Is all that matters that people have a roof over their head?

A recent trend in Barking and Dagenham is the removal of Barking and Dagenham residents. It has been reported by Ken Jones, director of housing and strategy at the council, to be ‘impossible’ to avoid expelling residents to neighbouring boroughs and not-so-neighbouring counties. Even though the law requires authorities to do as much as possible to avoid moving people out, he claims that “as the pressures increase we will be looking to procure well out of London, and even out of the home counties.” [1]

There are simply not enough affordable places to live in the borough. The council is acquiring properties outside of London and relocating people miles away from home. As an example there are currently “households – classed as an individual or a family – from Barking and Dagenham living in temporary accommodation in Thurrock” [2] Interestingly, Barking and Dagenham Council is currently going through a merger with Thurrock Council, where some of these properties have been ‘acquired’. Sending people to another borough, even if they come under the same management umbrella, does not make it close to home –Thurrock is 7 miles from the border of Dagenham, and is not even a Greater London borough.

But what are these pressures Ken Jones is talking about?

The population of the borough has been increasing since 2001, and with high levels of unemployment many people living in this borough have lower than average incomes [3]. However, unlucky for them, council housing began its decline famously during the reign of Margaret Thatcher. Since then, with purchasing your own home becoming the normal thing to aspire to, and living in council housing being stigmatised, the stock of council properties has gradually depleted. In Barking and Dagenham, less than 27% of housing is now council owned [4]. But now, even if it was on the governments agenda to build a load more social housing (which it isn’t), quite frankly they would fail do it quickly enough. Because people are being forced to leave their houses suddenly.

Soon, poorer people will no longer be able to afford renting in the same place they have lived in for years, because the government has changed the rules – they are set to introduce a housing benefit cap by September 2013. Importantly, this could means that the maximum amount of housing benefit for those renting from a private landlord is lower than the rental charge, pushing people into debt and forcing them out of their homes, as evidenced over the last year with the new caps being in place to new applicants of housing benefit [5]. Additionally, if you are living in council housing or a housing association, benefits will be reduced for those deemed to be under-occupying – by 14% if you have one room too many or 25% if you have two over. Inspections will find you deserving of this ‘bedroom tax’ if you have two 16 year old boys with separate rooms, for example and the advice given by the local authority is to move out to somewhere smaller (bearing mind that council housing is hard to come by) or get a lodger [6]. The government is not building new affordable housing, or regulating the rents charged in the private sector, and at the same time they are cutting welfare.

There has been an increase in homelessness in Barking and Dagenham due to high unemployment and lack of social support, aggravated by the economic crisis. Even though rents are cheaper here than most London boroughs, people are still finding it to too high a price to pay. Here, where a high number of people rely on housing benefit to pay their rents, the caps to welfare are forcing even more people onto the streets.

The borough is recognised to have homelessness as a social problem, with a shockingly high number of homeless families being moved into bed and breakfasts as a last resort [7] and a new campaign launched this winter called Warmer Homes Project – a project which calls for volunteers to donate warm clothes, help with fuel bills and check up on elderly or vulnerable people [8] – shows that people can not cope with rising rents alongside rising bills in the context of tightening on welfare. The sudden outward surge has come about due to the coalition, using more stringent and tight-pocketed regulations to punish the poor.

But surely the most important thing is that people are given a roof over their heads?

What is wrong with the council making sure people have a place to live, you may ask. Well, besides where they go being out of people’s control, there is a larger agenda in play. Let’s look at consequences which are likely to come out of some the council’s large-scale regeneration plans. For this example, I am going to use the Gascoigne Estate, one of the largest estates in Europe. By the end of March 2014, the east of the Gascoigne Estate will be demolished. Before the end of 2017, the remaining towers are to go down too. For this to happen there will be a ‘process of decanting council tenants and acquiring leaseholder interests’ [9] as you would expect. But, where are the residents of these 1,301 soon-to-crushed flats to go? Surely if people are being forced out of the borough without their homes being flattened this will cause an enormous exodus of people, which the borough will find impossible to house. Whilst Gascoigne council residents are supposed to get priority housing within the borough, other people who need to move are likely to be sent to the bottom of the list; and for those currently renting in Gascoigne, the future is less certain.

But, surely this is temporary: they are going to get rehoused to Gascoigne aren’t they? First and foremost, the regeneration is expected to take up to ten years to complete. Secondly, the 2,436 dwellings which make it currently one of the most densely populated parts of the borough will surely become fewer once 13 tower blocks are replaced by houses and low-rise apartments [10]. Moreover, at the moment the vast majority these apartments are council owned (only 400 have been brought out through right to buy) [11]. One key objective of the demolition is to diversify tenures. After the renewal programme is complete, it claims, “the Council wishes to build a mixed community, with a variety of tenures living in well designed homes of different sizes and types, supporting high quality local services and dealing with the current economic and social regeneration issues on the estate” [11] that is to say “approximately 33%  social rent, 33 % intermediate tenures (including affordable rent) and 33 % private for sale” [12]. The Council gives assurance that it “has access to the National Affordable Housing Programme Grant to March 2015 and will give consideration to allocating an element (and possibly all) for that tenure” [12]. This is problematic for a straightforward rehousing in two ways. As well as the council occupancy being considerably lower and the promises of social rents being without guarantees, “according to the National Housing Federation, paying an “affordable rent” in a high-value area, such as London, would push a family receiving benefits over the £500-a-week cap [13]. This will make the building of family-sized social homes in London and parts of the south-east less viable.

So, the bigger picture does not look rosy for the current people of the estate, or of Barking and Dagenham in general. As stated on the Council’s website: “A major sustainable community will be developed on land released by Ford in South Dagenham and Barking Town Centre will be revitalised to become the town centre of choice for the new communities” [14]. Who are these new communities who are going to move in? They can’t be the ones who are to be forced out by government plans. With its good transport links to the City, the mass exodus out will, it is hoped for by the local government, leave space for investment and new money in the borough; a so-called “change in the fabric” according to the Gascoigne Regeneration plans [11]. Old for new. Poor for rich.

The plan behind welfare cuts is to push poorer people out – to a place they have no choice in picking – and make the area more ‘desirable’. We are seeing this happen throughout London through forced evictions and re-housing programmes. We can’t just be satisfied that people live somewhere, this is an attack on the have-nots and if we let people be swept out of sight, the blinkered status quo will win.

Sources

[1]http://www.bdpost.co.uk/news/homeless_barking_and_dagenham_families_could_be_moved_miles_out_of_london_1_1683531

[2]http://www.bdpost.co.uk/news/homeless_barking_and_dagenham_families_could_be_moved_miles_out_of_london_1_1683531

[3] http://www.barkinganddagenhamjsna.org.uk/Section1/Pages/Section1-5.aspx

[4] Housing tenure statistics (DCLG, Number of dwellings by tenure and district, England 2010); Barking & Dagenham Housing Strategy 2012; http://www.londoncouncils.gov.uk/londonfacts/londonlocalgovernment/londonmapandlinks/barkingdagenhamstatisticalprofile.htm?showpage=-1/

[5] http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/sep/16/housing-benefits-cap-wretched-duncan-smith

[6]http://www.lbbd.gov.uk/AdviceBenefitsAndEmergencies/HousingBenefit/Pages/HousingBenefitchanges2013.aspx

[7] http://www.joncruddas.org.uk/number-homeless-families-bed-and-breakfasts-%E2%80%98truly-shocking%E2%80%99

[8] http://www.bdcvs.org.uk/index.php?nuc=&id=352,

[9] Barking & Dagenham Housing Strategy 2012

[10]http://www.barkingdagenhampartnership.org.uk/sjeb/Documents/Investing%20in%20BArking%20Town%20Centre.pdf

[11] http://moderngov.barking-dagenham.gov.uk/mgConvert2PDF.aspx?ID=21123

[12] http://england.unitedkingdom-tenders.co.uk/15513_Gascoigne_estate_east_renewal_programme_2012_Dagenham

[13] http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2012/jan/23/welfare-reform-benefit-cap-questions-answers

[14] http://www.lbbd.gov.uk/Regeneration/Pages/home.aspx

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One response to “Is all that matters that people have a roof over their head?

  1. have shared on facebook and on the left unity site there! Well done!

    On 18 February 2013 12:42, Barking and Dagenham Against the Cuts wrote:

    > ** > Barking and Dagenham Against the Cuts posted: “A recent trend in > Barking and Dagenham is the removal of Barking and Dagenham residents. It > has been reported by Ken Jones, director of housing and strategy at the > council, to be impossible to avoid expelling residents to neighbouring > boroughs and not-s”

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