There was welcome news last week for council tenants after a mother of five, homeless after she lost her challenge of a decision by Westminster Council to re-house her 50 miles away in Milton Keynes, found out that she can now take her appeal to the Supreme Court. The case will now be heard next month.
Titina Nzolameso argues that Westminster failed to examine all the available housing in the borough or closer by when they made their decision and, therefore, it was unlawful. In October 2014, the Court of Appeal refused Ms Nzolameso’s appeal against the council’s decision.
At the time, Justice Moore-Bick in considering whether it was ‘reasonably practicable’ to find Ms Nzolameso suitable accommodation in the borough, said that it was not necessary for Westminster to explain in detail what other accommodation was available. He ruled the borough was allowed to take ‘a broad range of factors’ into account, including the ‘pressures’ on the council, in deciding what housing was available.
This judgment is fundamentally flawed and contrary to the Housing Act 1996 which requires councils to house applicants within their local housing authority insofar as reasonably practicable. Furthermore, councils must give consideration to the Homelessness Code of Guidance issued by the Secretary of State and ‘where possible, secure accommodation that is as close as possible to where they were previously living’ so they can retain links with schools, doctors, social workers and other key services.
The Court of Appeal judgment essentially renders this guidance irrelevant resulting in its increasing disregard by local authorities. A recent example of this is London Borough of Waltham Forest where the proposed policy changes involve dividing homeless applicants into two groups, one of which will be offered accommodation (where possible) in Waltham Forest, adjacent boroughs, or boroughs in the East London sub-region and those who simply won’t, namely all other homeless families subject to the borough being able to procure it.
The decision of the Court of Appeal sets a terrible precedent for local authorities to engage in social cleansing of the poor on a mass scale. It cannot be right that applicants are threatened with homelessness unless they agree to uproot themselves from communities they have lived in for years.
Moreover, homeless applicants are frequently given only 24 hours in which to accept or refuse the accommodation offered to them. Within this time they must decide whether or not to relocate their entire family to an unfamiliar place without any opportunity to view the property in advance. This is a demanding situation for any person.
Statistics demonstrate the extent of the problem across all local authorities: of the 60,940 households in temporary accommodation on 30 September 2014, 15,260 (25%) were housed outside of the authority’s district – up from 11,860 at the same date last year. Of the 15,260 accommodated in another local authority district, 14,220 were from London authorities. Some 45,640 of the households in temporary accommodation included dependent children or a pregnant woman.
However, what these statistics highlight is the essential need for the court’s scrutiny in such matters; otherwise there is a danger that councils may be tempted to save money by moving homeless households out of their area. It is wholly wrong that councils can uproot people from everything they know.
The impact of being forced to move away from family and other support networks cannot be underestimated. Add to this a whole new level of complexity where children are involved, with their emotional well-being and education being the biggest casualties. In this case, there is no evidence to suggest that Westminster Council looked to find accommodation in or closer to Westminster for Ms Nzolameso.
Following the Court of Appeal decision, Ms Nzolameso was made homeless after Westminster Council ceased to provide her with temporary accommodation. Her five children have subsequently been separated into care across three homes.
Not only does this appeal decision bring long-awaited fresh hope for Ms Nzolemeso, the eventual decision of the Supreme Court will be one of the most important social housing judgments for decades, setting a precedent for homeless applicants across the country.