The 2011 Localism Act introduced new powers allowing councils to discharge their duty to homeless households into the private rented sector. Before this legal change, homeless households had been able to reject offers of private accommodation offered by the council and wait in temporary accommodation (often for extremely long periods) until an offer of social housing, nearly always in their home borough, was made. Now councils have powers to force people out of their communities permanently and into insecure private accommodation – which itself is one of the biggest causes of homelessness – and they are using them.
The households that councils have a legal duty towards are families with children and those with severe disabilities, meaning that it is often people with vulnerabilities who are being forcibly removed from their communities or threatened with homelessness. Whereas previous investigations (in The Independent and Vice) into social cleansing in London have looked at out-of-borough placements for homeless households, these out-of-borough placements have been for ‘temporary housing’, whereas the research in this article looks at the ‘settled’ accommodation that councils offer in order to completely discharge their duty to the homeless household.
Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth (HASL) has sent freedom of information (FOI) requests to every council in London asking a number of questions about how they are housing people in private accommodation and outside of their home borough. All the information below is for a 16-month period from October 2013 (when most councils had finalised their Localism Act policies) to January 2015 (when the requests were sent).
1. 2000 homeless households were forced by local authorities into private sector.
Since October 2013 a total of 2128 families have been forced into the private sector by the Localism Act, who previously should have been given social housing. The map below shows that many of the boroughs which use these powers are out of central London, in tube zones 3-6. The powers are new and HASL has heard that some Labour boroughs are holding off until others have ‘led the way’, hence few councils have forced more than 100 families into the private sector. However Brent and Newham have no such shame and have already forced nearly 400 and 1000 families into the private sector respectively (see point 5).
2. Over 1000 households were forced permanently out of their borough and nearly 500 out of London.
Of the households forced into the private sector 1000 were given places out of their home borough and 500 were out of London entirely. The most common destinations were edge-of-London boroughs such as Barking & Dagenham and Enfield, with Luton and Birmingham being used the most outside of London.
3. 670 households pushed into further homelessness by the Localism Act.
670 households, which is a third of the households given final offers in the private sector under the Localism Act, refused them. This is a huge proportion, especially considering the consequences. These households will now be deemed ‘intentionally homeless’ for daring to stand up to the councils and will no longer get any help off the council’s housing department. They will then have to ask social services for help, where HASL has regularly seen families threatened with having their children taken off them for the crime of being homeless; in a recent high profile case the family were separated. Even if you keep your children, social services housing is normally poor quality, can be removed at a day’s notice and you can be put under punitive Job Centre-style programs for finding your own flat, normally out of London.
4. People are refusing social cleansing.
Our research has shown that the likely reason the 670 households refused their final offers under the Localism Act was because the offer was out-of-borough or out-of-London. The six boroughs which recorded people refusing offers (Barnet, Brent, Ealing, Haringey, Newham, Wandsworth) were either the worst for out-of-borough or out-of-London offers. This is shown clearly by comparing Sutton and Barnet, both of whom tried to send 64 households into the private rented sector since October 2013. All 64 households in Sutton were offered tenancies in Sutton and they all accepted the offer. In contrast, Barnet gave 38 of the offers out of the borough, with 19 of those being out of London entirely. As a result of offering housing so far away only 35 households accepted (just over half).
5. Newham and Brent are the worst.
These two Labour-run councils accounted for two thirds of the total mandatory private sector offers across London. Newham and Brent have made 463 and 106 people homeless due to their private sector offers respectively. Together they account for 490 of the 563 out-of-London offers that have been made since October 2013 using the Localism Act. Where others have held back, these two councils are blazing a violent trail of social cleansing. Where Brent has made final offers to 48 households to move their whole lives to Luton, Newham has tried to forcefully move 142 families to Birmingham (of which over 100 refused, and are now presumably in further homelessness).
6. Many councils have not used the new powers but use more subtle force.
Even before the Localism Act, councils had many coercive tactics to get households to which they owed a homeless duty to accept private accommodation when they could have waited for social housing. This involved councils lying to people about their rights, and some councils are still using this method of forcing people into private housing over the explicit force of the Localism Act. The Localism Act also introduced powers to let local councils change their allocations policy for social housing. Some councils, such as Lambeth and Lewisham, are using this to give people no choice but to ‘choose’ private housing, regularly out of their borough.
When all the methods councils use of getting homeless households into the private rented sector are considered together, a total of over 7000 households have been placed in private accommodation by councils from October 2013 to January 2015. We found that in contrast to the forced placements discussed above, private sector placements – mainly through less explicitly forceful methods – are used most by central London boroughs. The second map shows the movements of households into private accommodation out of borough, and the worst are found in central London such as Camden, Lambeth and Westminster.
7. Councils are administering social cleansing.
The effect of all these out-of-borough placements is to move people out of central London into the outskirts and beyond. The final map shows that most central London boroughs had more households moved out by the council than moved in by others (red) and the boroughs on the outskirts of London found more households moved in by other councils than were being moved out (blue). This shows that London councils are administering mass social cleansing as thousands of people are being moved out of central London by their local council or threatened with destitution.
8. This social cleansing is being challenged.
Both collective action and legal challenges are being made to stop the social cleansing of our communities. The highly publicized Westminster court case – although in relation to temporary accommodation rather than permanent/settled housing offers – could have ramifications for how local authorities find mandatory placements. The Focus E15 mums campaign started as a fight to get housing in their borough when they had been made offers in the private sector in Manchester, Hastings and Birmingham. Their campaign won them private housing in their home borough of Newham. Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth has made a leaflet with useful information for homeless households threatened with offers in the private sector. Local housing action groups can help people challenge an out-of-borough offer both through the appeals process and through collective action.