Sunday 20 November 2011

Stark impact of government 'social cleansing' housing policy in Brent

Post eviction scene?
Brent Council expects 512 families to lose their homes through being unable to afford their rent in private accommodation as a result of  the Housing Benefit cap in January 2012, a further 714 in February and 799 in March. 

The weekly loss of benefit will be:
1 bedroomed accommodation £7.69
2 bedroomed £34.40
3 bedroomed £98.74
4 bedroomed £200
5 bedroomed £282.24

Clearly the cuts will affect people with large families disproportionally.

Jacky Peacock, Executive Director of Brent Private Tenants Group, in quietly setting out the figures at today's meeting organised by Barry Gardiner at Brent Town Hall. did more to bring home the seriousness of the situation than any passionate politician's speech could have done.

She reported that in 2009 there were 22,281 privately rented homes in Brent, representing about 84,000 people. There were more children in privately rented housing than in social housing.  Tenants were young and not so young professionals often having to stay in rented accommodation into their 40s or 50s, half of all  renters were on housing benefit. There were students, migrant workers and older tenants with regulated tenancies.

She said that in 2010/11 Brent Council had to find private lettings for 548 families and between April and October another 173. Anyone moving into 'temporary accommodation' as a result of losing their home could expect to be in it for 10-11 years. Many rents in the cheapest third of rental accommodation were already above the capped amounts.

Rents had already increased by 5.7% this year and landlords were expecting another 6% over the next 12 months. One third of privately rented homes fall below Decent Homes Standards and 15% have serious damp problems compared with 8% owner occupied and 10% social housing. Private tenants were four times more likely to live in a cold home with resultant health problems. May were forced to go to bed to keep room rather than  try to keep warm sitting in their room.

Jacky said we had never seen a situation like this before: families would be forced to move out of London to find affordable accommodation with the resultant dislocation of support from friends and families and disruption of children's education.

Cllr Janice Long, Brent lead member for housing, told the full hall that she had nothing but doom to convey.  She said she could see no light at the end of the tunnel. She told tenants that the worse thing they could do was to not pay the rent and get into debt - it would  be better to move, She said that if they got accepted as homeless by the Council that was not the end of the problem as there was no spare bed and breakfast accommodation - it would be provided outside of Brent. She said that making the argument that children's education would be disrupted if the family moved far away wouldn't wash - they would have to find a school elsewhere.

Looking forward to the future Janice said that 'affordable' housing wasn't the answer as the Coalition government had changed the definition of 'affordable' to 80% of the market rent - making it not affordable to Brent residents on the average Brent wage. In addition the government would cut housing benefit to those without a job whom they deemed able to work.

She said, 'The Council is not to blame. It's the government that has decided on the social cleansing of London."

Contributing from the floor Shahrar Ali admired Cllr Long's honesty but wondered if rather than merely manage the consequences of the cuts ('You sometimes sounded like a member of the Coalition') the Council should be doing more to engage in the fight against them.  We heard about landlords harassing 80 year olds to get them out of property, landlords giving tenants notice to quiet who tried to get the landlord to improve insulation through the Green deal, a 25 year teacher who could not afford to move out of her mother's home, people who had the income:price ratios to get a mortgage but not the hefty deposits now required, a woman who been forced to move six times in rapid succession losing deposits and fees with each move.

The social cost in terms of health problems, disrupted education and temporary accommodation costs would outweigh the 'savings' made by the government through their benefit cap, according to several contributors. However, as I murmured to my neighbour, most of those costs would be shifted to already hard-pressed local authorities and away from central government budgets.

In my contribution I told the meeting that my experience at Chalkhill School was that families were already being evicted as tenancies came to an end and there were already increased numbers in temporary accommodation. Families were being offered accommodation as far away as Birmingham and Milton Keynes. Sometime ago I met a Nepalese family who had moved to Milton Keynes who had to move again because of racial harassment from local youth there.Brent families, used to living in a multiracial environment, might face similar problems.

I noted that the recent consultation on the Wembley Plan stated that developers were not currently willing to build affordable housing because of low profits. Plans had been put on the back burner and they were instead investing in private student accommodation. The Council needed to negotiate with Quintain, the main developer, to ensure the housing was built. Cllr Janice Long confirmed that the Wembley Plan's definition of affordable was the old one, rather than the new 80% of affordable rent definition.

When  I asked that more be done about locating and taking over empty housing, Janice Long at first said that often such housing had a story attached to it, but later said that the present Compulsory Purchase of Empty Properties policy inherited from the last Brent administration was gummy (lacked teeth) and could do with strengthening. Jacky Peacock said that despite problems her experience was that if the local authority had a robust CPO policy on empty properties and implemented it, for every one property compulsorily purchased owners would put anothet100 on the market.  Jacky also agreed that with Sarah Cox that other empty property in Brent could be purchased and converted to housing where appropriate.

Chris Williamson, Labour MP a member of the shadow housing team, said that the previous Labour government hadn't got everything right on housing but would learn from its mistakes. The Labour Party wanted to bring the private rented sector up to standard but accepted its role in society. He stressed that the Labour Party was in 'listening mode'. He said that the supply of affordable housing needed government intervention and investment in it would provide a stimulus to the economy.

The meeting ended with a call for a big campaign on the issue and requests for people to join the Brent Private Tenants' Rights Group. LINK Navin Shah, Labour AM for Brent and Harrow, reminded the audience that they would have a chance to express their views electorally in next year's Mayoral and London Assembly election.

Find out more from  Brent Private Tenants' Rights Group 36-38 Willesden Lane, Kilburn, London NW6 7ST Tel: 020 7624 4327   Website:

No comments: