It has been an extraordinary week of goings-on since the news broke that Newham Council had written to organisations as far away as Stoke to try to get homelesss households rehoused.
Grant Shapps was straight on to the airwaves trying to make political capital – pointing out that Newham was Labour and denouncing them for doing this during an election (bizarrely also denouncing the BBC for raising the story during an election period, as if news isn’t news). Labour MP Karen Buck pointed out that Tory Westminster was sending people to Luton, and Westminster Labour Leader Paul Dimoldenberg showed that the Council was working with its Tory neighbours Kensington and Chelsea and Hammersmith and Fulham on proposals to send people to Nottingham and Derby.
The floodgates were now open: several other London boroughs were shown to be considering sending families to towns and cities like Hull, Walsall and Margate. Inside Housing’s rapidly conducted survey revealed 12 boroughs in the frame out of 19 from which they got a response. When so many boroughs feel compelled to consider the same approach it means that the problem is not one rogue local politician as Shapps tried to imply. The issue is national policy.
Chickens have come home to roost. For months Shapps and Iain Duncan Smith, and even David Cameron, have spun that the people who will be affected by the housing benefit changes are a small number of unemployed people living in places that ‘hard working families’ couldn’t afford to live, like Kensington and Chelsea, and that they can go and live in cheaper areas where accommodation is available – like Barking and Dagenham …. and Newham. Now we find that the supposed cheaper boroughs are also planning to move people out and scatter them around the country like confetti. And, just as the Government was warned, not least by this blog, we find that not only has EVERY London borough got a crisis of affordable housing, but the crisis stretches far beyond the M25.
Even the places that were once categorised as ‘low demand’ in the midlands and the north are not in fact sitting on a pile of available homes – needs have been growing everywhere in the country. Paul Bayliss, Leader of the Labour Group in Derby, said that the city needed 3,000 extra homes to meet the needs of people on its own waiting list, and that Westminster should not be allowed ‘to ship off their poor and homeless to other parts of the country.’ And he made the most obvious, and absolutely correct, comment of the whole saga. “The solution for London is simple,” he said. “The city needs more affordable homes.”
The surprise is that the Government is surprised. It conducted impact assesssments and it should be aware of the ripple effects across London, and then outside, that its policies would have. Instead, and ignoring the rapidly emerging evidence, Shapps swung into phase 2 of his response: faux concern for the families involved and an assertion that the boroughs should be able to accommodate people within their own boundaries. The line quickly spread across the coalition: on Question Time last night LibDem Simon Hughes – an MP who should have a good feel for what is happening – also claimed the policy was unnecessary despite the housing crisis. Does he think all of the boroughs are playing politics, or is he just unwilling to admit to a Government-created crisis of epic proportions? How uncomfortable it must be for him, knowing something is wrong, and occasionally saying it probably is wrong, but never using his power as a member of one of the coalition parties to actually do something about it.
Labour spokesperson Jack Dromey has written to all London boroughs seeking information about the numbers involved – key facts the Government should have at its fingertips. Shapps is evidently changing the imminent Localism Act regulations to require councils to provide accommodation in a reasonable location. Well that’s alright then. But new regulations build no new homes. All it will do is tighten the squeeze on councils without offering a way out. It might improve the prospects that judicial reviews of particular decisions will be successful. Whilst it’s not possible to feel sympathy for all London boroughs – many have failed to take opportunities to build more affordable homes over the years, sometimes deliberately for political reasons – even those with a great track record are struggling.
As Ken Livingstone says: “London is seeing people displaced from their neighbourhood, from their friends, from their families because of the housing benefit cap that’s come in”. More unpleasant in more ways than one, the hyperbolic Boris Johnson has again described it as ‘Kosovo-style social cleansing’.
Lack of provision has been a problem for 30 years, but the immediate crisis is caused by the housing benefit changes. Something must be done, and exhorting councils through the regulations isn’t enough. Shapps and Johnson should admit that the policy is an error and change it.