented ‘money pit’ model, this social care tax is going to go up. And up.

Such is the depths of ‘we paid in’ boomer entitlement that I’m not sure the Government will actually accrue much political capital from this move. Even if they did, Boris Johnson is generally inclined to lounge upon his popularity like a sleepy dragon rather than spend it getting things done. 

But really, he should use this to ask for something back on behalf of younger voters. If protecting property wealth is so important, at least try and make it more accessible to working-age people. Do something about a system that’s basically rigged to protect the asset wealth of people fortunate enough to buy housing when it was affordable.

Better still, force homeowners to choose between their private wealth and their collective, socialised control over planning.

How? Simple. Offer every borough (or another suitable unit) a local referendum between two options. Under the first, the area gets full-fat planning reform but recognises that an Englishman’s home is his castle. They can no longer block new developments, but their property and any associated profits are likewise fully their own.

Under option two, they retain the collectivised planning system. But the quid pro quo is recognition that if you have a ‘stake in the community’, the community also has a stake in your house. If you’re blocking new development, then occupying a family-sized home after your kids have left is a community problem. Which might perhaps be remedied by a bedroom tax, or something along those lines.

A lot of Conservatives might recoil from the latter proposal. I would certainly prefer that the nation collectively chose option one, so we could go back to have whole quadrants of London built by clever railway developers. But there’s nothing especially pro-market about letting people bank rents from gaming the system. Those who do should pay a fair, and logically consistent, price.

The UK has a national housing crisis and everyone must do their part – even if that part is just ‘no longer getting in the way’.

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Henry Hill is News Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.