Tory-run Westminster council considers moving claimants to Derby
Proposal emerges as Tory minister condemns Labour Newham council for plans to move housing benefit claimants to Stoke
The proposal, being considered by Westminster council in conjunction with two other Tory councils, was revealed on the day it emerged that Labour-run Newham council was planning to move housing benefit claimants to Stoke-on-Trent.
The plans under consideration by Tory boroughs will prove embarrassing for the Conservative housing minister, Grant Shapps, who earlier on Tuesday suggested any move to push people to other parts of the country because of a lack of housing was "outrageous". Shapps told Radio 4's Today programme: "Not only do I think it's unfair and wrong, I've also made legislation and guidance that says they're not to do this."
Newham, one of the most economically deprived local authorities in the country, which legally must house claimants, says it has been forced to look "further afield for alternative supply" of affordable housing.
The Labour-controlled local authority, which will host this summer's Olympics, wrote to the Brighter Futures housing association in Stoke,offering it the "opportunity" to lease homes to the council. It pitched for 500 families to potentially move 160 miles from east London to Stoke.
On Today Shapps accused Newham of overstating the problem and "playing politics".. "I'm not saying the BBC has been hoodwinked on this, but you have to factor in that it's local election time, and this is a Labour council," he said.
But it appears Tory-led boroughs are also weighing up such a move, according to a proposal sent to Westminster council by one of its private providers, Smart Housing Group (SHG), that suggests rehousing "150 people within the next 12 or so months" as far away as Derby and Nottingham, "and ideally with an option for Smart Housing Group to increase this number over time to perhaps closer to 500 properties".
Westminster confirmed this was "one of the options we are looking at" in conjunction with two boroughs with which it shares services, Hammersmith and Fulham and Kensington and Chelsea, but stressed that a decision had yet to be made.
The SHG document says the aim is to ensure that the council's budget for temporary accommodation and ongoing management "are delivered within the government's subsidy limits" and to the council's standard and suggests that one of the "associated benefits" of asking housing applicants to accept offers of temporary accommodation "in the regions" is that "a significant number of homelessness applicants who perhaps in reality do have other housing options available to them will be discouraged from making a homelessness application".
SHG also draws on its experience of providing dispersal accommodation to say that moving people out of the borough will see some who are accepted homelessness cases "abandon their out of London allocation of temporary accommodation" and make their own arrangements, further reducing the councils' homeless figures and TA [temporary accommodation] expenditure.
Paul Dimoldenberg, leader of the Labour group at Westminster council, said: "Will Grant Shapps now condemn Westminster council for investigating ways of moving housing benefit claimants to Derby and Nottingham? Or does his fake outrage only stretch to Labour councils which are affected by the government's damaging housing benefit caps?"
Ben Denton, Westminster council's director of housing, worklessness and regeneration, said the council was looking at providing "fair and realistic options for applicants" in a city where "hard-working families are squeezed out of the housing market" and where demand for social housing is "vastly outstripping supply".
"To address a rising demand we and many other London local authorities are looking at temporary housing alternatives outside of the city both in neighbouring boroughs and elsewhere, particularly for those applicants with minimal connections to Westminster," he said.
"At the same time, the majority of our social housing tenants remain in Westminster and our most vulnerable residents continue to be our top priority, living within the city to access council services." He said families with children at crucial stages in their education could be allocated a discretionary payment to allow them to stay in the borough.
The pressure is replicated elsewhere in Greater London. In February it emerged that Croydon was seeking to rent private accommodation in Hull and several other Yorkshire towns.
Labour-run Waltham Forest, in north-east London, has also confirmed it has sent a small number of families to live in accommodation in Luton just over a year ago, and that the council also made efforts to put other people in homes in Kent, but this fell through.
With a housing list of more than 20,000, the borough was "crammed to capacity", a council spokesman said: "We just haven't got the properties in the borough to meet the need." The effects of the housing benefit cap were only just being felt and were expected to make matters worse, he added.
London Councils, the umbrella body for town halls in the capital, was unable to provide an overview of London boroughs seeking to provide housing elsewhere.
A spokeswoman said: "In London there is a shortage of affordable accommodation and a general lack of housing supply.
"Each borough will be taking their own decisions on how to manage the impact of the housing benefit changes. Boroughs are continuing to work closely with claimants, landlords and housing associations to try and minimise the number of people who have to move and the disruption households might experience."
Shelter's chief executive, Campbell Robb, said: "This is the terrifying reality of our housing crisis today – hundreds of families potentially forced to move halfway across the country, uprooted from schools, support networks and employment opportunities.
"Most worryingly, this is only the thin end of the wedge, as further reductions in the housing safety net start to bite over the coming months. The dangerous cocktail of cuts to housing benefit and spiralling rents is making finding a decent home increasingly unaffordable for families across the country. Those unable or unwilling to move away from their local area may be forced to overcrowd or accept a home in appalling conditions to make ends meet."
Shapps defended the idea of the housing benefit cap, which gives maximum allowable rents for properties, for example £400 a week for a four-bedroom property. "It can't be right to have people on housing benefit living on streets which hard-working families cannot afford to live on," he said. The minister told Today that a search of property websites showed hundreds of homes to rent in Newham.
Sir Robin Wales, the elected mayor of Newham, said many of the landlords of these properties would not accept people on housing benefit. He rejected the idea that his borough was merely trying to shift problem families to another area after the borough plans came to light. "No, we've looked at it and we've done the best we can," he said.