Loose connections spark housing crisis as Westminster seeks help

Westminster Council has called for an overhaul of local connection rules to tackle pressure on social housing. Gordon Carson reports

Local connection rules are supposed to ensure that homeless people can be housed in areas where they have strong links.

But last week’s report by Westminster Housing Commission, set up to consider how the central London borough can tackle its
housing crisis
, showed that these rules can put authorities’ housing stock under even more pressure and do nothing to ease homelessness.

The commission said many people who arrive in Westminster can establish a connection with the area simply by finding private rented housing or sharing with friends for six out of the previous 12 months, meaning they can then qualify for a permanent home.

But this causes feelings to “run high” among other homeless families, and families already in overcrowded social housing, who have to wait longer for suitable homes.

Councils set their own local connection criteria and most say applicants must have stayed in an area for six of the previous 12 months, or three of the previous five years, to qualify for housing. If they have stronger links to another area, they
will be referred there instead.

But the commission says that, to counter situations such as that in Westminster, the government should change policy so people have to prove long-standing links.

It suggests there should be a national standard stating that only people who have stayed in an area for at least 18 months during a threeyear period should qualify.

Jeremy Swain, head of charity Thames Reach Bondway and a commission member, says this would relieve the pressure on Westminster from people like students, who should be housed outside the borough.

Westminster also accepts a far greater proportion of households, 17 per cent, who have no connection with the area, than the London average, which is just 2.5 per cent.

Swain says this is because more “transient” people apply to Westminster and they often have no more of a connection with any other area, meaning the council cannot refer them elsewhere.

To tackle this, the commission recommends that responsibility for people who are homeless and have no local connection anywhere should be shared across London.

Westminster could do with some help. There are more than 3,000 families in temporary accommodation  in the area, 2,000 of whom are living in “really overcrowded” conditions, says Angela Harvey, the council’s cabinet member for housing.

It doesn’t help that Westminster has proportionately less social housing than the rest of inner London, and much of its social and private housing isn’t suitable for families; almost nine in 10 of the 115,000 homes in the borough are flats, and
most have four rooms or less.

Harvey says help from other London boroughs is essential if Westminster is to be able to provide sufficient housing for homeless families and retain a good social mix.

“We don’t want a polarisation of the most vulnerable and the very rich,” she says.

Homeless Head Count
● More than half of homeless households in England in 2005 had dependent children.
● 35 per cent were accepted due to old age, physical disability, mental illness or domestic violence, or because they were young.
● 150,000 households, mostly families with children, were overcrowded in London in 2001.
Source: Westminster Housing Commission

Further information
Analysis of the latest government homelessness statistics

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