Howe Barracks, near Canterbury, has stood more or less derelict since 2014, and commendably enough the site has for some time been earmarked for using to accommodate homeless families. It has the capacity to house some 200 families, and would have relieved the pressure on Canterbury City Council’s supply of local authority accommodation. However, the council’s plans were foiled last month when they were outbid for the site by the London Borough of Redbridge, a larger, wealthier council far off in the Big Smoke. And so, rather than being a resource for Canterbury City Council to house its homeless in their own district, Howe Barracks will be one of the growing number of destinations for the London homeless diaspora.
This is very much part of a trend. A LB Redbridge representative put it in response to criticism of the move, “[I]t has become increasingly difficult to secure enough local supply. The cost of renting and buying properties is pushing people to outer-London boroughs including Redbridge and beyond.” Indeed, LB Redbridge was itself one of the more vocal outer-London councils in protesting last year about City of Westminster exporting homeless families to LB Redbridge. Again, this was a case of superior purchasing power winning out over the local council’s wish to retain local housing stock. What is more, Canterbury City Council in turn has its own problems with lack of supply, and routinely sends its homeless out to Kent’s less wealthy districts, to neighbouring Shepway or Thanet.
There have been numerous other stories of this kind over the past few years. Last year representatives for LB Hackney and LB Croydon spoke before the London Assembly housing committee about the difficulties of securing temporary accommodation in, and out of, their boroughs. They said that because there was no city-wide overview for how temporary accommodation is used, boroughs are competing with and ‘gazumping’ each other, driving rents up and playing into the hands of private landlords (the only beneficiaries). The representative for LB Croydon spoke of having had a “dog fight” with City of Westminster about a local block of flats – on that occasion they won, but as we have seen, City of Westminster have been more successful elsewhere.
All this is indicative of the underlying paradox which affects councils collectively in how they should discharge their housing duties, in the face of growing pressure and diminishing resources. On the one hand, councils have a duty to accommodate homeless applicants within their own area, so far as reasonably practicable. On the other hand – where that is not reasonably practicable – they must accommodate applicants as close as possible, taking into account their support needs and ties to the area. Because of the housing crisis, the accommodation available for London councils to choose from is scarce, and because of the “housing affordability crisis” (the part of the housing crisis which is exacerbated by the welfare reforms of the past few years) it has been increasingly difficult for inner-London councils to find local accommodation which is affordable for most applicants. The inner-London borough councils argue that accommodating more than a few applicants – particularly families – in their own area simply isn’t reasonably practicable. The question for them is then where to place those whom they cannot accommodate in-district. To comply with the secondary requirement that they should accommodate them as nearby as possible, they have to look to the not much less scant supply of housing available in the neighbouring London boroughs; but the neighbouring councils’ duty to accommodate in-district is in direct conflict with this.
And so, unless (like Croydon in the example above) the outer-London councils hold firm against the predations of the wealthier inner-London councils, there is a knock-on effect. The result is that the inner-London boroughs’ applicants are unhappy at being moved to the further reaches of London, far from their ties; and the homeless applicants of those outer-London boroughs are in turn sent out of London altogether. LB Redbridge reassured critics that nobody would be sent to the Howe Barracks development who did not want to go, but this is highly dubious: it is just not how temporary accommodation placements work, when the council is under pressure. At best, applicants will be assessed and, unless the council determines that they have a sufficiently strong case for needing to live more locally, they will be sent off, usually without even the opportunity to view before signing up. There is rarely any choice involved on the part of the applicant. The consequence of refusing is to be declared “intentionally homeless” and without recourse to any further homelessness support from the council.
What can be done?
There is a temptation for councils to dodge this tension by ‘dispersing’ their out-of-district placements to further flung, less pressurised and less expensive areas, far from London altogether. While it avoids the problem of the knock-on effect, this approach makes sacrificial lambs of the applicants who are subjected to it. This sort of upheaval – to be uprooted and utterly cut off at a moment’s notice from their friends, family, support, jobs, and children’s schools,– is for many applicants simply impossible, or at least unthinkable. For most applicants, the cost of cross-country travel is prohibitively expensive, so that a move of this kind feels like being deported to another country. The government issued an Order in 2012 aimed at discouraging councils from adopting this approach, and its provisions were given teeth last year by the landmark ‘out-of-district’ case decided in the Supreme Court, Nzolameso v City of Westminster. Ms Nzolameso was declared intentionally homeless after she refused accommodation near Milton Keynes because she could not countenance moving away from the support network on which she was so heavily reliant. When she and her family could no longer stay with friends, social services took her children into care. Notwithstanding the council’s flagrant disregard for the 2012 Order, the lower courts all turned a blind eye to her plight, accepting sanguinely the council’s assertion that their own plight took priority, that they ‘had no choice’ – that Milton Keynes, or somewhere like it, was the only ‘reasonably practicable’ option. The Supreme Court did not accept this however, and in allowing the final appeal they set a far-reaching precedent. Councils now have to take the requirement to minimise disruption seriously, and especially so when (as there usually will be) there are children involved.
In the wake of the Nzolameso judgment, a number of London councils (including City of Westminster) have been clamouring for an overhaul of the law to allow councils more flexibility to prioritize affordability over location when determining what accommodation is suitable. Put another way, they want to escape from the Nzolameso judgment, and be allowed free reign to send homeless applicants to far flung places without regard to the detriment this causes them. However, the DCLG (the department responsible for the 2012 Order in the first place, and who intervened on Ms Nzolameso’s behalf at the Supreme Court hearing) have confirmed that the government is not looking at changing legislation that would increase councils’ powers to house homeless people in cheaper boroughs. The Homelessness Minister Marcus Jones explained at a conference in April 2016, “We still want local authorities to place people in accommodation within their own borough where that is achievable… What we don’t want is people forced to move a significant way away from their home and from where the children go to school against their will.”
It is to be welcomed that the DCLG is resisting this pressure to relax the protections it has afforded to the homeless. However, there is an unfortunate tension at the heart of Mr Marcus’ statement, which so far the government has utterly failed to take seriously or address. He is right to discourage councils from displacing unwilling people far from their homes and where their children go to school. He is right to encourage local authorities to place people in-district where this is achievable. The problem is that the inevitable consequence housing large numbers of people out of but close to their own areas is for there to be a knock-on effect. Thus for a larger and larger number of councils, placing applicants in-district is going to become less and less achievable. The number of out-of-district placements overall will surely increase, the housing crisis will spread. London councils’ cost of providing temporary accommodation – estimated for at £600 million in the 18 months to May 2016 – will run further out of control.
There is only one way to square this circle, and that is going to require a serious central government commitment to tackling the housing crisis and the housing affordability crisis head on, and a radical programme of financial investment in meaningfully affordable homes.