Thursday, 17 April 2014

Stoke-on-Thames

From: Inside edge

Stoke? Hull? Newham? Croydon? Westminster? Housing benefit cuts are a story in search of a location.

What I mean by that is that the story that dominated this morning’s Today programme could have been about just about any borough in London and any city in the north and midlands. We all know that sooner or later there will be real faces to put to the victims of the housing benefit cuts and real places where the problems will emerge. Up to now, though, and with several of the more draconian cuts still to come, we’ve had largely anecdotal evidence.

So Newham’s letter to a housing association in Stoke was always likely to be big news. Add in the elements that Newham is the Olympic borough and that its mayor Sir Robin Wales has a history of rows with government and controversial statements on affordable housing and you have a story that is irresistible.

That much was clear from the bare bones of the story reported on the BBC website earlier. Newham was asking Brighter Futures Housing Association to take up to 500 families on housing benefit and on its waiting list that it can no longer afford to house and offering to lease homes at a premium to local rents. It was being ‘forced to look further afield for alternative supply’ because rents locally were overheating because of the ‘onset of the Olympic Games and the buoyant young professionals market’.

Gill Brown, chief executive of the housing association, begged to differ (how could she do otherwise as head of an organisation named Brighter Futures?). ‘I think there is a real issue of social cleansing going on,’ she said. ‘We are very anxious about this letter which we believe signals the start of a movement which could see thousands of needy people dumped in Stoke with no proper plan for their support or their welfare.’

More emerged in Today programme appearances by Wales and housing minister Grant Shapps later. According to Wales, Newham sent letters to 1,179 organisations. Recipients include landlords across the North West, North East and Midlands and the largest one in the constituency of chancellor George Osborne (which binned it, or else we might have had the irony of the victims of his cuts turning up in his well-heeled corner of Cheshire).

According to Shapps, rents are ‘actually, at the moment, falling’. Cue a double take from just about everyone and disbelief for anyone in touch with the London market. Most of his responses consisted of the same tired lines: housing benefit being unfair to ‘hardworking’ families (ignoring the fact that 93 per cent of new claimants since the election are working), a ‘huge’ discretionary fund and that the leaked letter from his boss Eric Pickles warning of the effect of the cuts is old and out of date. He also accused Wales of ‘playing politics’ in election season and claimed a search on Rightmove revealed 1,000 homes available at below the housing benefit cap. Initial calls by The Guardian suggest many of these will not take tenants on housing benefit.

What was new to me was his reference to changes on the discharge of the homelessness duty into the private rented sector and guidance on his plans to ‘that they must take into account the welfare of the tenants in doing so, which includes for example not packing up and sending them off to Stoke’. Have I missed it, or has this guidance not been published yet.

As Labour’s Karen Buck said in an earlier interview, the shocking thing is that Newham was meant to be part of the solution to London’s housing problems (as one of the places with cheaper rents) but now it seemed to be another one of the problems. And Robin Wales argued that it was pressure from boroughs like Westminster exporting their own homeless families that was forcing Newham to do the same.

One blog offers barely enough scope to scratch the surface of a story like this and its implications. However, I would point to at least three other factors that are at play here:

  • Sir Robin Wales has previous on these issues with controversial views on giving housing priority to people who are working. See, for example, this interview with Nick Duxbury from last year in which he argues ‘don’t come and show us that you’re poor you’re not working and the most needy’.
  • Newham is at least attempting to inform people in other areas about what it is doing – as opposed to moving people out by stealth like other London boroughs. It is also attempting to do something about the housing crisis with radical plans on licensing and private sector leasing.
  • Over the last few years Newham has also been one of the London authorities with the most homeless families in temporary accommodation waiting for a permanent home. The Localism Act gives it the power to discharge the homelessness duty into the private rented sector. How much of this is about housing benefit cuts and how much about the discharge of the duty and cuts in funding for temporary accommodation specifically? The letter says specifically that: ‘The Localism Act will give local authorities the power to discharge duty into the private sector and as such the council is looking to find affordable accommodation in areas of low demand, for suitable families.’
  • Stoke has plenty of problems of its own. A report by Brendan Nevin and Philip Leather for the Northern Area Social Housing Forum in February highlighted a whole series of problems including ‘stark choices for housing benefit claimants’ and a collapse in market activity in disadvantaged areas. This highlights an issue that many have warned about all along: that cuts in housing benefit only encourage people to move (or to be moved) to cheaper areas with fewer jobs. This editorial in The Sentinel makes the point very well:

‘Stoke-on-Trent has a proud history of welcoming outsiders and finding a place for everyone in the city. But as our city seeks to re-build communities ruptured by the decline of traditional industries and create stable neighbourhoods, an unplanned influx of Olympic exiles will do us little good. The 2012 games are bringing huge riches into London. The least those boroughs could do is look after their poor and needy. We look forward to welcoming the flame from Stratford – but not east London’s exiles.’

This story is not going to go away. Newham and Stoke are just the start. For more on this story see my other blog here

Readers' comments (3)

  • I love the name of the Housing Officer at the Council Frank MacCool.
    This is common sense for London Boroughs and probably so for low demand areas - don't we need the odd politican to tell people to get on their bikes too??

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  • Social Cleansing hits it dead centre.

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  • Melvin Bone

    This is not really a new phenomena. I remember in a London borough moved about 40 families lock stock and barrel to Bodmin in Cornwall a few years back...

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