Are riot-related social housing evictions just empty threats?

Social housing providers talked tough after the summer street disturbances. Samantha Thorp asks whether they were empty threats

Social housing providers talked tough after the summer street disturbances. Samantha Thorp asks whether talk of evictions was an empty threat

In a blog written shortly after this summer’s riots, Manchester Council’s leader, Richard Leese, was uncompromising about tenants found guilty of riot-related behaviour. “We have the power to evict people involved in anti-social behaviour and we are ready, willing and able to use that power. Anyone involved in these disturbances or anyone who has allowed their children to be involved needs to understand that we don’t want you in our community.”

Leese was not alone in his opinions and many of the councils affected by the riots were quick to publicly announce their intention to pursue eviction for tenants convicted of riot-related offences. It raised fears among social care and housing professionals that the rehabilitation of problem families could be set back years if they were kicked out of their homes.

However, several months after the riots, no tenants have been evicted as a result of their involvement in the disturbances. Does this mean the tough pronouncements on evictions were empty threats designed for publicity or are councils simply delaying the punishment?

Only two councils, Wandsworth and Greenwich, have started eviction proceedings by issuing a possession notice but neither case has yet proceeded to the county court.

All the other councils involved told Community Care they were still waiting for the outcome of legal proceedings against tenants charged with riot-related offences. However, they made it clear that, as landlords, they would still consider pursuing eviction if there was a conviction but based on the circumstances of each individual case. None of the councils would speak publicly about the criteria they would use when reviewing these cases, although Southwark said it would not evict anybody vulnerable, including children.

Wandsworth was the first council to serve an eviction notice to one of its tenants, Maite de la Calva, in the aftermath of the riots. Her son is due to appear in court in December. A spokesperson maintained the council’s stance on evictions had not changed: “Taxpayer-subsidised accommodation is a privilege not a right – and those people who destroy local businesses [and] trash their neighbourhoods need to understand that the consequences of such unacceptable behaviour is that they run the risk of losing that privilege.”

It is shaping up to be a test case and it is clear they will have a fight on their hands. Emma Norton, a solicitor at human rights campaign group Liberty which is representing de la Calva, says that if Wandsworth pursued eviction it would be failing its duties under the Human Rights Act. “It would be disproportionate and in violation of article 8 for this innocent mother and innocent daughter to be made homeless for the conduct of her son,” she said.

Nushra Mansuri, professional officer at the British Association of Social Workers, agrees: “Councils want to be seen as tough on these people. But I think there are big welfare issues here and it could open up even more social problems.”

However, Grainia Long, interim chief executive at the Chartered Institute of Housing, says the fact that no evictions have taken place is evidence the social housing sector has taken a “pragmatic view” of tenants’ involvement in the riots and evictions would only ever be a last resort. “What we mustn’t forget is that forcibly removing people from their home is incredibly traumatic for the whole household. It can impact them for many years to follow.”

Whether landlords decide to pursue evictions, one of the repercussions of the riots has been a proposed change in the law, published by the government immediately after the riots in August. This would alter the grounds on which a social landlord could seek possession by removing the current requirement that criminal or antisocial behaviour must take place in the “locality” of the tenant’s home.

“Wreak havoc in somebody else’s community and you could lose your home,” warned housing minister Grant Schapps at the time.

Liz Davies, a barrister specialising in social housing, believes such proposals are about punishment rather than ensuring people who live near tenants have peaceful lives. “It’s hard to see the proposals as anything other than punishment and punishment should be dealt with by the criminal justice system,” she says.

But Long is confident that there is little appetite in the sector for such sanctions: “I suspect that housing providers wouldn’t see the need to use that and will continue to do what they have always done by managing the behaviour among their tenants within the locality.”

(pic: Rex Features)

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