UK & World News
'Social Cleansing' Row Over Council Houses
A London council has come under fire for appealing to housing associations across the country to take some of their families on housing benefit.
Newham Council says it has hundreds of people looking for places to live, partly due to the Government cap on housing allowances.
It has written to more than 1,100 housing associations to ask if they can accommodate some of its citizens in the hope of slashing the queue.
One of the organisations contacted called the approach "social cleansing" and accused the borough of trying to "dump" vulnerable or difficult families onto other regions.
Newham Council offered to pay the Brighter Futures housing association in Stoke-on-Trent 90% of the local housing allowance, plus £60 each week.
It is thought this would save the London borough more than £5,000-a-year for a family living in a three-bedroom house.
Mayor of Newham, Sir Robin Wales, said he was not "particularly keen" on the policy but insisted the council had no choice, placing the blame on the Government.
"We have hundreds of people looking for places to stay and the result of Government benefit cuts... mean many more people from wealthier parts of London are looking for places to live and they are just not there," he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
"We have written to 1,179 organisations saying could you accommodate some people. We are not looking to push people off to one place but to find the best possible solution for our citizens."
He described the overcrowding as "appalling", citing one property where 38 people - including 16 children - were living.
"With that sort of level of housing need, clearly we have to find another solution. We have one of the poorest areas in the country, we have massive overcrowding," the mayor added.
"The people who are here we are trying to deal with and what happens... the Government then pursue policies that push people out from the centre of London to here."
Housing benefit was capped at £400-a-week for a four-bed house last April as part of wider coalition plans to slash billions from the welfare bill.
Housing Minister Grant Shapps insisted this was still far more than ordinary working families could hope to spend and accused the Labour-controlled council of "playing politics" ahead of local elections.
"Even after all these different benefit reforms, what we are talking about is nearly £21,000 a year being payable to rent through housing benefit - a sum that most people would be amazed about," he said.
"It cannot be right to have people on housing benefit able to live on streets and in homes that hard working people are unable to live in themselves.
"The system is still very generous and Newham is perhaps playing politics."
Mr Shapps said a third of homes in the Newham area, which is the borough of the London Olympics, fall within the cap imposed by the Government.
Newham Council stressed that its appeals related to people, such as the homeless, who are in immediate need rather than those who have been on the waiting list for years.
In a statement, a spokesman said: "We are committed to securing the very best accommodation for our people in tough economic times.
"However, the Government's decision to cap housing benefit payments is exacerbating the problem and making it harder for low-income families to get a roof over their head.
"Newham - along with other London councils - is under significant pressure. We are doing everything we can to ensure we have good quality, affordable housing which is fairly distributed...
"Alongside a number of other London councils, we are also exploring the option of working with housing associations outside the borough to house people with an immediate need in the private sector, when there is no other alternative."
Mayor of London Boris Johnson has previously warned the cap could lead to "Kosovo-style social cleansing" and expressed fears about its impact on the capital.
And last summer, it emerged Communities Secretary Eric Pickles had warned that it could lead to tens of thousands of families losing their homes.
Following the row, it emerged Westminster Council currently has 13 families living outside London and is looking to expand this with Nottingham and Derby potential locations.
Its director of housing, worklessness and regeneration, Ben Denton, said: "As hard working families are squeezed out of the housing market and with the demand for social housing vastly outstripping supply, the council is looking at providing fair and realistic options for applicants wishing to live in central London.
"To address this rising demand we and many other London local authorities are looking at temporary housing alternatives outside of the city both in neighbouring boroughs and elsewhere, particularly for those applicants with minimal connections to Westminster."