Homeless families in Wandsworth now depend on private landlords for homes. But, Audrey Thompson reports, critics say the council is riding roughshod over homeless people just to save money

Homeless families in Wandsworth now depend on private landlords
for homes. But, Audrey Thompson reports, critics say the council is
riding roughshod over homeless people just to save money.

‘I would encourage all housing authorities to forget their
dreams of building vast new council estates and get on with making
the most of the accommodation they already have on their

This advice from Sue Daniels, housing services director for
Threshold Tennant Trust, comes as the trust is awarded a
£100,000 contract to find private rented accommodation for 200
local homeless families in the London Borough of Wandsworth. The
Conservative-controlled council has also awarded a similar contract
to the Thames National Housing Association to find a further 100

Margaret Mervis, chairperson of Wandsworth’s housing committee,
believes delegating the duty of finding homes for homeless families
to the private sector, while retaining the responsibility for them,
could not be more logical or practical. The council will discharge
a heavily-staffed function to organisations more suited to do the

But many of Wandsworth’s critics doubt the principle of placing
homeless families in private accommodation. What angers them is
that homeless families will no longer be a priority for permanent
council homes, and private accommodation can only ever be
temporary, subject to the discretion and whims of the landlord.

But the principle is openly espoused by Wandsworth. All
concerned will be better off, according to Mervis. Homeless people
will be more comfortable than they would be stuck in a high rise
tower block, it will give a much needed boost to the development of
the private rented sector, and those families languishing on the
housing waiting list, often for several years, will move up the
list far more quickly.

‘We are quite comfortable with the concept if we find proper
professional landlords who accept the obligation to provide a
reasonable standard of housing,’ she says.

It was a House of Lords ruling last year which enshrined the
idea that housing authorities need not place homeless families in
permanent accommodation to fulfil their statutory duties. The
concept forms part of the Housing Bill currently going through
Parliament. But Wandsworth, a council which likes to see itself as
constantly stretching the boundaries, had already been placing
homeless families in privately rented accommodation before the
Lords’ ruling.

‘We don’t move families into a property unless the landlord is
prepared to let it for 12 rather than six months. And we find
people prefer private accommodation to council flats because they
tend to get a house with a garden in a better area,’ says

Wandsworth Council spokesperson Steve Mayner stresses it is not
in the borough’s interests to put people in unsuitable private
accommodation, only to have them back in bed and breakfast soon
after. Wandsworth, which deals with an average of 800 homeless
families each year, estimates it will make an annual saving of
£6 million. Mervis says: ‘Every public sector property that
remains available to us for letting is worth £20,000. So the
saving will be £20,000 multiplied by 300.’

The council will also save on the cost of leasing property for
temporary accommodation. Although 95 per cent of housing benefit is
paid by the government wherever the tenant is placed, temporary
accommodation often requires a council to purchase a three-year
lease in order to manage the property appropriately. In private
accommodation no lease is needed because all management of the
property is carried out by the landlord. As Mervis says: ‘Getting
hold of more private rented housing will save us significant costs
on temporary accommodation.’

One tenant, Hanifa Khan, a married mother of four, is extremely
pleased with the three bedroom house with a garden, in Tooting, to
which she has moved under the initiative. Her family had been
homeless for five years, living in temporary accommodation. In that
time the only permanent council property she was offered was far
too small. It would have meant her four children, aged 16 to 23,
leaving home, and, if the lift had failed in the seven-storey
block, she would have been house-bound by her severe arthritis.

‘There was no shopping area nearby and we do not have a car, and
the children would have had no space to sit and do their homework,’
she says. Needless to say, she turned the offer down. Ironically,
the temporary council accommodation in which Khan and her family
used to live was roomier than their new home, although she does not
regret the move.

On this occasion the new home was found by Wandsworth Council
and the rent is average for the area. But what landlords will
charge is a major worry for groups championing the cause of
homeless people, particularly at a time when housing benefit is
being hacked back to a bare minimum.

Housing benefit regulations have changed so that it only covers
the average rent for an area rather than any amount the landlord
chooses to charge. Katy Snape, a spokesperson for the housing
charity Shelter, says the biggest concern is that the cost of
private accommodation is too high for families who have nothing,
and, if the benefit only covers part of the rent, they will be
unable to make up the shortfall.

Wandsworth insists it has made a commitment that homeless
families will only be moved into private homes charging the
average. Mayner says: ‘We only go for rents within the housing
benefit levels, so there is no danger of placing families in
properties with higher rents.’ Critics argue that there is nothing
to stop landlords increasing the rent once families have moved

Labour’s John Slater, the opposition spokesperson on
Wandsworth’s housing committee, is opposed to the moves because of
the insecure nature of private tenancies. ‘Families in the hands of
private landlords could be homeless again in a couple of years and
I think it likely that a lot of them will be.

‘The reason there is a lot of letting at the moment is because
people cannot sell their houses. As soon as the market picks up
landlords will want to realise their capital and sell up.’
Children’s schooling, parents’ jobs and the health of families will
be severely disrupted as families constantly move house, he says,
and hard-earned friendships will be sacrificed.

Instability is also the concern of the Association of London
Government. Gwyneth Taylor, the ALG’s housing policy officer, is
unconcerned whether families are placed in private or council
property, as long as they are not moved into insecure
accommodation. The ALG is developing ground rules, to be agreed by
its local authority members, when dealing with homeless

‘We want to ensure that families get full support for reasonably
secure accommodation, are given as much choice as possible and that
the property is suitable. And we wish to ensure that families are
not placed outside their home borough,’ she says.

But Wandsworth is confident the majority of landlords will not
evict at the end of the first period. ‘What would be the point if
the rent is paid regularly and families are reasonable tenants?’
says Mervis.

What is clear is that the two opposing camps which have emerged
are unlikely to find middle ground. Those opposed to handing
homeless families over to the private sector believe the policy
proves there is a crying need for decent social housing. Not tower
blocks, not ‘vast new council estates’, but homes built to secure
the future of some of the most vulnerable members of society.

Equally adamant, though, are those who insist it is not the
business of the state to build houses, because it has made such a
mess of it in the past. ‘Municipal housing estates are a social
disaster we would not think of repeating,’ says Mervis. ‘It is now
the job of housing associations which are more suited to the task
of building social housing.’

Sue Daniels says compromise is inevitable. ‘Homeless and
poorly-housed people have the right to a decent, affordable and
permanent home, but where these are not available we must explore
other ways of providing housing.’

But, as Mayner admits, the need to reduce the housing waiting
list lies behind the initiative. Vulnerable families used to go
straight to the head of the queue, but the government wants the
practice to end. Mayner says: ‘This means applicants on housing
waiting lists will get more priority for council housing. Homeless
families tend to get greater priority and squeeze out people who
are as worthy and have been waiting years.’

But Joe Oldman, a homelessness campaigner for the housing
charity CHAR, asks who has the greatest need? ‘It’s a myth to
believe authorities automatically provide accommodation to homeless
families. They, like those on the waiting list, have often spent
years in temporary accommodation and have their names on the
waiting list.

‘We believe there is a mechanism for allocating decent housing
and it’s not a short cut, that is to give homes to those who are
most in need – the homeless.’Nick Dawe’The reason there is a lot of
letting is because people cannot sell their houses. As soon as the
market picks up landlords will want to sell up’In from the cold:
inside a homeless families hostel.

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