Whose priority, Southwark council?

One of our HASL families has finally secured the priority they are entitled to under Southwark council’s housing allocations policy (well, mostly!)

Earlier this year, a family with two dependent children came to a HASL meeting to talk about the state of the private rented accommodation they’ve been forced to live in off the Old Kent Road – an area notorious for overcrowded housing and Houses of Multiple Occupation. The family have been in band 3 with no priority on the housing waiting list for years and were stuck not quite knowing how best to progress their case with the council and how they could better their living conditions.

In June, the family submitted an online ‘change of circumstance’ form on the council’s website in order to apply for higher priority on the council waiting list for social housing, in line with the council’s housing allocations policy – the full policy which can be found here.  *N.b. – judging from the council’s cabinet meeting documentation on their website, it looks like the council is currently consulting on its policy with cabinet decisions due in summer 2018. Our worry is that people who find themselves struggling with homelessness (for any reason, such as being overcrowded, in unsafe accommodation, fleeing domestic violence, being evicted with nowhere else to go etc) will be de-prioritised.

As part of a policy many local government institutions are following, doing things online was supposed to make things easy and quicker, but this turned out not to be the case because it doesn’t change the practice of gatekeeping councils use to deny support to marginalised groups of people.

After submitting another ‘change of circumstance form’ in August and visiting the council to provide further supporting evidence, the council still didn’t respond to discuss the family’s needs or the ‘priority stars’. (Although all council housing allocations schemes must provide  ‘reasonable preference’ for people falling into certain categories set out in the Housing Act 1996 e.g. homeless people, people who need to move on welfare grounds, not every council operates a ‘priority star system’ – Southwark does, but Lambeth doesn’t, for example.)

Over the next three months of having no support from the council, we decided to go directly to senior housing staff who we’ve encountered before in previous cases and actions in an effort to move things along. After several back and forths, the council were initially only happy to award a priority star to the family for being a ‘working household’ – itself a very questionable reinforcement of the ‘work ethic’ we hear politicians emphasis: ‘work for your benefits’, ‘work to be awarded better’, which simply punishes and disciplines already vulnerable people. The working household star applied to the family because they ‘met the criteria’ i.e. worked over 16 hours/week for at least 9 of the last 12 months and were over 18 years of age.

The family also qualified for the ‘community contribution star’ as well as having higher priority based on medical and welfare needs, and overcrowding, but the council initially refused to budge and kept delaying the awards by continuing to request information that had been submitted in person and online many times previously. Despite this we kept pushing, knowing that the council hopes people will just give up or disappear even though they could well be eligible, according to the policy’s own terms, to priority because of their needs and current housing situation.

One tactic which has helped move councils into action and stop them mucking around with excuses has been to submit formal complaints. We submitted two during October and November on how the council was treating the family and denying them the priority status they qualified for, and this seemed to help nudge the decisions in the right way – the family were later told that the council had moved them into band 2, with two priority star awards! This means that the family will have significantly better chance of bidding on suitable long-term social housing and that the process to get this should be quicker, which is great news for our members!

However, something Southwark remains very resistant on is the issue of overcrowding. In their housing allocations scheme, band 1 is given to people who are ‘statutorily overcrowded’ (defined by part X of the Housing Act 1985) and have not caused this statutory overcrowding by a ‘deliberate act.’ For anyone that follows us knows, many of our members spent and continue to spend, time challenging Southwark’s erroneous decisions on overcrowded households, but we’ve had a good deal of success as a group taking collective action on this issue.

And this family’s case is no different. After a senior housing officer was asked to properly assess the accommodations, he stated that the family were not statutorily overcrowded. This was the same response to the overcrowding point in our first complaint to the council. The line the council are taking is clearly wrong – the family is a couple with two children sleeping in a one-bedroom flat, with a small separate washroom/toilet and the rest comprising a small open plan kitchen.

The council says that the two children (one 16 years old and the youngest 4 years old) can sleep in the bedroom or in the kitchen, as it counts as a ‘living room’, but this honestly cannot be the case! Asking the parents or the children to sleep in the kitchen, seriously? The family have quite rightly stressed that this is not good for anyone, so they all sleep in the small bedroom, which is also very unsuitable. This living arrangement is having a huge effect on the family and their health and ability to function at school and work – it’s stressful, unhealthy, and unacceptable.

A review and second stage complaint has been submitted in an attempt to put pressure on the council and resolve this issue so that the family get the increased priority they should have in band 1, or at the very least a further priority star.

So, good news, but also some more action left to do, but hopefully the status the family has now will help them into better, secure and long-term housing, a lot sooner!

To help support each other, listen to our experiences, share knowledge and take action together, join your local grass roots direct action housing group – run collectively by the people affected!

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