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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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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