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Can we afford to lose local authority housing?

A lack of investment in truly affordable housing means that many more Londoners will be priced out of the capital.

social housing, housing, housing and planning bill, cressingham gardens, heygate, aylesbury, estate, displacement, housing crisis, demolition, homelessness

Residents and campaigners march to Lambeth Town Hall in a bid to save their estate from planned demolition, Brixton, London. Photo credit to Susanne Hakuba, www.susannehakuba.com

On Wednesday George Osborne announced the doubling of the housing budget to address the UK’s housing crisis. £2billion will go straight to developers to incentivise the building of new starter homes in an attempt to realise the vision of a ‘home-owning democracy’. The proposed £450,000 price cap means however that for many the new starter homes will be prohibitively expensive. Moreover yesterday’s proposals offer no reprieve for those struggling to pay inflated rents in the capital.

Parts of London such as Southwark and Lambeth are already experiencing state-led gentrification due to a potent mix of government policy, cuts to local authority budgets and international investment. This has so far seen a reduction in social housing, increased private rental and rising rates resulting in the displacement of low-income groups.

The government is set to accelerate this. In yesterday’s autumn statement George Osborne announced his plan to pay for services by selling off local authority assets. This is in addition to current proposals in the Housing and Planning Bill to sell off local authority accommodation to pay for the right-to-buy of housing association homes at discounted rates and new ‘affordable’ builds. The loss of more local authority housing would be devastating for many and remove existing protections for the poor and ‘vulnerable’ from dispossession and homelessness.

For the moment however, council estates remain home to a large number of Londoners and offer secure and truly affordable accommodation. This autumn we carried out research looking into the role social housing and the law currently play protecting those on low incomes, as well as the experiences and circumstances of tenants and the reasons for rent arrears.

Our findings suggest that owing to cuts to benefits and services local authority housing plays an essential role ensuring basic support needs of the poor and/or disabled are met. Unlike private and some housing association landlords, a local authority cannot evict a secure tenant for rent arrears unless they can demonstrate that it is reasonable in all circumstances for a possession order to be made. Even then, so long as the tenant agrees to make regular payments towards the debt, they will not be evicted from their homes.

This safeguard is essential for those on low incomes and/or benefits. For those already short of money, a sudden change in personal circumstances such as a relationship breaking down, bereavement or illness can quickly lead to rent arrears. Without the protection provided by local authority housing and the law many would find themselves destitute and unable to enter the private rental sector.

We also found that work doesn’t necessarily pay. Sixty-seven per cent of those we observed facing a possession order in court were in full or part-time work.  Of those in full employment, particularly in care and service industries such as nursery nurses, teaching assistants, and cleaners, it was apparent that they were not paid enough to cover council tax, utility bills, food, travel and rent even when living in subsidised housing. Those on part-time or zero hours contracts also reported struggling to budget and manage rent payments due to precarious working conditions and inconsistent hours, while delays in housing benefit payments for over 50% of those observed were the original cause of rent arrears.

The research underlines the importance of retaining council housing. This is important for the UK as a whole, but especially important in the context of London where property prices and rents are some of the highest in the world, and where council estates are being demolished and regenerated for a new class of resident. If we believe that London and other British cities should be sustainable for all social groups then the government’s plans to sell off social housing as a short term fix to address the deficit should be fought at all costs.

Read the research report here: Why We Can’t Afford to Lose it: Local Authority Housing in London Protects the Poor from Homelessness 

For more information about the project please contact Dr H White and Professor Loretta Lees.

Government plan to close Lambeth County Court will leave court users struggling to get justice

  • Government proposal to close Lambeth County Court will make it harder for those facing eviction to mount an effective legal challenge.
  • Proposal to close courts is based on ‘wildly optimistic’ estimates of journey times for court users.

 

People battling eviction proceedings in South London will face greater hurdles to keeping their homes if government plans to close down courts and tribunals in London go ahead.

Credit to secretlondon123. Used under Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Lambeth County Court, London

Lambeth County Court, one of the country’s  busiest courts when it comes to housing possession cases  and evictions, is among 10 courts and tribunals in London slated for closure under the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) ‘Estate Reform Programme’.

Under the MoJ’s proposal Lambeth County Court’s workload will be moved to Wandsworth County Court, leaving those who would attend proceedings at Lambeth facing longer journey times, and putting a greater strain on resources at Wandsworth. The proposal also fails to take into account the true length of time it would take those using Lambeth County Court to attend Wandsworth.

Stuart Hearne, the manager of the Cambridge House Law Centre in Camberwell, said:  “Taking someone’s home away from them is a serious legal sanction and anyone facing eviction deserves to be able to put their case forward and have a fair hearing.

“The current system is already under strain and closing Lambeth County Court will seriously affect access to justice for people in the local area. It will mean anyone who has to go to court to challenge an eviction order will have to travel further and face a court that is even more overloaded.

“The government’s proposal seems to suggest that closing Lambeth will only marginally affect court users, but in fact it will increase journey times quite considerably and make it more difficult for people to attend hearings that can dramatically affect their lives. The government’s estimates of how long it would take court users to attend Wandsworth County Court instead of Lambeth seem to me to be wildly optimistic.”

The government says court users will be only marginally affected by its proposed closures because London’s public transport system makes it relatively easy for people get to a different court.

But data compiled by Cambridge House – using the postcodes of court users, rather than the generalised data used by the MoJ – shows this to be an inaccurate assessment. For example:

  • A journey from SE1 5RB in Bermondsey that currently takes 44 minutes by bus one way to Lambeth County Court, would take 1 hour 36 minutes one way to Wandsworth County Court;
  • A journey from SE15 6AX in Peckham that currently takes 39 minutes by bus one way to Lambeth County Court, would take 1 hour 45 minutes one way to Wandsworth County Court;
  • A journey from SE16 2XH in Rotherhithe that currently takes 53 minutes by bus one way to Lambeth County Court, would take 1 hour 49 minutes one way to Wandsworth County Court;
  • A journey from SE21 8HS that currently takes 40 minutes by bus one way to Lambeth County Court, would take 1 hour 15 minutes one way to Wandsworth County Court.

The concern is that the closure of Lambeth County Court will lead to an increase in evictions and homelessness putting an even greater strain on already stretched resources.

NOTES FOR EDITORS

Cambridge House Law Centre

Cambridge House is a south London charity based in the heart of the borough of Southwark. Since 1889, Cambridge House has stood up for those who lack the ability and capacity to protect their own rights. By offering free expert legal advice and professional advocacy services we ‘give voice’ to the most vulnerable people in our society, increase access to justice for those without the means to pay, promote social inclusion, tackle inequality and address gaps in statutory provision.

The MoJ’s proposal

The MoJ’s proposal documents for its Estate Reform Programme can be found here.

London’s Dispossessed: Local authority possession orders and homelessness in South London

Cambridge House receives funding from Leicester University to carry out research on housing in South London

The London housing crisis shows no sign of abating. Average property prices have reached nearly half a million while increasing numbers of people are being priced out of the rental market. At the same time social housing is in decline, and Government ‘reforms’ intended to cut the welfare bill such as the bedroom tax, benefits cap and recent withdrawal of tax credits have hit the poorest hardest. This has seen rising homelessness, displacement and overcrowding with central London becoming, according to Matthew Taylor in last weekend’s Observer, a no-go zone for below average income households.

Cambridge House image

Aylesbury Estate, London Borough of Southwark

Southwark where Cambridge House is based, is also undergoing rapid transformation as a result of Government policy and foreign investment. For the moment it remains polarised with areas of extreme wealth and poverty. The most deprived wards (Camberwell, Faraday, Peckham and Livesey) sit sandwiched between the recently regenerated south bank of the Thames (City Hall) and the leafy suburbs to the South. This however is set to change. Southwark Council one of the largest social landlords in the UK has been selling off run-down accommodation it can no longer afford to maintain. This has seen developers moving in to take advantage of the investment opportunities presented by estates such as the Heygate and Aylesbury situated less than a mile away from the river.

There is an emergent academic literature examining how the ‘new’ urban renewal is encouraging the gentrification of previously devalued council estates and its impact (Hyra 2008; Watt 2009; Lees 2014). However, less is known about who is at threat from eviction or homelessness or the effects on the individual. Further, there has been little investigation into how service providers should respond in order to best support vulnerable residents and adapt services to the challenges and requirements of living (or attempting to stay) in the capital.

Cambridge House is pleased to announce that it has recently received funding from the University of Leicester to help plug this gap. Working with Professor Loretta Lees an urban geographer who specialises in gentrification and urban regeneration and supported by Cambridge House Law Centre, the research will provide in depth insight into the experiences and circumstances of those facing the threat of eviction or who are already homeless in South London.

The research objectives are as follows:

  • To establish who is vulnerable from eviction and/or homelessness and why
  • To examine the personal impact of possession orders and homelessness on the individual
  • To determine in what ways service providers can better support those at threat from, or who are already, homeless

If you wish to find out more about the research or would like to be involved please contact  hwhite@ch1889.org

Can the Supreme Court stop austerity hitting the vulnerable hardest?

Credit to Rob Young. Used under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

The Supreme Court

Last month the Supreme Court delivered a land mark ruling in homelessness law. The case of Mr Kanu, demonstrates how far some cash strapped Council’s had squeezed the definition of vulnerability in order to avoid treating those with a physical disability or mental health issues as having priority need. With a further 12 billion in benefit cuts on the horizon, widening inequality and rising homelessness we ask: can we rely on the law to protect our most vulnerable?

Under the Cameron administration, homelessness has now reached crisis point. Crisis and Shelter, report that rough sleeping has increased by 37% over the last three years, and last year more than 130,000 people approached their local authority as homeless (equivalent to the population of Cambridge).

Under the Housing Act 1996, local authorities have a duty to ensure accommodation for people who are homeless and in ‘priority need’. However housing shortages and spending restrictions have meant that the definition of ‘priority need’ had become the critical factor in determining who is entitled.

From 1998 a precedent referred to as the ‘Pereira Test’ had been used to assess an individual’s circumstances. Lady Brenda Hale, Deputy President of the Supreme Court, summed this up: “We had reached the point where decision–makers were saying, of people who clearly had serious mental or physical disabilities, that ‘you are not vulnerable, because you are no more vulnerable than the usual run of street homeless people in our locality’”.

Last month’s judgement throws the state’s failure to protect its most vulnerable citizens into stark relief. In early 2011, an eviction notice was served to Mr Patrick Kanu (the successful appellant) and his family. Mr Kanu was already facing debilitating health issues, including mental health concerns. He initially sought support, but was rejected by the local authority. Later that year, Mr Kanu applied again when facing street homelessness. The Local Authority refused his application on the basis that he was not considered “in priority need”.

Mr Kanu approached Cambridge House, who provided Mr Kanu, with legal advice and representation.  By this time, Mr Kanu’s health was seriously deteriorating, suffering from chronic pain, hepatitis B, and levels of hypertension flagged by his GP as “dangerous”. Even more troublingly, Mr Kanu was experiencing severe mental health issues, including bouts of psychosis, attempted self-harm (often only prevented by Mr Kanu’s wife), and suicidal thoughts. Despite the Local Authority’s own Medical Assessment Service recommending his categorisation as in “priority need”, it decided that he was not sufficiently ‘vulnerable’ to be eligible for housing. The reason given was that Mr Kanu could cope with the effects of homelessness and in any event because he was married his wife could assist him.

The Housing Act 1996 states that Local Authorities have a duty to ensure that vulnerable homeless people who are not intentionally homeless are supported into housing. In Mr Kanu’s case this vulnerability was clearly significant. Yet, it was only after four years and against a backdrop of increasingly severe health issues that Mr Kanu’s won his appeal in the Supreme Court.  Sadly, the extent of Mr Kanu’s vulnerability became clear shortly after the Supreme Court judgement. Only 3 days later, Mr Kanu died aged 48 provoking the question: ‘How vulnerable is vulnerable enough?’

Under the new ruling, the Supreme Court has done away with the previous case law, including the Pereira Test, and specifically rejected some of the expressions used in homelessness cases such as “street homelessness” and “fend for oneself”. They have also abolished the use of statistics (a particularly blunt way of establishing ‘ordinary’ levels of vulnerability), and re-established the intended meaning of a “person who is vulnerable” under the Housing Act 1996. Critically, as Lady Hale commented, this means that vulnerability will now be established in comparison “with ordinary people generally”, not “ordinary homeless people”.

Despite the positive precedent established on May 13th, as local authorities brace themselves for the £12bn in welfare cuts stories like Mr Kanu’s are likely to become more rather than less common. The disturbing possibility is that, in the face of single-minded austerity, the law will not protect the most vulnerable. Either the government must accept the cost of caring or the stark reality of the cost of cutting – for our most vulnerable the threat of deprivation and destitution.

Supreme Court announces historic decision on priority need for vulnerable homeless

Landmark homelessness case to improve right to housing for people in priority need, successfully pursued by Cambridge House Law Centre

Homlessness, disability, supreme court, priority need, vulnerability, Credit to Franco Folini. Used under Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Street homeless: vulnerable?

For the first time since the homelessness provisions came into force in 1977 the meaning of ‘vulnerability’ has been considered by the highest court in the land. This is of critical important for homeless people, particularly those with disabilities who do not have children and other groups who are often not considered in “priority need”.

Increasingly vulnerable single homeless people have been refused housing and left to fend for themselves as cash strapped councils have turned away people with disabilities on the basis they are not a priority because they are able to cope or at least cope as well as an ‘ordinary homeless person’.

The Supreme Court was asked to decide how Local Authorities should approach the statutory test of vulnerability contained in the Housing Act 1996. Under the Act a homeless person without children is considered to be in priority need for accommodation if they are “vulnerable as a result of old age, mental illness or handicap or physical disability or other special reason” S189(1)(c) HA 1996. In a series of appeals brought by Southwark and Solihull Councils, the Court of Appeal had previously ruled that a person was deemed to be vulnerable and in priority need, only if they would suffer more than an “ordinary street homeless person”.

The Supreme Court allowed the appeal of Mr Patrick Kanu against Southwark Council’s decision that he was not in priority need for housing finding that his suffering should not have been compared with a street homeless person, but rather an ordinary person who stood to lose his accommodation. The Court also rejected the submission that the Equality Act 2010 could never add anything in vulnerability cases and that instead each case should be received on an individual basis.

In response to today’s judgement Mr Stuart Hearne of Cambridge House Law Centre, and the case lawyer stated:

“This is a very welcome judgement. I would hope that it will also be welcomed by Local Authorities. It will make it much clearer who should be assisted. In the past Local Authorities were having to compare homeless applicants with other homeless people to consider who is more vulnerable – this was a very difficult decision and one that led to disputes and some very disabled people being refused accommodation. It is not in anyone’s interest, including that of Local Authorities, that people who have disabilities or mental health issues should not be housed or left street homeless.

Rough sleepers have a lower life expectancy than the general population and are more likely to have mental and physical health problems.

This decision should now mean that the vast majority of homeless people who have a physical disability or have mental ill health should be accepted as being in priority need for accommodation”.

Available for comment:

Stuart Hearne Cambridge House Law Centre Manager and Case Solicitor

shearne@ch1889.org

Karin Woodley Chief Executive of Cambridge House

Kwoodley@ch1889.org

Notes to editor

The Supreme Court, in three appeals heard together, Kanu v Southwark LBC, Hotak v Southwark LBC and Johnson v Solihull BC was asked to decide how Local Authorities should approach the statutory test of vulnerability contained in the Housing Act 1996.

Mr Patrick Kanu had physical problems: including hepatitis B and hypertension as well as psychotic symptoms and suicide ideation.  He was cared for by his wife but despite her care, stress was raising his hypertension to what doctors characterised as “quite dangerous levels”.   Southwark Council had accepted that Mr Patrick Kanu would be in priority need for accommodation if he was on his own but decided that as he had a wife then he was not in priority need.

Mr Sifatullah Hotak is an adult with significant learning difficulties, with measured IQ on one test of 47 and a history of self-harming and depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.  His brother, Ezatullah looked after him but was also homeless.  Southwark Council decided that as Mr Hotak had a brother to care for him he was not considered to be in priority need.

The Court has overturned previous case law and guidance and has now established that:

  1. An authority’s duty to the homeless under Part VII Housing Act 1996 is not to be influenced or affected by the resources available to the authority.
  2. The correct comparator when assessing whether someone is vulnerable for the reasons in s189 (1)(c ) is an ordinary person if made homeless.
  3. Support from a third party can be taken into account when assessing whether a person is vulnerable but that needs to be applied with “considerable circumspection” and that the fact of support in itself is not enough.
  4. In the case of an applicant who has or may have a disability then at each stage of the decision making process the decision maker must have due regard to the need to achieve the goals of the Equality Act 2010 which include the need to eliminate discrimination, advance the equality of opportunity between those that have a disability and those that do not and to take active steps to meet the needs of those with a disability. S149 (1) (a)- ( c) Equality Act 2010.
  5. That the consideration of the public sector equality duty must be exercised “in substance, with rigour and with an open mind”.

The full judgment can be downloaded from the Supreme Court website:

https://www.supremecourt.uk/news/latest-judgments.html

Mr Patrick Kanu was represented by Mr Stuart Hearne of Cambridge House Law Centre.  His barristers were Mr Zia Nabi of Doughty Street Chambers and Ms Helen Mountfield QC of Matrix Chambers.

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