Westminster council proposes reduction in homeless responsibility

Residents would need to live in the borough for three years to qualify for council rehousing help

RESIDENTS hit hardest by the government’s planned housing benefit cap could be left homeless under radical proposals from Westminster Council.

Letters sent by housing boss Cllr Philippa Roe to government housing minister Grant Shapps reveal Westminster is asking for support in introducing a number of measures to reduce the council’s responsibility to the homeless.

In the letters Cllr Roe suggests three “associated changes” – including an extension to the time period residents need to have lived in the borough in order to qualify for Westminster rehousing from six months to three years.

Furious critics argue the proposals echo the policies implemented by disgraced Westminster Council leader Shirley Porter in the late 1980s, which saw homeless voters moved outside the borough in order to ensure Conservative votes.

Westminster North MP Karen Buck says Cllr Roe’s suggestions reek of hypocrisy after the council supported Chancellor George Osborne’s housing benefit cap.

“Publicly the council is saying it wants the cap but privately they are saying in order to make it work we need to tear up homelessness protection,” she said. “Westminster doesn’t take a particularly large number of homeless households compared to other parts of London. It’s a complete myth.

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“You only need to look at the figures to see other local authorities have a much larger share. All they want to do is shuffle out of their responsibility.”

Ms Buck says figures which show just 14 per cent of Westminster’s private rental sector are on local housing allowance – fewer than 24 other London boroughs – prove Westminster is not being taken advantage of by people on benefits.

Writing to housing minister Mr Shapps, Cllr Roe suggests “a new power to discharge our duty to house homeless families into the private sector” and an amendment to guidelines in order to allow the council to “house families outside the borough”.

Speaking to the Wood&Vale, Cllr Roe says her suggestions are aimed at removing the council’s responsibility to newcomers to the area, allowing a focus on the needs of genuine long-term Westminster residents.

“People can currently walk into Westminster from anywhere in the world, be here for just six months and we have the duty to house them even though they may be going on the list ahead of local residents who have been here for years,” she said.

“We want the flexibility to put local people first and a change in the criteria to three years would at least make people show they have a real connection to the area. Demand is always going to outstrip supply.

“The only way we will be able to tackle the housing issue is to use the private sector.”

Ms Roe also said Westminster is building 2,500 affordable new homes in the next seven years – “the largest number of new homes for a generation” – which exceeds central government expectations.

But Cllr Paul Dimoldenberg, leader of Westminster Labour Group, hit back at Cllr Roe’s comments saying Westminster is simply not prepared to take responsibility for its share of those in housing need.

“This is about putting homeless people and those on low incomes out of Westminster,” he said.

“She is trying to shift responsibility from Westminster and put it onto other London boroughs or tenants themselves.”