Working for a homeless charity operating inside the London Borough of Newham, I am fully aware of the housing situation, and it is as the local authority described it: 32,000 people on the waiting list, thousands in temporary accommodation, a large low- value rental sector.
The changes in the economic climate, changes to housing benefits (HB) and the impact of the HB cap are starting to have a major impact. The brick that was dropped on the central London (Westminster) housing pool has meant that the ripples have become something of a tsunami in Newham. The inner London boroughs can afford to pay private landlords to house some of their homeless. The London Borough of Newham doesn’t have the same level of resources.
It is looking, therefore, at developing a wider toolkit of responses. This includes writing to organisations around the country to see if they have spare capacity in their local housing market. Westminster has been doing this for years.
The innuendo and rumour that developed from the Stoke outburst is very unhelpful. The Government’s response is not correct; the idea that you look on the internet and come up with a thousand empty houses within a five mile radius is a childish notion. Are the houses available to rent to benefit claimants? Often the answer is no. Not all landlords want to know, some landlords want more than the benefit system can pay, local authorities are in a bidding war, and the benefit cap will worsen the situation.
Squabbling amongst ourselves will not help to house the homeless. Whether Newham Council had a choice or not, playing the blame game avoids the fact that there is a housing crisis and it is particularly acute for those on the bottom of the pile: the homeless.
What is needed is a UK-wide approach to the problem so that we make best
use of limited resources and focus our efforts on building more homes to reduce the shortfall. That requires ministers to demonstrate leadership and bring housing providers together to tackle the task.
Whilst it might be appropriate, in some circumstances, for providers in other parts of the country to offer up some of their homes, it should be remembered that they have long waiting lists of their own.
In any case, even if a provider
did agree to assist, it should not be assumed that Newham would be able to automatically discharge its duty to secure accommodation for the homeless.
A local authority’s duty is to secure accommodation for a homeless person, they don’t have to actually provide
the accommodation themselves, so
in principle Newham is entitled to ask whomever it likes. But whether a court would agree that securing accommodation so far away discharged Newham’s duty is not so clear. A court might consider that the offer was not a reasonable one.
Moving a person or family over 100 miles away from their local area may represent a classic case of a short-term fix hindering the long-term objective.