Following our earlier blog about the rights of people displaced by the horrifying Grenfell Tower fire, our latest blog examines how and where survivors can expect to be housed.
The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea’s (RBKC) basic homelessness duties require that any accommodation offered must be suitable. What is “suitable” is not strictly defined in law, and will vary with the circumstances of each case. There is legislation and guidance which highlights certain matters that must always be taken into account, including specific household needs like employment, education, medical care, family support, and the impact on any children in the household, as well as general matters which will be relevant in every case such as the location of the accommodation, whether it is affordable, its size, its condition and any health and safety considerations. In general, what is suitable for the immediate or short term may not be suitable for longer periods. There is also a specific limit of a maximum six weeks for councils to use “bed & breakfast” accommodation (i.e. with shared kitchen or bathroom) to house families with children.
So far, the transition from the emergency relief centres has mostly been to West London hotels, with the issue of where next remaining very much in the air. Council’s will only ever use Central London hotel accommodation for the very short term because of the high costs, and so it is likely that people will start to be moved on in large numbers very soon, and people are naturally very anxious about what type of accommodation will be offered, and where.
A factor of overwhelming importance which is relevant in every case is, of course, the location. The law requires that a council has to offer accommodation within its own district “so far as reasonably practicable”. Councils in more expensive areas such as in London typically argue that because of the costs involved it is not “reasonably practicable” to accommodate anybody in their own district, unless there is some particularly pressing need, connected with medical treatment, social support or employment which cannot be found anywhere else.
The law also requires that where accommodation is not in the council’s own district, it should be “as close as possible”, but in practice councils regularly flout this, sending homeless applicants sometimes hundreds of miles away. There is often plenty of room for argument, but this means bringing a formal review against the council’s decision and arguing the case tooth and nail.
And so the question now is how far the survivors of the tragedy at Grenfell Tower will be treated differently, and accepted as having a pressing need to remain in the area without having to prove anything further. There are worrying reports that they are being pressured to move as far away as Preston, Manchester, Birmingham and even Northumberland. The Government initially announced last Thursday that survivors would be rehoused in the borough of RBKC, but they subsequently rowed back on this, and the policy as it stands remains unclear. There is still a vague commitment to housing residents either in the borough or in a neighbouring borough, and Government funds have been set aside for this purpose. However, it is still unclear how far this will apply to all residents, or only to families, and whether it will include temporary as well as permanent accommodation. Even given this commitment, this could still mean rehousing as much as nine miles away on the far side of Brent or Wandsworth.
Other reports have highlighted issues such as whether it could be suitable for residents to be accommodated in high-rise buildings, given the distress the association of being in a tall building may cause. Clearly every survivor of the fire will be traumatised by the experience, and this is a consideration which the council will need to take extremely seriously in every case.
With the pressure on for the council to accommodate survivors in its district or in a neighbouring borough, a potential knock-on effect will be that they “scrape the barrel”, offering accommodation which would not ordinarily pass muster: accommodation that is overcrowded, in disrepair, damp, or otherwise substandard. Indeed, it appears that this has already become apparent in the hotel accommodation, with reports of survivors placed in B&B accommodation with no working showers.
There is a threat which underlies all of this: if a homeless applicant is offered accommodation and refuses to move there – for example because of the location, the associations it has, the size, the condition – they risk being declared “intentionally homeless”. They may win the argument that the offer was not suitable, but then again they may not. If they lose the argument and they have refused the offer, then the council will close its doors and not provide any further help. The law’s justification for this is that applicants are allowed to accept the offer and still challenge the suitability. This is the safest course of action and advisable in every case, but a bitter pill – sometimes an impossible one – to swallow, if it means moving hundreds of miles away for a what can be a number of months, with no certainty at all about whether they will be allowed to move back.
It can only be hoped that, for the Grenfell survivors at least, the council will respond to calls to put aside its policy and commit to a more sympathetic approach in coming to an agreement about what is suitable rehousing.
If you are reading this and would like to talk about your particular situation, or have any questions, please contact us on our free helpline on 0808 274 9308, set up for people affected by this disaster.