The Conservative Party never apologised for the corruption and gerrymandering practised by Dame Shirley Porter at the expense of the homeless and badly housed people of Westminster. John Major once promised to do so when the legal process was complete and if the case was finally found against her, but it has never been forthcoming. There is a deep and abiding suspicion that the Tories have never forgiven the Audit Commission for its role in bringing her to book and the constant embarrassment that the case caused them. Some even think that the decision to abolish the Audit Commission could be some macabre form of revenge.
More important however is the strain of thought that has survived down the years: poor people should not be allowed to live in places like Westminster and, in Porter’s words, you have to be ‘mean and nasty’ to homeless people.
One of the clear impediments in the way of the Government’s housing benefit reforms – the 21st century clearances – is the homelessness legislation. Many of the people who will not be able to afford their homes after the HB changes will have rights under the 2002 Homelessness Act. And Westminster Council is very alive to this.
An exchange of letters between the Westminster Cabinet Member for Housing, Cllr Philippa Roe, and Grant Shapps, disclosed in Dave Hill’s London Blog yesterday and also seen by Red Brick, couldn’t be clearer.
Roe essentially has 3 demands, which taken together would gut the legislative safety net for homeless people.
First, she wants to tighten the local connection rules. Currently, an applicant with 6 months residency in the borough could claim a local connection if they became homeless, and she wants this extended to 3 years. 6 months happens to be the length of the typical assured shorthold tenancy, and Westminster has long believed that the masses move into Westminster on a short tenancy just so they can make a homelessness claim on the City at the end of it. In fact anyone with any knowledge of Westminster’s approach to temporary accommodation and the extraordinary length of time people have to wait for a home would avoid them like the plague if they had the choice.
Secondly, and more worrying, is her demand that the main homelessness duty under s.193 should be discharged by finding someone an assured shorthold tenancy in the private rented sector. This would effectively remove the safety net that has been in place since 1977. This is a possible outcome under the current Act and Guidance, but only if the tenancy meets conditions and the applicant signs a statement accepting the offer and saying that they understand it discharges the s.193 duty.
Thirdly, she wants to end the requirement in most cases to offer temporary accommodation in borough. The guidance seems to be widely ignored already and most of Westminster’s TA is out of borough and often the other side of London, but the change would give them more freedom to dump people far from their support networks, schools and jobs.
Shapps’ reply is non-committal although his promise to give the points ‘careful consideration’ is not as comforting as a rejection would be. Even giving them ‘consideration’ risks undermining his carefully created reputation for being ok on homelessness.
The wheels are starting to come off the HB proposals. First, because even this Government might baulk at the prospect of having to tackle the homelessness safety net to make them work. Secondly because they simply have not thought through the parallel policies of cutting HB at the same time as increasing rents rapidly. And thirdly, because councils are beginning to get nervous about the unintended consequences that a rapid churn of poorer tenants might have for their budgets. It’s not over yet.