‘Exporting’ homeless families: is it legal and is it right?

Westminster council has confirmed plans to permanently rehouse homeless families outside of the borough and in some cases outside of London.

It has become common place for London boroughs to temporarily rehouse people outside of their local area but Westminster now plans to relocate seemingly large numbers of families as a permanent solution to their housing needs.

Last month it was revealed that Westminster council had purchased 24 new build homes in the neighbouring borough of Hounslow, apparently for allocation through its choice based lettings system rather than as temporary accommodation (TA). This would see homeless households able to bid for accommodation in Hounslow in order to make a permanent move out of borough.

But papers released by the council last year also make clear that they are looking to work with private landlords out of borough to discharge their duty to homeless households by making a private rented sector offer (PRSO) to households in TA. As part of this the council announced it was looking at places where the private rented sector might be affordable for low income households.

The decision sparks questions for housing lawyers, and no doubt concern for homeless families.

Nearly four in ten statutory homeless households in London are currently placed outside of their borough. We know that this can be hugely disruptive for people, as they are forced away from essential support networks, jobs and schools. Many will hold out hope of a return to a permanent home in the place they call home, but this latest move makes it clear that people will have to adjust to a new life somewhere unknown.

We know that one of the hardest things about being in TA out of area is not being able to plan for the future: families hope for a return home and don’t know how long they’ll be left in a strange area. Amid this context there is an argument that the harsh certainty of a permanent move out of area at least enables families to properly plan for a new life elsewhere.

For families who choose to bid for one of the council’s new homes in Hounslow this will be possible. But in a double blow, families forced to accept a PRSO will have no such certainty. Tenancies in such circumstances need only run for 12 months and households may have little choice in what they are offered and where.

The law prohibits councils from moving people out of area as a matter of course but it doesn’t stop it entirely. The suitability regulations that govern PRSO only require the council to consider whether the location makes accommodation unsuitable. Officials must look at the impact of the move on a household but they may still legally conclude that it’s acceptable to send a family out of area.

A Supreme Court judgement in 2015 reiterated that local authorities cannot simply send people out of area as a matter of course, no matter how severe their housing shortage. The case was the result of Westminster’s own attempts to move a homeless woman to Milton Keynes. Westminster’s failure to act lawfully had shocking repercussions for the family as the children were temporarily taken into care when the mother was unable to accept the move.

In central London such decisions are undoubtedly made more problematic by the dearth of affordable accommodation in borough and we cannot pretend that councils are operating in an easy climate. Homelessness is significantly higher than in 2010, driven principally by an unaffordable private rented sector. Changes to housing benefit have bitten particularly deep in Westminster. As a result, the number of households claiming Local Housing Allowance (the common form of HB for private renters) has fallen by 44% since cuts were introduced in 2011. The loss of a private tenancy – and inability to find an affordable alternative – is the now the driving force in Westminster (as it is across the country). As a result, the borough has around 2,500 households in TA, while council documents show it can expect only around 840 social lettings a year, including transfers for existing tenants.

Adoption of widespread out of area moves is in some senses a sign of defeat at London’s inability to house itself. But it’s not the case that the council isn’t trying to also make use of its social housing stock to rehouse families: council documents show that the council expected 68% of new lettings to in 2015/16 to go to statutory homeless households. The council’s allocation scheme says they expect this trend to continue. But demand continues to outstrip supply. Addressing this means tackling the failure of successive governments to sufficiently support social housing and a benefit safety net which has fallen out of step with housing costs.

But in the meantime our legal teams will continue to challenge councils who do not treat an out of area move with the seriousness it deserves and adequately assess its suitability for the household.