Wednesday, 25 April 2012

A roof over your head - but where?

I was moved this morning listening to a recently widowed single mum, who lives in the London Borough of Waltham Forest. Out of the blue, she received a letter from the Council telling her that they were offering her accommodation which met her needs, was a reasonable offer, and that if she refused this offer the Council would consider that it had discharged its responsibility to house her. In other words, take this or you're on your own.

Now you might think that this isn't unusual, and not unreasonable. The problem for this woman, however, was that the accommodation was in Walsall. That's 130 miles from where she lives, where her child goes to school, where her friends and family are. She didn't sound sure where Walsall was, thought she'd been to Birmingham twice in her life, and had no connections there at all. Many similar cases have been reported in the past couple of days. Officially, the reason given is the lack of affordable rented housing in London. This lady's suspicion - and she isn't alone - is that people like her, who are perceived as a problem, are being shipped out of London to clear the way for gentrification developments, big profits and high rents. Heaven knows I don't often quote Boris Johnson, but yesterday he described this as "Kosovo-style social cleansing" of the poor in London. 

Just a bit of context. Councils are not under an obligation to find a home for everyone who wants one. They have a duty to accommodate people who are homeless, but only then if they are not 'intentionally homeless' (and this is open to a lot of interpretation), have a child or are vulnerable, and have a connection to the area served by that council. In the 'old days' this duty was discharged by putting families in what we used to call Council Houses. Now, it is by nominating to 'social housing' owned by housing associations or ALMOs (arm's length management organisations), or by putting them into privately owned rented accommodation, with rents paid to landlords through Housing Benefit.

So what has happened that has led to Waltham Forest, and other London councils, forcing people to move to parts 'as far flung' as they said on the BBC as Walsall, Stoke on Trent and Luton?

Since 1980, some 2 MILLION council homes have been taken out of the social housing market by being sold to tenants, at a significant discount. Prime Minister Thatcher calculated, probably correctly, that home owners are more likely to vote Conservative than tenants, and downsizing the housing stock fitted with her view that 'there is no such thing as society'. In Thatcher's Britain, if people were in need of a home the market would provide them with one. David Cameron recently announced a new impetus for the sale of social housing stock to tenants, with discounts of as much as £75,000 on offer. Presumably for the same reasons.

Having forced councils to sell homes, successive governments then prevented them from spending the money generated on building new homes. While millions of pounds sat in banks, and construction jobs were sorely needed, governments took no action.

This Government has capped the amount of Housing Benefit to be paid at £21,000 a year. A good populist policy - they get how much??? - but it ignores the fact that many people who receive Housing Benefit are the very same 'hard working families' that this Government claims to value so highly. It also ignore the actual cost of housing in the capital. Government Minister Grant Shapps claimed yesterday that rents are going down, but no-one else seems to think so.

The demand for homes to rent is rising and will continue to do so. My son and his girlfriend live in London. Both have secure jobs as teachers, and are reasonably well paid. They cannot see a time when they would ever be able to buy property in London, and young couples like them fuel the demand for rented homes. The forthcoming Olympic Games, in line with the Law of Unintended Consequences, are creating opportunities for profiteering for landlords, and stories are emerging of tenants being evicted so that landlords can cash in on short term lets over the Summer.

So what's the answer? There is obviously not a simple answer, or it would have been found. But it is clear to me that there needs to be a much stronger focus on the issue of affordable housing, not just in London but across the country. There needs to an ambitious programme of new build, creating homes and jobs. There needs to be an immediate halt to the sale of social housing. Benefit capping needs to be revisited. Private sector rent controls need to be considered. Creative options such are shared ownership need to be encouraged.

We have grown accustomed in this country to our children being better off than we are ourselves. Affordable housing is a key element in determining our standard of living and that seems to be increasingly out of their grasp. Something must be done, and soon!