A new levy will disproportionately hit vulnerable people living on benefits in rural areas, a Westcountry expert has warned.
Next April will see the introduction of the so-called Bedroom Tax, which is aimed at penalising under-occupation of social housing and freeing up properties.
The reform means that a percentage of the housing benefit claimed by a household will be docked in relation to the number of spare bedrooms they have – 14 per cent for one and up to 25 per cent for two.
It applies to housing benefit recipients of working age and is designed to save the public purse around £490 million.
Some 30,000 social housing tenants in the South West could be affected, representing 28 per cent of those claiming housing benefit, with an average loss of £13 a week.
James Menzies, head of social housing at Devon law firm Stones Solicitors LLP, said the concept would fall short in practice, potentially victimising thousands of vulnerable people in the region.
"In some instances the spare room is not a spare room at all," he said. "It may be used by a carer who stays overnight, or by a disabled tenant to store the equipment they need to live their lives.
"There are people in genuine need who will be deemed to be under-occupying their homes when, in fact, they are doing no such thing."
Mr Menzies added that the bedroom tax was a penalty that had not taken into account the reality of social housing in rural areas.
"Social housing in rural areas tends to be built for young families, and so have two or three bedrooms," he said.
"The so-called bedroom tax indiscriminately penalises against the built-in flexibility of these units – a young family may only have one child, and the need for one bedroom, when they move in, but the likelihood is that over the years they will have more children and will need the extra space."
He said social housing in the countryside tends to be bigger, because it is designed to keep young families in rural communities.
He said there was a "dearth" of smaller social homes in the countryside, which meant little or no choice for people who are affected by bedroom tax.
Mr Menzies words echoed a report by the Commission for Rural Communities, which said the crackdown on social housing under-occupancy disproportionately impacted the countryside.
A spokesman for the Department of Work and Pensions said exemptions would be in place to help prevent groups such as disabled tenants or foster parents being hit by the reform.
He said: "It's not fair for people to continue to live in homes that are too large for their needs when in England alone there are around five million people on the social housing waiting list and over a quarter of a million tenants are living in overcrowded conditions."