A letter from Wandsworth Council offering social housing tenants money to leave their homes and move to Birmingham has been doing the rounds of social media and press in the last couple of days. It's prompted accusations that the council is trying to bribe its residents into moving away from the capital.
Tenants are being offered up to £5,000, depending on the size of the home they occupy, plus up to £2,000 to help with a deposit and moving costs. The Birmingham properties are in the private, not social, sector, but Wandsworth says the rent is low. They've also told us there are only five of these houses, so the numbers of people able to move — and the council stresses that no tenant is being forced to make that decision — will be small.
Look, this is obviously crap. It goes without saying that nobody should feel they like they're being ousted. But this isn't Wandsworth Council being heartless — Newham wanted to move tenants to Stoke back in 2012, and there are similar schemes run by Ealing, Hillingdon and Waltham Forest (PDF). Documents seen by The Independent recently showed that 50,000 households have been moved out of London in the last three years.
Why? Because we don't have enough houses for everyone. Particularly not social housing, the last bastion of genuine affordability (though even that's under threat). Right to Buy is a major culprit here. Since the policy was introduced in 1980, 271,438 council homes were sold off, disappearing into the private market. Hardly any of these were replaced. And we wonder now why councils are struggling to find places to put everyone.
255,000 households were on London waiting lists for social housing in 2014; 2,788 of them in Wandsworth. Without enough social housing, councils have to house those in need in the private sector, paying landlords market rates (also using housing benefit), often in poor, cramped conditions like hostels or B&Bs. Moving people to lower cost (i.e., non-London) housing and freeing up a place in London saves the council money on its temporary accommodation budget. A council spokesman said:
“This scheme provides options for tenants in larger properties to hand them back so that they can be used to provide new social rented homes for families on waiting lists who may be living in overcrowded conditions and need a bigger property. Offering a financial incentive is one of the ways in which tenants who don’t need such big homes can be encouraged to give them up.
“As the letter makes crystal clear, it is not compulsory and no-one is forced to leave, but some residents are quite happy to move out of London because they may have family connections in other parts of the country or are looking to make a fresh start outside the capital.”