Exporting homelessness

This morning was one of those moments when policy wonks start jumping up and down and shouting at the radio. This tends to happen when an issue we’ve been trying desperately to get some publicity for suddenly hits the news – usually because the bad thing we’ve been warning would happen, has happened.

It’s very frustrating to be told that a story is not news until the disaster has actually occurred. Astronomers take note – the media won’t be interested in a warning that an asteroid is heading for earth, they’ll want to wait until there are pictures. But eventually the story will hit.

Today it was Newham Council’s plan to ship homeless households to rented homes in Stoke on Trent. Newham, like other councils, plans to use new powers under the Localism Act 2011 which enable councils to discharge their legal duty (ie. wash their hands of) homeless households, by offering them a 12 month private tenancy anywhere in the country.

We’ve warned that the toxic blend of housing benefit cuts, high rents and this new power of discharge would result in forced moves like this, particularly in London, which Boris Johnson described as ‘Kosovo-style ethnic cleansing’. And we tried repeatedly to get the Government to prevent it happening – first by amending the legislation, and when that failed, by making sure this is covered by regulations to local authorities.

So it was great to hear that Grant Shapps agrees with us on this, saying on the Today programme this morning, ‘I’ve been absolutely clear in those rules to local authorities that they must take into account the welfare of tenants in doing so, and that includes not packing them up and sending them to Stoke… it’s unfair and wrong. I’ve made the legislation and guidance very clear that they’re not to do this.’

Even better was that Shapps was clearly trailing the Government regulations that us wonks have been eagerly awaiting, which are likely to be published in the next week.

We have been worried that the regulations wouldn’t include a strong enough definition of what counts as suitable accommodation, leaving the door open for councils to send their homeless households miles away from jobs, schools, families and communities. Shapps seemed to be promising that this won’t happen on his watch – if so, it’s excellent news.