Westminster Homelessness Strategy: why more ambition is needed

In this piece, Marc reflects on Westminster City Council's Homelessness Strategy 2019 - 2024, Supreme Court judgements and why there must be more ambition to deliver more genuinely affordable social housing

Marc Francis, 27 September 2019

The Supreme Court has been making a bit of a name for itself this week with its judgement on the Prime Minister’s decision to prorogue Parliament.  But in the homelessness sector it made a name for itself way back in 2015, with an equally damning judgement in favour of a Z2K client, Titina Nzolamso, who had challenged Westminster City Council’s ​(WCC) decision to send her and her children to temporary accommodation (TA) in Bletchley near Milton Keynes.  When she refused to accept somewhere so far away, WCC threatened to take her children into care – a classic “gatekeeping” move, first revealed in Ken Loach and Jeremy Sandford’s seminal 1967 TV play Cathy Come Home.

Titina though was undaunted.  And with the help of Doughty Street Chambers, Hodge Jones & Allen and the Shelter Children’s Legal Service, Titina took her case all the way to the Supreme Court – and won!  The now famous Lady Hale, ​and her colleagues concluded that WCC had failed to show it had tried to find her TA somewhere closer to Westminster and so hadn’t followed the Government’s guidelines.  That judgement didn’t just benefit Titina.  It sent a shockwave through Housing Options Services across London and put WCC on notice that it couldn’t just export its homeless families out of London in the way it had intended.

For the next year or so, WCC became a slightly more sympathetic decision-maker.  There was less gatekeeping and most homeless families we saw were at least offered TA in London.  But Westminster has a long history of resisting its responsibilities to homeless people – from opposing the original Homeless Persons Act in 1977 to demanding the holes John Major’s Government tore in the safety net in 1996 and the power to discharge the main homelessness duty – and so we always suspected this more humane approach wouldn’t last, especially in the context of the toxic combination of welfare reform and increasing rents in London’s private rented sector (PRS).

Sure enough, in January 2017, the Cabinet Member authorised a new policy to utilise the Localism Act’s powers to discharge the main homelessness duty through the offer of an Assured Shorthold Tenancy in the PRS much more and formalising the process by which homeless households were to be prioritised for temporary accommodation within Westminster and the Boroughs surrounding it or at least within Greater London.  The thresholds for those two top Bands were so restrictive that few homeless families were expected to get over them.  Most would be consigned to Band 3, where they could expect to be offered TA as far away as Titina was or even as far as the Midlands.

In practice, the offer is sometimes better than the bare minimum allowed.  However, Z2K remains deeply concerned that so many Westminster families are placed in distant outer East and North East London and Essex, where they struggle to maintain links with family support networks and bring their children in to Westminster schools.  That’s why we were really pleased to see Westminster begin consultation this summer on a new Homelessness Strategy and even invite ourselves and other stakeholders to a meeting to discuss it.

Z2K supports the ten worthwhile objectives set out in this draft strategy and the specific proposals within each section.  However, they simply don’t match up to the scale of the homelessness crisis in Westminster as is amply shown in WCC’s own detailed review of it.  It is effectively just a restatement of what is already happening, rather than a blueprint to try to improve the experience Westminster residents go through if they become homeless.  To some extent, this isn’t the fault of the Housing Options Service.  They are trying to solve the homelessness crisis without challenging directly the caps and cuts to Housing Benefit and especially without a step-change in the number of new social rented homes being made available locally.  That’s just not realistic.

Importantly, WCC’s draft strategy doesn’t match the scale of ambition now being demonstrated by other inner-London Boroughs either.  Those authorities are both trying a lot harder to deliver more genuinely affordable social housing and trying to make the experience of homelessness less traumatic, for example, through the provision of a bespoke package of support for homeless families placed out of Borough.  They are also being positive about the new duties to prevent and relieve homelessness introduced by Bob Blackman’s Homelessness Reduction Act 2017.

This might seem too ambitious an agenda.  But Z2K believes it is achievable, and we really hope the Council Leader and Lead Member will look again at these concerns before finalising this strategy.

Z2K’s detailed response to Westminster City Council’s Homelessness Strategy 2019-24 can be found here.