Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Housing benefit cuts: Tory flagship prepares to give 5,000 households their marching orders” was written by Patrick Butler, for theguardian.com on Friday 1st July 2011 11.42 Europe/London

The mayor of London Boris Johnson notoriously warned that the government’s plans for housing benefit reform would result in a kind of “ethnic cleansing,” driving its poorest residents from their homes in the more expensive central areas of the capital into the outer suburbs. As a piece of rhetoric it was typically over the top, but the central thrust of his complaint, that it would trigger a disruptive, potentially chaotic mass migration of thousands of people, is looking increasingly likely.

That’s not my view, incidentally, but that of Westminster council officials, who drew up a report for an informal meeting of its cabinet in May (the report does not appear to be on its website) assessing the implications of the changes, for the council itself, for children and families, for older people, and for housing and homelessness policy. As you’d expect, it is not comfortable reading. Here is an extract from the executive summary:

“Over 5,000 Westminster households will be affected by the changes and for the majority their current rents will be unaffordable. There are a significant range of variables around the impact of the changes including uncertainty about the response of the private rental market but it is likely that a sizeable proportion of these households will need to move with many of them leaving Westminster when the caps affect current claimants during 2012. Moving out of the borough is likely to be problematic for families with children at critical schooling points and elderly and disabled individuals.”

The report calculates that according to April 2011 figures, 81% of the 6,234 households in receipt of housing benefit renting in the private sector in the borough are getting payments in excess of the government’s cap (between £250 a week for a one bed flat and £400 a week for a four bed home). The majority of these households will see a reduction in benefit of between £84 and £130 a week. Around 12% of households will lose more than £300 a week.

How easy will it be for claimants to accomodate these dramatic drops in income? Not very, according to the report. It quotes Shelter figures which suggest most households in receipt of Local Housing Allowance (LHA) will struggle to cope with shortfalls of more than £10 a week. The future options it sets out for these families are not encouraging:

• Find affordable accommodation within the caps (likely to be outside Westminster);
• Negotiate a lower rent with the landlord;
• Apply to the Council for a Discretionary Housing Payment;
• Move in with family/friends;
• Approach Housing Options for assistance, possibly resulting in a homelessness application.

As you can see there’s only one option that doesn’t involve either flight, homelessness, or other forms of expensive subsidy, and that’s for landlords to voluntarily slash rents to below the benefit cap. The council leadership appears to be desperately hoping that private landlords will ride to its rescue. But its own report suggests landlords, who find themselves with properties in one of the most sought-after areas of the capital at a time when rents are booming, are in no mood to do so:

“The City Council has recently commissioned a survey of private sector landlord activity… Landlords were clearly concerned about the impact of the LHA changes. In terms of their likely response to the changes 13% of LHA landlords (and 6% of landlords overall) would reduce rents but 40% of LHA landlords (53% overall) would leave rents at the same level. Over 80% of LHA landlords thought that if their current tenants could no longer afford the rent, they would end the tenancy.”

What’s really unnerving, however, is the impact on children, families and schools. The report notes, for example, that 500 primary school age children, or roughly one in six currently living in one ward alone, Maida Vale, may have to move out of the borough. Some 4,000 children in all may have to leave. Secondary schools in the borough could see 5% of pupils disappear from their rolls. At least 50 of the 102 children currently on Westminster’s child protection register would be affected by the changes, and as many as 60% of the 52 chaotic families enrolled on the council’s Family Recovery Programme might have to ship out to cheaper areas. The safeguarding risks of this disruption are not noted.

Vulnerable older people and adults with disabilities currently supported at home will also be affected. Around 313 adults aged over 60 are in receipt of housing benefit at levels above the rent caps. Of these, 42 are aged over 80, and 95 are identified as physically frail or suffering from dementia. Some 61 disabled people are affected, including six with a learning disability and 30 with serious and enduring mental health problems. Again, the report does not speculate on the health risks to vulnerable people who may be forced to move.

There will be a glut of homelessness applications from January 2012, says the report, requiring the provision of temporary accomodation for up to 300 households in the borough next year. This, the report, says is affordable within existing budgets, but as long as just four out of the expected 40 monthly applications are accepted. The report warns that acceptances could be as high as 40%, in which case Westminster would need to find 1,500 temporary residences, at a cost of up to £18m.

At least it would mean the families would stay in the borough, you might argue, even if they are in a B&B; but the report points out that from 2013 housing benefit caps will apply to temporary accomodation rents (currently set at £500 a week), and at that point those families will have to be moved on to temporary accomodation outside the borough.

Westminster has made much of its £1.1m Discretionary Housing Payment (DHP) fund to help some of the most vulnerable claimants, such as those with critical health, education or social needs, but this is tiny compared with the £40m annual reduction in benefits. As the report notes:

“Only a small number can be assisted through DHP.”

The council seems to be a bit sensitive a bit over this report, calling it “a worst case scenario [that does]… not reflect the official view of the council” even though it was drawn up for cabinet by its own director of housing. Westminster insists it wants to help as many households as possible to stay using DHP. But this support is critically dependent on landlords reducing rents (which as we’ve seen, looks unlikely). It is also a transitional fund rather than a permanent subsidy. It may make the move out of Westminster less traumatic for some, but it won’t stop the process.

And the upshot of all this? The social composition of Westminster will start to change. The council points out that it has 25,000 households in social housing who won’t be affected by the benefit caps (though some on the right already have ideas as to how this group might be moved on). It aims to build 2,500 social homes in the borough, and says it has a 30% turnover rate in the borough already (although it doesn’t specify who is coming and going)

But change is coming. Within three years, homelessness will start to become a thing of the past, the report predicts, as more people on higher incomes move in. Expensive “problem families,” at-risk children, and older and disabled people requiring intensive home care will be packed off to outer London boroughs and beyond, where they become another council’s responsibility. As young affluent renters move in to Westminster so the demand for council services and public institutions that bind communities – from schools and children’s centres to libraries – will reduce. It will still be Westminster, but not as we know it.

Westminster will not be the only borough affected in this way. As the Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research notes:

“Most inner London boroughs are likely to become almost entirely unaffordable to low-income tenants on LHA by 2016. The large clusters of neighbourhoods in outer East, South and West London which our model finds to remain affordable in 2016 are likely to house increasing numbers of low-income tenants as a result of the reforms. The areas which remain affordable are characterised by high rates of multiple deprivation and unemployment among the existing population. We conclude that the reforms will intensify the spatial concentration of disadvantage in the city, and increase the segregation of poor and better-off households within London.

Update: Friday 1 July, 16.40

I’ve had an email from Tom Chance, a researcher for the London Assembly Green Group, who says:

“In the original BBC London interview he [Boris Johnson] mentioned ‘Kosovo-style ethnic cleansing’ because a previous guest made that allegation and in the interview he clearly says he doesn’t think the reforms will lead to that, that he fully supports the Government and that we just need some mitigation measures which he has been lobbying for.

Basically, a bit more Discretionary Housing Payment direct to landlords and some further exceptions/help for households dependent on local services like schools.

He issued a statement saying “I do not agree with the wild accusations from defenders of the current system that reform will lead to social cleansing. It will not”

The misinterpretation gained traction as another “Boris v.s Dave” story, much to his benefit as it mistakenly paints him as fighting London’s corner against these changes.”

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