Families forced to move: Great opportunity - or social cleansing?
It sounds like something from a different age or of a war-torn country, conjuring up images of displaced refugees looking to rebuild their lives.
But according to Councillor Shaun Davies it is happening right here in Shropshire. Low-income families from London, unable to afford the sky-high rents of the capital, are being put on trains and told to make new lives for themselves in the Midlands.
It sounds dramatic. But the situation has alarmed the Telford & Wrekin Council leader and today led to claims by campaigners of a system of ‘social cleansing’.
Councillor Davies says: “There have been some horrible cases of people being moved to Telford, they just turn up on a train without having any means of support, and they have had to be referred to the food banks.”
The council leader has expressed growing concerns about families from the south-east of England being relocated to Shropshire and towns in the wider West Midlands and warns that sometimes these moves can have terrible consequences.
“There was a really tragic case in a neighbouring authority where a child was killed after somebody was moved to the area without any information being given to the local authority,” he says.
Councillor Davies says he has written to all 32 of the local authorities in Greater London, asking them what their policies are and calling for them to work with the Local Government Association to ensure an orderly and smooth transition.
Meanwhile, a Freedom of Information request from the Liberal Democrats today revealed that from 2012 to 2017, a total of 181 families have been moved from London to the West Midlands, with 18 of these finding their way to Telford.
The party puts this down to a “lethal cocktail” of welfare changes, high London rents, and councils failing in their responsibility to build the numbers of truly affordable homes needed.
In 2015/16, six families were relocated from the London borough of Harrow, all of whom were housed by Telford & Wrekin Council.
Daniel Lester, of Harrow Borough Council, says there is no question of people on low incomes being dumped in other parts of the country without the relevant support.
“It’s not about forcing a problem on other areas of the country, it’s about helping people who find themselves without homes,” he says.
“There is a severe shortage of housing in London. What we can offer to people who present themselves as homeless, or are on our list for housing is much smaller and less desirable than what they could get in other parts of the country for the same money, either with their benefits, or what they will potentially contribute themselves.
“We look around the country for good homes for people who are willing to move.
“Some of these people will have transferable skills, which mean there work does not tie them to one part of the country,” he says. “For example they might work as a taxi driver or a lorry driver, which they can do anywhere.”
But Paul Butters, of the Liberal Democrats in the West Midlands, fears that many of the people who make the move do so under pressure from their local authority.
“The figures show an unprecedented number of families who cannot afford to find homes in their local area being uprooted from their neighbourhoods and dumped further and further away from the capital, cut off from their relatives and support networks,” he says.
“Families who refuse a council’s offer of discharge into the private sector are in effect opting to be homeless again, and are unlikely to be eligible for more official help.”
Mr Butters says changes to the law in 2012 gave local councils the option to seek housing in the private sector in its efforts to resolve homelessness. Before the change, councils were obliged to provide homeless families social housing, though shortages meant many were left waiting for years in temporary accommodation.
In the past, the Government’s benefit cap – which limits the total benefits a family can receive to a maximum of £23,000 a year – has been blamed for forcing many people out of the capital.
Councillor Margaret McLennan, deputy leader of Brent Council, which arranged for two families to move to Telford during 2014/15, said at the time: “Unfortunately, the impact of the Government’s benefit caps and an extremely overheated London housing market means that accommodation cannot always be provided in Brent.”
Councillor Davies says the arrangements for many of these moves are being handled by private contractors, that sometimes offer inducements for private landlords to take on the tenants.
“Landlords are being incentivised to take people from London,” he says. “And if you are in London and have been living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation for three months and you are offered a four-bedroom house in Telford, you might choose to take it.”
Councillor Davies says, as a growing new town, whose origins lay in providing new homes from people elsewhere in the West Midlands, Telford should not be afraid to welcome people from other parts of the UK. But he says if the transition is to be a successful one, it is vital that the local authorities communicate.
“In some cases, people moving to Telford is no different from me moving to a house in London,” he says. “I don’t want to say I’m against internal inward migration from other parts of England.
“But we are conscious of safeguarding the organisation between councils and other agencies.”