Not for the first time, Westminster City Council hit the headlines last week for the way it is dealing with homeless people. In a report to the outgoing Cabinet Member for Housing, Regeneration, Business & Economic Development, officers requested authorisation for a new Private Rented Sector Offers Policy, and Accommodation Procurement Policy and an Accommodation Placement policy – all to be implemented with effect from 30th January.
Taken on its own, the second of these three new policies is relatively anodyne – most London boroughs are having to source temporary accommodation (TA) out of their areas. However, the first envisages a significant increase in Westminster’s use of its power to discharge its duty to statutory homeless households through the offer of accommodation in the private rented sector, and the third creates three bands for TA:
- Band 1 – Within Westminster or an adjoining London borough
- Band 2 – elsewhere in London
- Band 3 – outside London
Taken together, these three policies are a toxic cocktail. It seems pretty clear they are designed to help get round the Supreme Court’s judgment against WCC in the case of Titina Nzolameso. Despite having lived in Westminster for many years, she was moved to Milton Keynes when she became homeless.
No-one doubts that WCC faces intense pressures as a result of the number of homeless households it sees. It is also fair to say, parts of the council do a really good job trying to help some of those households. However, there has been a persistent political agenda for nearly three decades to evade its responsibilities. And after having failed last year to persuade the Communities & Local Government Select Committee to back its proposals to tear further holes in the national homelessness safety net, WCC is now doing that locally anyway.
You can get a pretty good idea of the purpose of the new PRSO policy when you see who is exempt from it – those eligible for sheltered housing, those who need disabled-accessible housing and any household the council determines would be unable to manage a tenancy in the private sector. That’s a pretty small proportion of WCC’s homeless households. Everyone else will be made one suitable PRSO. No wonder the policy is just two pages long!
The Accommodation Placement policy is just as bad. Vulnerable homeless households in priority need will be assessed to see whether they have what Westminster is defining as a “compelling need to remain” in the borough or an adjoining borough. An example of such a household is “one where at least one member has a severe health condition or disability that is long-term and requires intensive and specialised medical treatment or aftercare that is (a) only available in Westminster or (b) where a transfer of care would create serious risk to their safety or the sustainability of the treatment or care.” This is a very high threshold. Other examples given include equally high hurdles.
Band 2 is for households with at least one child in their final year of Key Stage 4 (generally Year 11/GCSEs) or Key Stage 5 (A-Levels) at a school or further education college in London, or where the applicant or their partner is accepted by WCC as being in employment and has been working continuously for a period of at least six months in Westminster or an adjoining borough under a written contract of employment which requires at least 16 hours a week. This is a pretty high threshold too. Every other statutorily homeless household will face the prospect of being accommodated outside of London.
Z2K would have a lot more sympathy for WCC if it really had no alternative. But as the table in the report itself shows, it is expecting just 322 new social homes to be built in the City in the next five years. A further 343 might be built, but are not guaranteed. That kind of performance compares very badly with other London boroughs who deliver many more. They are the direct result of WCC’s unwillingness to optimise the proportion of affordable homes within new developments, and its emphasis on intermediate homes over social ones.
As you can imagine, Z2K will be arguing against these policies. That won’t be easy, as the decision is to be made by the individual Cabinet member rather than in public by the Cabinet as a whole or even better in Full Council. Worse still, the only way any decision can be formally reviewed is if three of the members of WCC’s Housing, Finance & Corporate Services Policy & Scrutiny Committee “call it in”. Given that six of the eight members of that committee are members of the ruling group, that seems unlikely.
We really hope WCC’s newly-elected Council Leader, Cllr Nickie Aiken, will look again at these policies when she and her new Cabinet take office next week.