Westminster council could send homeless families to Coventry

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Westminster council could send homeless families to Coventry

Postby Dolphin » Mon Apr 03, 2017 5:47 pm

People who lose their homes in one of London’s richest boroughs could be sent to live in temporary accommodation as far away as Coventry under new plans announced by the City of Westminster.

Westminster council says rising homelessness, coupled with housing benefits cuts and government plans to force local authorities to sell off social housing gives it no option but to place more families outside the capital.

At the moment, 3% of Westminster’s homeless families are rehoused outside Greater London, but this is likely to increase because of rising cost pressures and shortages of affordable local accommodation, it says.

Westminster’s homeless households would be put into priority bands, with those with extensive care and support needs who would be at risk if they were moved away prioritised for housing in the borough, together with carers and foster carers.

Households with children at key exam stages in local schools and those with jobs in Westminster would be in band two, meaning they would qualify for temporary accommodation elsewhere in Greater London.

All other households would fall into band three, meaning they would be offered private rented homes in south-east England or beyond. The council identified urban areas in the West Midlands as presenting the best opportunities, but noted that the supply of suitable properties were limited too.

Rehousing homeless families outside the capital has always proved politically controversial, and London authorities have always been reluctant to advertise the fact that they have been doing so routinely for some years.

Westminster’s cabinet member for housing, councillor Daniel Astaire, said the council faced intense challenges around housing affordability and difficult choices were inescapable.

“While we always try to provide accommodation for homeless people in Westminster, like many other boroughs of all political persuasions we have to look at identifying suitable homes beyond the city’s boundaries,” he said.

Labour members said the policy “turbo-charged” a recent trend that had seen increasing numbers of people on low incomes driven away from their local communities and family support networks.

There is increasing bitterness among local authorities in the south-east that they are unable to fulfil their own obligations to house homeless families because London councils outbid them for local temporary accommodation.

Research commissioned by Westminster council found that with limited affordable properties available in London, the best opportunities for rehousing homeless families in the south-east were to be found in Slough and Maidenhead.

Councils are allowed by law to rehouse households outside the local area, but only in areas where suitable accommodation takes the full range of household members’ needs including health, education and employment into account.

Westminster also says it will seek to make more homeless households the offer of a private rented tenancy rather than more expensive temporary accommodation. Labour pointed out this would mean homeless families would forfeit their right to social housing.

Any properties acquired by the council outside London would be in “more urban and diverse areas where there are more likely to be the health, educational, social and cultural facilities households from Westminster require” and where there were likely to be job opportunities.

The council said it would provide a “wrap-around support service” for families moved beyond the capital, including help to enrol children in schools, find nursery places and register with GPs.

Westminster said the new policy was essential to the cap the spiralling cost of providing temporary accommodation to homeless families, currently £4.3m annually and set to rise to nearly £12m by 2020.

Homeless Westminster families can still choose to be housed in temporary private rented accommodation, but the council says current average waiting times for a social home in the borough range from 10 years for a two-bedroom flat to up to 25 years for a four-bedroom house.

Social security cuts, such as the housing benefit freeze and the extended benefit cap will continue to drive homelessness in the borough, it said. About 60% of its homeless acceptances are currently the result of evictions from private rented homes.

The council says it is unable to keep pace with demand for social housing in central London. It has 4,500 people on its priority list but only between 600 and 800 rented homes become available each year.

The stock of social homes is likely to reduce further, the council says, because it is required under the Housing Act to sell vacant council properties to subsidise the sale of an estimated 120 housing association homes each year under right-to-buy.

Astaire said: “Our new approach will give those who are homeless more certainty over their future by offering secure accommodation sooner. Those with the highest needs will of course be prioritised for available properties in Westminster while an extensive support package will be provided to those who are made private tenancy offers outside.”

Westminster’s Labour opposition leader, councillor Adam Hug, said: “This council’s decades-long atrocious record on building social and genuinely affordable homes combined with the government’s insidious benefit changes have created a perfect storm for Westminster residents in desperate need for temporary accommodation.

“This policy formalises and turbo-charges what has happened in recent years where Westminster residents in temporary accommodation are being sent further and further from home. It is essential that Westminster radically improves its council house building plans and challenges the divisive government policies that underpin these worrying plans.”

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Re: Westminster council could send homeless families to Cove

Postby Dolphin » Mon Apr 03, 2017 5:51 pm

A single mother of five children has won a protracted legal battle and prevented Westminster council from removing her family to Milton Keynes.

Titina Nzolameso’s victory at the supreme court will have a significant impact on how councils carry out their duty to house the homeless. The number of families forced to accept accommodation outside the capital has risen sharply in the past five years.

In its judgment, the supreme court stressed that local authorities had a statutory duty to provide accommodation in their own area “so far as reasonably practicable”.

Any accommodation must be suitable to the needs of the homeless person and each member of the household, the five justices on the court said. “Location can be relevant to its suitability.”

Nzolameso, a 51-year-old single mother with five children aged between eight and 14, suffers from diabetes and hypertension, and is HIV-positive. She has lived in London since 2000. Between 2008 and 2012 the family lived in a privately rented four-bedroomed house in Westminster.

When I refused the offer of accommodation in Milton Keynes, I never envisaged my children would be taken away from me

Her rent of £1,150 per week was covered by housing benefit until 2012 when a cap was placed on the amount payable for privately rented properties according to their size and locality. She was no longer able to afford the rent, and the landlord was not prepared to reduce it, so she was evicted in November 2012.

The council eventually offered her a five-bedroomed house in Bletchley, Milton Keynes, which she rejected because it was too far away from her GP and from those who helped her with the children. She would also have had to change the children’s schools.

Because she rejected the offer, Westminster council informed her that it no longer had a duty to accommodate her. She appealed against the decision. At one stage her children were taken into care.

The judgment says: “There is little to suggest that serious consideration was given to the authority’s obligations before the decision was taken to offer the property in Bletchley.

“The temporary lettings team … did not ask any questions aimed at assessing how practicable it would be for the family to move out of the area. Nor were any inquiries made to see whether school places would be available in Bletchley and what the appellant’s particular medical conditions required.”

Responding to the ruling, Nzolameso said: “I am very happy with today’s outcome and delighted to be reunited with my children after a long legal battle. When I first refused the offer of accommodation in Milton Keynes, I never envisaged that my children would be taken away from me.

“There was an obligation on the council to offer me accommodation in the district which I applied to or closer to it. Westminster simply failed to lawfully address that question.

Councils now can’t just say: ‘We haven’t got anywhere else available’
“Naturally, I am pleased that my case will now set an important precedent for homelessness applicants across the UK who are faced with important decisions (often on very short notice) to move far away from the authority or district they apply to for housing.”

Nzolameso’s lawyer, Jayesh Kunwardia, of the firm Hodge Jones & Allen, said: “This is an important victory for my client and her children. Westminster, like other councils, is under great financial pressure and I would urge politicians on the campaign trail to take note and think long and hard about council and social housing funding. Budget cuts will not be tolerated by the courts as an excuse to move homeless families miles away from their friends and support networks.

“Figures from the Department for Communities and Local Government show that there were over 15,000 homeless households in out-of-borough temporary accommodation, an increase of 123% in three years.”

Giles Peaker, a housing specialist at Anthony Gold solicitors, said that in the first three quarters of 2014/15 more than 360 families were rehoused outside London, compared with only 10 households in 2010/11.

“This judgment is significant in a number of ways,” he said. “Local authorities will now have to give proper reasons for out-of-borough resettlements. They can’t just say: ‘We haven’t got anywhere else available.’ Councils will also have to set out public policy on out-of-borough accommodation, which can be challenged.”

Daniel Astaire, Westminster council’s cabinet member for housing and regeneration, said: “We are disappointed with the ruling, as the court of appeal had previously upheld the council’s decision on this individual case from 2012. Nevertheless, we are already taking on board what the court has said and we will continue to review our procedures, and make any necessary changes to the way in which decisions are explained to applicants.

“However, we are pleased that the ruling does not, in any way, bring into question the principle of this or other authorities housing people out of borough where it is necessary. This could have had major financial implications for central London authorities in particular.”
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