Government housing policies, and further cuts in April, are panicking councils in expensive parts of London into making drastic housing decisions. They are worried that they will not be able to find affordable accommodation locally for people made homeless by the policy change, and are preparing to send them elsewhere.
A report today claims that London councils are buying properties in the home counties - and beyond - and that homeless people in the boroughs will end up being shipped out. But can this be fair?
Shipping outResearchers at The Guardian say that some London councils have been purchasing properties in Kent, Essex, Hertfordshire, Berkshire, Sussex and elsewhere, to prepare for an expected rise in the number of homeless families after welfare cuts kick in around April.
The concern is that benefit caps, which come in at this stage, will mean that families cannot afford the rising rents locally. Housing benefit will be capped at £400 a week, and in some boroughs there is simply nowhere available to rent at that price for larger families. Research by London councils suggests that 63,000 households in London will be unable to afford their rent as a result of the cap.
ConcerningThis was something the government specifically said should not happen. Draft guidance put out in May said that "as far as is reasonably practicable" homeless families ought to be found alternative accommodation within the same borough.
Clearly councils are taking the decision that given all the constraints of their situation - it's not reasonably practical at all to re-home people locally - they need to be sent out of London.
The Guardian sent a questionnaire to all 33 London local authorities asking about the practice. 29 of them responded, and 17 said they had either already started shipping people out or they had secured (or thought about securing) temporary accommodation outside the borough for homeless families.
The Child Poverty Action Group has warned that this could open them up to legal challenges - as families can use the draft guidance to argue that they shouldn't be moved. However, in a new report on the policy it added: "The alternative, to make up families' rent shortfalls, is likely to leave local authorities with holes in their own budget; holes which the additional money invested in discretionary housing payments by the government are inadequate to fill."
OvercrowdingInstead, it is arguing that the most likely outcome is overcrowding: "Early signs are that the combined impact of policy changes will be to lead to an increase in overcrowding, as families seek smaller accommodation in order to be able to meet their rents. The DWP's own research suggests that families in London have strong local ties and are likely to make efforts to stay close to local networks within their local area."
This means poorer people crowding together in the centre of town. We can only wonder what the pressure on public services (like schools and doctors) will be like, the health issues of disease spread among people living cheek-by-jowl, and the social issues of people trying to get along in close proximity.
CPAG has called on the government to act before final details of the regulations are set in stone. It argues that exempting people in temporary accommodation from the cap would ease a large proportion of the worst problems - without making much of a dent in the sums the government is saving.
It raises the question of whether the end result is a host of people more reliant on state help than ever. But what do you think? is there a solution to this mess? Let us know in the comments.