Out of borough placements – learning the lessons of Nzolameso

Rachael came to Z2K after having made a successful homeless application. She was offered temporary accommodation in the outer edges of West London; an hour and a half’s journey from her friends, family and crucially her children’s school in East London. She knew that this accommodation was not suitable and would cause a huge disruption to her children’s education, however she accepted the offer for fear of the council discharging their duty to house her family. She moved in and, following our advice, asked for a formal review of the decision to offer her this out of borough accommodation.

Her children all won special scholarships to an extremely highly rated school, and the head teacher was effusive in his praise for how valued they were as pupils. They take part in regular extra-curricular activity connected to their scholarships, and the eldest is preparing to take GCSE’s next year. However, waking up at 5.45am most mornings to take part in early morning classes and not returning home until dark is unsustainable. It is hard enough being a single mum to three kids, but the commute and isolation from friends and family was starting to take its toll on Rachael and the family as a whole.

Rachael was advised through the Stepping Stones project, and we agreed to submit detailed legal representations in support of a review under section 202 of the Housing Act 1996. We accepted that Local Authorities do have the power to source accommodation for homeless people outside of their own area. This can be elsewhere in London, or in some cases in another city entirely. When making on offer of accommodation under homelessness legislation, Local Authorities must offer “suitable” accommodation, must ensure that this in its local area “so far as reasonably practicable”, and must have regard to the distance from its local area if out of borough accommodation is deemed suitable.

The Supreme Court in Nzolameso v City of Westminster [2015] UKSC 22 confirmed that Local Authorities must safeguard and promote the welfare of any children in the homeless household in accordance with section 11 of the Children Act 2004. Lady Hale identified disruption to a child’s education as particularly crucial. The judgment obliges local authorities to closely regard the welfare of children when sourcing accommodation, and to have a clear policy on how decisions to place families out of borough are to be made.

In Rachael’s case, it was clear that the Local Authority had done no such thing. No enquiries were made about the children’s education, health needs or social needs. There was nothing to suggest that they had learned the lessons from Nzolameso, and from what we are know from our own casework and from other agencies and solicitors in London this is not an isolated incident.

Within a few days of receiving our legal representations, the Local Authority conceded that the accommodation was not suitable and Rachael is now in the process of finding somewhere closer to home.

This scenario will no doubt have happened many times to families across the city, and with the right advice at the right time, these decisions can be challenged. Local Authorities are of course under tremendous pressure when it comes to housing, but they must exercise their powers in accordance with the law. Organisations like Z2K play a crucial role in ensuring that people’s legal rights are not ignored.

As important a breakthrough as the Nzolameso case was, the battle is not over when it comes to out of borough placements. Z2K will certainly be paying especially close attention to this in the coming years.

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