News: Is Newham council guilty of "social cleansing"?

Wed, 25 Apr 12

Newham council housing: too expensive for some?

Newham has been accused of 'social cleansing' of tenants after a controversial letter revealed the council’s plans to move its poorest residents to other UK cities, including Stoke-on-Trent, 160 miles away.

The Olympic borough has been attracting headlines in advance of the 2012 games, but they took an unexpected turn when the council admitted that they had written to 1,179 other housing associations to ask if they would be prepared to take on 500 families who can no longer afford to live there.

The letter followed the introduction of a housing benefit cap last year, which limits claimants to £250 per week for a one-bedroom apartment and £400 for a four-bedroom property, reportedly leaving many in London’s poorest borough unable to pay their rent.

Gill Brown, CEO of Brighter Futures housing association in Stoke, denied the request, labelling the proposal as social cleansing: 'I think there is a real issue of social cleansing going on. We are very anxious about this letter which we believe signals the start of a movement which could see thousands of needy people dumped in Stoke with no proper plan for their support or their welfare.'

Newham Mayor Sir Robin Wales told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: 'We have got a waiting list of 32,000 - we’ve got hundreds of people looking for places to stay and the result of government benefit cuts, which are still working through as well, means that many more people from wealthier parts of London are looking for places to live in London and they’re just not there.

'We have written to 1,179 organisations [housing associations] saying could you accommodate some people? We’re not looking to push people all to one place, we’re looking to find the best possible solution for citizens.'

Housing minister Grant Shapps dismissed the actions as politically-motivated in the run-up to the local elections, insisting that there was no justification for the council’s letters and that an internet search revealed almost 1,000 properties available to rent near Newham within the housing benefit cap.

He told the BBC: 'The system is still very generous and I think that Newham are perhaps playing politics, given that we are in an election season, by writing these letters... Not only do I think it’s unfair and wrong, I have also made the legislation and guidance very clear that they are not to do this.'

But The Independent reports that this may not be an isolated incident: '[We have learned of] cases where families in boroughs such as Hounslow and Westminster have been told they may have to move to towns in Staffordshire and Kent respectively. Waltham Forest also admitted it housed 14 families in Luton, five in Margate, and had recently acquired units in Walsall to relocate people to.'

While ‘social cleansing’ may be a term seized upon by election-minded politicians and the media, the furore surrounding Labour’s letters reveals a wider issue: London’s housing market.

As rents increase and construction of new homes falls, there is a marked shortage of housing supply in the face of high demand. According to a diagram by housing charity Shelter, there were 10,281 residents in Newham waiting to be re-housed. Now, there are 32,045.

When the housing benefit cap was announced in 2010, London Mayor Boris Johnson declared: 'The last thing we want to have in our city is a situation such as Paris where the less well-off are pushed out to the suburbs.'

Since then, rents have been driven up by young professionals entering the market as well as the Olympics. Comparing the average rate in Stoke-on-Trent to London, the gap is striking: £475 per month in Stoke compared to £1,980 per month in the capital, according to The Mirror - good news for landlords or overseas investors, but bad news for the people who cannot afford to live there.

As the debate roars on, the Department for Work and Pensions assures the UK that this is being blown out of proportion: 'There is no reason for people to be moved far away - apart from very expensive areas in Central London, around a third of private rented properties are still affordable to claimants,' a spokesperson said, adding: 'We have a discretionary fund of £190million to help families in difficult situations.'

What do you think? Is Newham guilty of 'social cleansing'?

See also: Rents in Newham


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