Thousands of homeless families drift to the end of the track

Local authorities are now empowered to place homeless people in private rented accommodation, meaning they can be forced out of our cities.

This is a blog about a recent news story, but the background isn’t so recent at all. It starts with a train ride I took out of London on a rainy night five years ago and finally, at the end of the track; a coastal town.

Here’s what I wrote at the time: “A games arcade’s neon lights bleed into the cold mist [...] Beside it there’s a foul-looking chippy and a few desultory tourist shops, all closed. A hill leads away from the seafront. Up here, past rows of huge Victorian houses, most of them with peeling plaster and rotting doors, there’s a small row of shops. A group of children smokes outside an off license. The tattered pub is closed.

“And just off this street, a huge hotel, bigger than the others. It costs £40 a week to stay here, and 200 people do  [...] they have one communal kitchen, which is open for just an hour. A family walks in: mother, father, two small children. They have come from abroad and are seeking asylum. They prepare their food for the evening, then leave. Next, an ex-convict, released after eight years. And after him, a street drinker, a paedophile, a heroin addict, and many more [will] come and go.”

Near the house was a church, and in the basement of the church was one of the most horrific places I have ever seen. It was a charity’s drop-in centre and it was mostly used by heroin addicts, many of whom came from the big house. A sixteen-year-old boy stood outside, smoking a roll up. He was wiry, ghostly pale, and covered in sores. His fingers were brown. He couldn’t sleep, because he was coming down from a heroin hit. Inside, there were dozens more like him - wrecked wraiths of men and women, lurching about in a couple of half-empty living rooms and a communal kitchen.

I remember a middle-aged, anorexic-looking man with thin whisps of blonde hair. He was trying to eat a bowl of pasta, which had no sauce or meat on it. He kept putting the spoon to his mouth, then wrinkling his face in disgust. He tried, and tried, but he just couldn’t eat it. For some reason the image is burned into my memory.

I was there because I’d got into a chat online with a guy who worked for a local charity called the Scrine Foundation. He’d found out I was researching crime, and had invited me down to the end of the line to show me the misery that drug dealers from London were creating. The story was supposed to be about their trade. But I came across an interesting angle. The people to whom they were dealing weren’t local either. They were from various places: according to him, some were from as far afield as London themselves. What was going on?

It was only a few years earlier - with laws passed in 1996 and 1999 - that local authorities were asked to provide accommodation to asylum seekers and other appellants who were considered to be destitute or at risk. The Housing Act 1996 already stated housing authorities should house people within their district “so far as reasonably practicable”.

Nearby councils found various ways round it, and farmed their homeless to places like this town, where accommodation was cheap and there was plenty of room in the old Victorian hotels that had been converted into bedsits and houses in multiple occupation. They could offer to fill every room in a hotel for a lengthy period at a vastly reduced rate, and at the same time could claim they had reduced the number of people living in temporary accommodation. These people would use facilities like doctors and libraries in that area, guaranteeing even more savings.

And the influx of needy people created a chain of supply and demand. It was an area in which 90 per cent of the properties were privately rented, and in which two thirds of households survived on benefits - where property prices were low, and antisocial behaviour high. The high influx wasn’t just families from housing waiting lists - it was of children heading to care homes.

Another Scrine worker told me there were over 100 foster homes in the area, 29 of them on one road - along with with 19 sex offenders. He said: “Children are sent around to foster parents, then aged 18 they’re abandoned, because the parents want a new child to get their weekly payments.”

I didn’t name the area, because I didn’t have the time to go into the story in any more detail, and I didn’t think naming the place would do it any favours. I feel I can now, because there have since been a number of reports on it. It was Cliftonville, in Margate, and it was suffering these problems at the height of the economic boom. What now?
 

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In the years since I visited, the Scrine Foundation lost its funding due to a combination of bad management and a lack of faith from its funders. However, its main day centre in Canterbury has re-opened under a new name (Chasing Lives), and with a new manager, called Terry Gore. I spoke to him about what I’d seen five years ago.

“It’s gone on in one form or another as far back as the early 1990s,” he tells me. “Back then some of the big mental hospitals in London were closed, and the councils resettled the patients in Thanet. It was seen as a place that was on the downslide: you could get cheap accommodation. A friend of mine worked in community mental health but gave it up because he was so overworked - he suddenly spent his entire time moving from client to client giving them depots (slow release medication). Likewise, some of the bigger children’s homes were closed around that time, so they got a lot of referrals from London. And at the same time, local authorities in East Kent would dump a lot of their homeless there.”

Terry tells me about the big house. It was called the Hotel Leslie: “To call it a shithole would be to understate it. Agencies would dump anyone there. Sex offenders came out of prison and they were obliged to register their address, so authorities had to find them a place to live. It meant they could end up being housed in close proximity to children. It got to a point where the local authority had to sit down with all the councils in East Kent and tell them to stop targeting the area.”

The problem was solved, but a new one was looming on the horizon.

The Government’s Localism Act, which came into force this spring, empowered local authorities to place homeless people in private rented accommodation. Previously, people accepted as homeless could wait for a council house, but now they had to accept a private one.

There were obvious problems with this from the outset: the long-term lack of investment in affordable social housing, a mortgage drought that pushed up rents, successive governments’ failure to provide a decent living wage and a cut in local housing allowance that in Liverpool alone meant 21,000 people could only afford 12,000 homes in the city. And so the act’s progress through parliament was accompanied by a series of worrying headlines. Boris Johnson voiced fears of a “Kosovo-style social cleansing”: “The last thing we want to have in our city is a situation such as Paris where the less well-off are pushed out to the suburbs,” he said.

Despite his bombastic language, it seemed he hadn’t gone far enough. In February we heard that Croydon council was looking to send people on its housing list to Hull; in April that Newham council was hoping to move people to Stoke, Westminster to Derby, Waltham Forest to Walsall, while Hammersmith & Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster were working together to consider a proposal from private company Smart Housing Group to house people in Derby and Nottingham.

Grant Shapps, then housing minister, told the Today programme that it was “unfair” and “wrong”. And in response, on 9 November, secondary legislation was brought forward by the Department for Communities and Local Government to ensure that the suitability and location of accommodation are properly considered by Local Authorities when ending the main homelessness duty.

Will it work? Last week Private Eye reported on the first homeless families going through the system: “Many [London councils] are looking to acquire homes in cheaper areas not just in the southeast but as far afield as Nottingham and Manchester. They know they will face legal challenges but, much like the homeless families involved, they say they have no choice.”

The claim was backed up by Guardian research this month which revealed that local authorities in London are preparing to send thousands of homeless families to live in temporary homes outside the capital. Among the many towns in which housing was being required was Margate. It hasn’t seen the last of its settlers.
 

Vacancies signs in the window of a guest house in Margate, Kent. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle