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Location, location, location. Has Westminster delivered the knockout blow?

So the saga continues. Westminster has finally broken its silence after what seemed to be, on its part, a longstanding stoic resignation after the Supreme Court judgment in Nzolameso in April 2015. The conservative controlled local authority is levelled with revived accusations of social cleansing after a shake-up of its homelessness policies transposing potentially anyone without significant needs completely out of borough, this despite being one of the wealthiest local authorities in London.

In Nzolameso, the Supreme Court gave judgment in respect of widespread practices of placing homeless applicants in significantly distant locations from their respective district- in this case it being Westminster. Rejecting the perspective of the Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court held that in performance of its housing duties local authorities must have and maintain an up to date policy for procuring accommodation to meet demand in addition to a policy for the allocation of that accommodation to applicants to whom a housing duty is to be owed. For transparency, these documents should be accessible to the public. In respect of the practical approach the following guidance was provided by the Court. Insofar as it is reasonable and practical, local authorities should avoid placing applicants out of districts, only doing so in exceptional circumstances, namely when no local accommodation can be secured. If this is the case, then accommodation should be procured in as close as possible as to where the household were previously living. The Supreme Court placed emphasis that the searches for accommodation needed to be substantiated. No longer would it be good enough to simply pay lip service in regards attempted searches in review decisions.

Almost two years later, Westminster has re-emerged with an overhaul to its homelessness policies, with brazen plans to move homeless applicants out of London, once again. So what are the plans and why are they deemed to be necessary?

Cabinet Member Report

As it stands, only 3% of homeless households are placed outside of London. This is set to increase after Westminster has identified the following issues in their Cabinet Member Report dated 11 January 2017:

  • Increasingly difficult market, marked by rapid increases;
  • The likelihood of increased numbers of households accepted as being homeless;
  • Changes to national policy and legislation to constrain the supply of social housing;
  • A shift in emphasis in homelessness policy towards use of resources for prevention.

The report recognises that the foremost cause of homelessness continues to be loss of tenancies in the private rented sector, as much as 60% in fact. It is also noted that 92% of homeless households are in receipt of Housing Benefits. In 2016 the difference in gap between market rent and Local Housing Allowance was sizeable. For a one bedroom property in Westminster the gap between the two is almost £105. These problems are further exacerbated by the Benefit Cap which curtails the amount of benefits a household can receive including housing benefit.

A raft of new policies has been proposed to tackle these issues including a “Private Rented Sector Offers Policy” and the “Accommodation Placement Policy for Homeless Households” which are both to be adopted from 30 January 2017.

Essentially the upshot, with reference to the first of the named policies, is that we will be seeing many households moved outside of London with offers in the private rented sectors or for use as s193 accommodation, as Westminster Council deem this to be a proportionate response to the affordability issues discussed above. These offers would be within benefit levels, it is said. It is also considered to be an alternative to spending numerous years in temporary accommodation waiting for social housing. In this regard, the Council seek to rely on the Localism Act 2011 enabling them to bring its duty under s193 Housing Act 1996, to an end by making an offer of a private rented sector tenancy.

The following groups would be exempt from offer of tenancies in the private rented sector:

  • Those households that are eligible sheltered housing;
  • Households that need wheelchair adapted properties;
  • Any household that the local authority decides would be unable to manage a tenancy in the private rented sector;
  • Any other households with compelling reasons as per above.

Turning to the “Accommodation Placement Policy for Homeless Households” then. This policy explains that Westminster’s homeless households would be put into priority bands for accommodation. Those with significant support and care needs, who would be at risk, if moved away would be placed in Band 1, prioritising them for housing in Westminster or adjacent boroughs.

Households with children at critical stages of their education (GCSEs and A levels) and those with employment in Westminster would fall within Band 2. They would therefore qualify for housing in Greater London.

What about the rest, we hear you ask! Well, they can take some heart in knowing that they can take up the offer of a tenancy in the private rented sector in South East England or wherever in England that Westminster pleases, frankly.

We suspect that the day is not far that these policies will attract some legal challenge. The policies are fraught with patent problems. In devising a banding system, the Council seem to be flagrantly disregarding its statutory duties under s206 Housing Act which states that accommodation provided to an applicant and members of family who can reasonably be expected to reside with him/her, in performance of Part 7 duty must be suitable. In assessing suitability, affordability is one factor to be considered. It is neither the sole factor nor the primary factor contrary to the timbre of the policies. The flavour of the policies certainly appears like an attempt at circumventing the outlook of the Supreme Court in Nzolameso. Not a good one either.

Westminster’s Labour opposition leader, councillor Adam Hug encapsulates our sentiment aptly:

“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.”

What next?

So what can be done? Westminster is one of the most affluent boroughs and home to a large number of very wealthy residents. Could a potential solution be to introduce a special council tax levy on high worth properties. There would no “affordability” issues there clearly and it could mean there is more money to assist the homeless of Westminster IN Westminster. This could also be rolled out in neighbouring boroughs to deal with the issue of the shortage of affordable in district housing. It’s worth a thought.

The policies regrettably demonstrate an aversion to grapple with these problems head-on. It fails to come as a surprise that Westminster’s solution is social cleansing and palming the problem off to South East England or beyond, once again.