Housing benefit was the subject of a recent BBC Panorama programme highlighting some abuse of the system, with tenants occupying what can only be described as squalid, cramped, accommodation, and irresponsible landlords raking in up to £2 million a year in rent.
From sub-standard caravans in Canvey Island charging £600-900 per month, to a former hotel with open sewers (subsequently taken over by the local council, but without resolving the problem) and tiny rooms in a foul smelling, damp, ‘villas’ complex, the story was the same. Adding insult to injury, the landlord was even allegedly opening tenants’ mail. Now that is illegal.
But, Hackney, Camden and Lewisham Councils all complained at the exploitation as they continued to refer people to these places, complaining that they “needed new powers”, whilst dishing out public money directly to the landlords, and funding their luxury lifestyles.
The hidden message of the programme seemed to be that, with the shortage of housing (the Conservatives’ fault, although it was Labour which had the worst record on new build) there was no alternative, and local authorities just had to keep paying out to keep a roof over people’s heads, regardless of the conditions in which those people were being forced to live.
Presumably, these housing departments had never heard of Trading Standards, or HMO regulations, let alone enforcement of planning conditions? Panorama obviously hadn’t heard of them either because there was no challenge by the reporter.
So let me elaborate. Castle Point Borough (responsible for Canvey Island) should review the planning conditions applied to the original consent for dozens of caravans (usually holiday use means they can only be occupied for up to 11 months a year, and this should be rigorously enforced to avoid accruing rights to permanent occupation) and investigate the quality of accommodation – or lack of it – not least applying health and safety regulations.
A co-ordinated visit by the Fire Service and Trading Standards could quickly close the whole site down unless the landlord made immediate improvements which – faced with threats of prosecution and the loss of £2 million a year, he undoubtedly would. And if not, where would the tenants go? Bear with me, and I’ll explain.
Labour’s Hackney, Camden and Lewisham Councils should enforce Houses in Multiple Occupation regulations. Licences are only valid for a maximum of five years and properties must be managed responsibly. Annual gas safety certificates, smoke alarms and safety certificates for electrical appliances must be provided to the authority which may also apply other conditions on inspection.
It is quite clear to anyone watching the programme that no effort could possibly ever have been made to either inspect or make any of these properties compliant, let alone take any enforcement action. There is no way that these properties could have legitimate HMO licences. If they do, then those authorities should be held to account for their misjudgement.
Councillors and responsible officers should be hanging their heads in shame, and be very concerned about their job prospects, as should those in any other authority which permits such abuse of people and public money. There is no excuse, however hard Panorama and its interviewees tried to justify their actions (or, should I say, inaction).
Instead of squandering housing benefit so irresponsibly, they should be using it to convert empty office blocks, churches and other redundant buildings, and develop brownfield sites. Over the last few years, the government created various funds to enable developers and councils to do creative things to meet housing need. How many councils bothered to apply, let alone even bothered to find out about them? Not many.
It would also help if local authorities speeded up planning decisions, and actually worked with private developers instead of penalising them through S106 (which can only get worse if Labour win the General Election) with ever more financial demands. Isn’t it better to have new homes than contributions to the arts, sculptures, off-site landscaping and infrastructure, to name just a few of the ‘conditions’ which viability studies so regularly reject as unaffordable, yet councils continue to enforce, meaning that schemes are delayed as costs rise. Savings on social housing could be made by reducing the fitting out specification. Private buyers have to pay for things themselves whilst meeting mortgage payments, rather than receiving housing benefit.
Flexibility would also help. We know that there are more single households, so why not support some open plan studio style apartments, which are becoming fashionable (and very expensive) in central London, instead of the more traditional style of housing, with separate bedroom, living room, kitchen. Bathrooms obviously need to remain separate! They’d be quicker and cheaper to build, especially if prefabricated off site, which is not an inferior construction, meaning faster delivery for occupation.
If Panorama was really a measure of what is happening in London and elsewhere around the country, council leaders should be demanding urgent action to put a stop to the abuse.