Councils move hundreds of homeless families out of London with 24-hour ultimatums

<span>Families living in London risked making themselves ‘intentionally homeless’ by refusing offers of housing in towns in the north-east and the Midlands, councils said.</span><span>Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian</span>
Families living in London risked making themselves ‘intentionally homeless’ by refusing offers of housing in towns in the north-east and the Midlands, councils said.Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian

Hundreds of homeless families were permanently forced out of London by councils last year after many were given 24-hour ultimatums to either accept a private tenancy far away from the capital or be kicked out of temporary accommodation and left on the streets.

The campaign group Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth (HASL) found that 319 households in 2023 accepted offers of a private tenancy outside London. They were often given 24 hours by council officials to accept homes out of the capital or risk making themselves “intentionally homeless” by refusing an offer.

One in 10 households who accepted these offers were placed in the north-east in towns such as Hartlepool and Durham, and two in 10 were sent to the Midlands. The Midlands has been a popular place for London councils to privately discharge homeless families since 2017, but similar placements in the north-east are a recent trend.

The far-flung placements have been driven by rising rents in the south-east that have not kept pace with local housing allowance (LHA) – the amount that private tenants claiming housing benefit are entitled to towards rent – which varies by local authority.

According to Zoopla, the north-east is the cheapest region in the UK for renters, with private tenants paying on average £695 a month as of April 2024. In Hartlepool, the LHA rate for a four-bedroom home is £688 a month. In Durham, the LHA for a four-bed is about £600.

In London, the average monthly rent is £2,121 – in boroughs such as Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Camden, the figure is higher than £2,300 – while the LHA for a self-contained property in the capital is as low as £1,058 a month. Tenants need to make up the shortfall between money received through LHA and their rent.

Councils have experienced soaring demand for homelessness support after a sharp rise in no-fault evictions across the country, with section 21 notices jumping 38% from 2022 to 2023. Many urban council budgets have been decimated by temporary accommodation costs. Last October, the Local Government Association said councils were paying £1.7bn a year for temporary accommodation.

Families who are privately discharged out of London have little chance to return to the capital. Many are made to sign 24-month tenancy agreements that make re-establishing a “local connection” with the original London borough incredibly difficult. In many cases, if a family moves out of London and becomes homeless again, the council they are discharged to becomes responsible for housing them.

Elizabeth Wyatt, a spokesperson for HASL, said: “Our latest research adds yet more record-breaking homeless statistics showing that councils are responding to the homeless crisis by forcing huge numbers of families to the north-east of England under threat of being made destitute.

“These mandatory offers of private housing also push families into a cycle of homelessness as they are being forced back into insecure private housing, which is likely to have been the cause of their homelessness in the first place. This behaviour by councils is almost certainly unlawful, but devastating cuts to legal aid mean that homeless people cannot access the legal representation they need.”

Five councils in the capital, which are all Labour-run, accounted for 74% of all out-of-London private discharges. Waltham Forest sent the most families outside London, relocating 67 out of 130 households outside the capital. There has also been an increase in private sector discharges overall: 2,063 homeless households accepted such offers in and out of London by councils in the capital last year.

Enfield was identified as the council sending families the furthest from their jobs, schools and support networks. Of the 200 offers made by Enfield council to homeless families in 2023, 94% were outside London (only 42 accepted the offers), and 59% were in the north-east. Barnet, Barking and Dagenham and Redbridge also spearheaded this approach.

One mother the Guardian spoke to in Enfield was given 24 hours to accept an offer of a private tenancy in Hartlepool in December, which she said she felt “forced and pressured” into accepting. The home the family were sent to was doors away from where a man was murdered last October. She said people banged on her windows all night.

In an email to another family, Enfield council said refusing an offer of a private tenancy in the north-east would result in them being “made homeless as the council will cancel your current accommodation and you will be evicted”.

Another woman from Enfield, who did not want to be named, said her family was offered a home 150 miles away, in Stoke-on-Trent. They first approached the council for help after being served with a no-fault eviction. “The council left me and my kids homeless on the streets. After three weeks of homelessness, they finally agreed to put us in a hotel. They left us there for seven months. We don’t have a kitchen, and we have to travel one and a half hours each way for school.

“Then they offered me a private-sector discharge in Stoke-on-Trent. My daughter is in her A-level year, but they didn’t care. They said I should be grateful they chose Stoke-on-Trent, because some families are being sent seven hours away. I got legal help and Enfield withdrew that offer, but I don’t know where they will try to send me next.

“We’ve lived in Enfield for 12 years, but they still want to put me outside London. I know people round here – my friends and family are all local – but they want to leave me isolated. The way they treat people is horrible.”

A Waltham Forest council spokesperson said: “We work hard to assist people at risk of being made homeless who come to us for help. Unfortunately, there are simply not enough available properties in the borough. If the council did not offer suitable accommodation to discharge its housing duty, the result would be increased costs to the taxpayer and lengthy stays in nightly paid accommodation for families that deserve stability.”

An Enfield council spokesperson said: “In line with other councils, we have moved to a national placement policy as a result of the extreme shortage of accommodation in London and the south-east. Our priority is to find a suitable, permanent home for families as long-term hotel accommodation is neither appropriate nor affordable. Given the dwindling supply of housing, residents have been advised to be ready at short notice when a placement becomes available.”