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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Westminster council could send homeless families to Coventry” was written by Patrick Butler and Robert Booth, for theguardian.com on Sunday 15th January 2017 15.33 UTC

People who lose their homes in one of London’s richest boroughs could be sent to live in temporary accommodation as far away as Coventry under new plans announced by the City of Westminster.

Westminster council says rising homelessness, coupled with housing benefits cuts and government plans to force local authorities to sell off social housing gives it no option but to place more families outside the capital.

At the moment, 3% of Westminster’s homeless families are rehoused outside Greater London, but this is likely to increase because of rising cost pressures and shortages of affordable local accommodation, it says.

Rehousing homeless families outside the capital has always proved politically controversial, and London authorities have been reluctant to advertise the fact that they have been doing so routinely for some years.

Westminster’s cabinet member for housing, councillor Daniel Astaire, said the council faced intense challenges around housing affordability and difficult choices were inescapable.

“While we always try to provide accommodation for homeless people in Westminster, like many other boroughs of all political persuasions we have to look at identifying suitable homes beyond the city’s boundaries,” he said.

Labour members said the policy “turbo-charged” a recent trend that had seen increasing numbers of people on low incomes driven away from their local communities and family support networks.

There is increasing bitterness among local authorities in the south-east that they are unable to fulfil their own obligations to house homeless families because London councils outbid them for local temporary accommodation.

Research commissioned by Westminster council found that with limited affordable properties available in London, the best opportunities for rehousing homeless families in the south-east were to be found in Slough and Maidenhead.

Westminster’s homeless households would be put into priority bands, with those with extensive care and support needs who would be at risk if they were moved away prioritised for housing in the borough, together with carers and foster carers.

Households with children at key exam stages in local schools and those with jobs in Westminster would be in band two, meaning they would qualify for temporary accommodation elsewhere in Greater London.

All other households would fall into band three, meaning they would be offered private rented homes in south-east England or beyond. The council identified urban areas in the West Midlands as presenting the best opportunities, but noted that the supply of suitable properties were limited in those areas too.

Councils are allowed by law to rehouse households outside the local area, but only in areas where suitable accommodation takes the full range of household members’ needs including health, education and employment into account.

Westminster also says it will seek to make more homeless households the offer of a private rented tenancy rather than more expensive temporary accommodation. Labour pointed out this would mean homeless families would forfeit their right to social housing.

Any properties acquired by the council outside London would be in “more urban and diverse areas where there are more likely to be the health, educational, social and cultural facilities households from Westminster require” and where there were likely to be job opportunities.

The council said it would provide a “wrap-around support service” for families moved beyond the capital, including help to enrol children in schools, find nursery places and register with GPs.

Westminster said the new policy was essential to the cap the spiralling cost of providing temporary accommodation to homeless families, currently £4.3m annually and set to rise to nearly £12m by 2020.

Homeless Westminster families can still choose to be housed in temporary private rented accommodation, but the council says current average waiting times for a social home in the borough range from 10 years for a two-bedroom flat to up to 25 years for a four-bedroom house.

Social security cuts, such as the housing benefit freeze and the extended benefit cap will continue to drive homelessness in the borough, it said. About 60% of its homeless acceptances are currently the result of evictions from private rented homes.

The council says it is unable to keep pace with demand for social housing in central London. It has 4,500 people on its priority list but only between 600 and 800 rented homes become available each year.

The stock of social homes is likely to reduce further, the council says, because it is required under the Housing Act to sell vacant council properties to subsidise the sale of an estimated 120 housing association homes each year under right-to-buy.

Astaire said: “Our new approach will give those who are homeless more certainty over their future by offering secure accommodation sooner. Those with the highest needs will of course be prioritised for available properties in Westminster while an extensive support package will be provided to those who are made private tenancy offers outside.”

Westminster’s Labour opposition leader, councillor Adam Hug, said: “This council’s decades-long atrocious record on building social and genuinely affordable homes combined with the government’s insidious benefit changes have created a perfect storm for Westminster residents in desperate need for temporary accommodation.

“This policy formalises and turbo-charges what has happened in recent years where Westminster residents in temporary accommodation are being sent further and further from home. It is essential that Westminster radically improves its council house building plans and challenges the divisive government policies that underpin these worrying plans.”

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