Before we’ve even sat down Lyn has started to tell me her story and can barely contain her rage.
Over the last couple of years she’s been hit by a double whammy of government policy changes that has seen her lose her house and, at age 60, forced her to continue looking for a job she thinks she’ll never, ever get.
Lyn and her husband Tom moved to Bolton nine years ago, at first near the town centre. “We had troublesome neighbours,” she recalls, “but were told we had to stick it out for a year before they would move us. Then we moved to Breightmet, near the UCAN.”
“And what was that house like?”
“We had three bedrooms, a front and back garden. Tom was a joiner and he fitted wardrobes in our bedroom; he revamped the kitchen, made it look much bigger than it actually was. He did lots on that house.
“In fact, Tom was my king and I was his queen and that, to me, was our palace. And this place,” she waves an arm, “this place will never be like that.”
Before Bolton the couple lived in France where Tom had a job inspecting campsites for a travel company. It was a good life. After nearly four years he was made redundant and within months of their return to the UK was diagnosed with cancer.
“Tom died three years ago. We’d met in 1998 and married in 2000 so we had just 13 years together. Before he died we had quite a good income. There was his pension and, because of his illness, he was on DLA [Disability Living Allowance].
“Now I’m on JSA [Jobseeker’s Allowance], £71 a week. It’s gone from this,” she extends her arms, “to this,” pinching a finger and thumb together. “And you think to yourself, how do you manage? But you do, you have to.”
“How much would you have had to pay in ‘bedroom tax’, if you’d stayed in that house?”
“I think it was £19 a week,” she says. “Out of £71.”
The under-occupancy penalty is a key element of the Government’s welfare reforms and is intended to reign in housing benefit payments. Why should the state pay for claimants to live in a bigger property than they need? Originally introduced into the private housing sector the penalty rolled out to include social housing from April 2013.
By way of balance I start to put the Government’s case for the ‘tax’ to Lyn, “Before you say any more,” she says, “I couldn’t give two hoots what the Government thinks because they are not living in the real world and don’t understand how we live. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who is in power and I’ll put it to you crudely,” – she does – “they’re all the same. They will never know what it’s like for us. Even if they left power tomorrow, they are so wealthy and affluent, they could just buy any house they wanted. We can’t.”
… continued in “This will never be my palace”
continued from… A double whammy
Faced with reduced housing benefit, tenants have a choice. Either they opt to adjust their budgets to take into account of the reduction or they move.
Neither option is straightforward. It’s highly unlikely that tenants have any slack in their limited budgets and so many decide to cut back on food or heating so they can stay in their homes. And moving isn’t always possible. Few housing providers have the optimum spread of property types to suit the demographics of all their customers.
I’ve heard Bolton at Home has a glut of perfectly good two-bedroomed flats in their tower blocks. Single people are unwilling to take them on because they’d incur the charge and, quite rightly, families aren’t keen because there’s nowhere for their kids to play.
This controversial charge has hit Lyn hard. It’s not applicable to pensioners and Lyn might have been able to stay in her ‘palace’ had it not been for the recent changes made to retirement ages. A progressive increase in the State Pension Age means that she can only ‘retire’ and start to draw State Pension when she is 63.
“What was your first reaction when you heard about the bedroom tax?” I ask.
Lyn purses her lips, deciding what to say next. “I was disgusted. I felt angry. I still feel angry. If I had been able to retire when I was 60 then I wouldn’t have had to move. But how could I afford to pay for two bedrooms for another three years?
“I saw this place was available back in February and the housing people told me it’d be ready in six weeks. So I started to pack. Within six weeks I was ready. But it was the end of October before I was able to move.”
“You mean it took seven months rather than six weeks?”
Since she moved five weeks ago Lyn and her friends have decorated the living room and, to save money, she’s brought her carpets from her old house and had them fitted here.
“It’s a lot warmer than the house,” she concedes.
“And is that it’s only saving grace?” I ask. “What do you miss about the old place?”
“Not being there!” she says indignantly. “We had a lot of laughs in that house. Up to the end my husband was always laughing and joking. That’s him there.” She points to a framed picture on a small table.
“And how did you feel on the day you left?” I ask. Lyn purses her lips again. It’s a unnecessary question. I already know the answer.
“Very upset. Very upset.”
Because she is claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance, Lyn has to show each week that she is searching for work or she risks sanctions. She’s been to sessions at the UCAN to learn basic IT so she can browse the Universal JobMatch website.
“Shop work, cashier, care assistant, anything really,” she says when I ask what she’s been searching for. “And I’ve had some interviews but you can tell from the way they look at you that they think you’re too old. Of course they can’t tell you that, but that’s what they’re thinking.”
“Do you think you’ll get a job between now and when you retire?”
“No, I’ve got no chance. I’d like to work but I’m not kidding myself. I think it’s degrading having to look for work at my age. I shouldn’t be doing it.”
No one has moved into Lyn’s old house and she takes the long way round when you goes to the UCAN so she doesn’t have to walk past it. “It still hurts,” she says.
I ask if I can take a picture in the bedroom, maybe of her sitting on the bed.
“That’s my bed,” she says, pointing to the settee I’m on. “The bedroom is packed with my old stuff. I haven’t got room to put the bed up yet, so I’m sleeping in here for now.”
I photograph Lyn in the bedroom anyway.
“I’ll keep it nice,” says Lyn. “But this will never be my palace.”