In the wake of the Gentrification Project launch, we speak toBecky Weston, a former PILC client and campaigner from Save Brownswell Greenin Barnet who successfully stopped plans of the demolition of her home and loss of community greenspace on her estate. We asked Becky what advice she would give to anyone who is in a similar position.
Becky, when you learned about plans to infill on the green space what action did you take?
I immediately got in touch with my local community. I created leaflets about my concerns with the proposed regeneration, and put them through doors of those who would be affected. I got a lot of feedback – 99% of those I spoke to didn’t know about the regeneration. I quickly set up a WhatsApp group and registered a community interest group via email. A lot of people in the community became involved across all 3 sites which made up the ‘Grange Estate redevelopment.’ We became the ‘Save Brownswell Green‘ campaign.
We collectively researched registering the threatened greenspace as a community asset, and tried to collate other local information we thought was relevant, such as information from council meetings. We attended council meetings, and held campaign meetings in our homes. We started an online petition which got well over 1,000 signatures. We also contacted local media to make them aware of what was happening and put pressure on the council. We also reached out to the Public Interest Law Centre to see if we could launch a legal challenge. This was via a community resident on our collective WhatsApp group.
What propelled you to take this action?
I think everyone was angry – we literally didn’t know anything (about the plans) until I received an email from the housing office saying they were demolishing my home and two others (as well as infilling on the greenspace on the estate).
Myself and the other two residents didn’t want to lose our homes – so we had a slightly different agenda of both keeping our houses and saving the greenspace. But we focused on the greenspace issue, to get as much resident opposition to the plans as possible.
We were also spurred on by the council being deceitful from start to finish. From the amount of floors the proposed buildings would have to the level of engagement and consultation they said they had completed, the council lied.
What was useful about instructing PILC on the case?
They wrote letters to the council, when they were reluctant to reply to residents. They got us information and the council were forced to listen to our arguments. They explained to us clearly what our options and rights were. They talked to us with respect.
They came to the estate and saw the issues with their own eyes, two or three times. I think face-to-face is important as you can only do so much over email and phone. So we appreciated this. They advised us on a lot of things, but did not tell us what to do or overpower us with legal information. If we asked a question, they always tried to find the answer for us.
What would you say to any other residents across London and beyond in a similar situation?
Talk to your community. Don’t be afraid to put a leaflet through the door and put a phone number on it!
Engage with people and don’t think you can fight the battle alone. This is time-consuming and a long-drawn out process. I’d go to bed dreaming about parking spaces!
Get a team together and understand what you’re fighting for. Set-up a WhatsApp group and email. Work together and understand that everybody is fighting for the same thing.
Get in touch with local councillors via email to ask them to fight alongside the community and come to meetings, etc.
Get in touch with a law centre/firm early on. We got in touch with PILC at quite an early stage in our campaign. This was useful as discussions with PILC allowed us to focus on the information we needed to collate and what key issues we should campaign on at an early stage of redevelopment plans.
In a case brought by PILC on behalf of a domestic abuse survivor,the High Court has ruled that decisions taken by housing associations around the consideration and refusal of management transfers are subject to judicial review.
In our latest blog, Izzy Mulholland explains the significance of the ruling both in terms of legal precedent and the practical implications for survivors.
What’s going on?
In 2021, our client T, a survivor of domestic abuse, applied for a management transfer that would allow her to move to new accommodation where she and her children would be safe from the perpetrator of the abuse.
The key finding in the decision handed down by the High Court in the case known as TRX v Network Homes Limited  is that decisions taken by housing associations relating to the consideration and refusal of management transfers are subject to judicial review.
The court also found that when a council or housing association makes a decision on a a management transfer application, the decision must not be generic. Rather, it must explain properly and adequately why its own policy criteria have not been satisfied to ensure the applicant understands why their application is being refused. This was the main ground on which T’s judicial review challenge succeeded.
What are the other implications of the judgment?
Other key implications of the case include:
Clarification around the definition of domestic abuse: Network Homes agreed that domestic abuse does not solely constitute physical abuse. This was in line with the definition of domestic abuse outlined in section 1 of Domestic Abuse Act 2021. As a consequence, the housing association must in future deem all forms of domestic abuse to come within the definition of the term when considering management transfer applications.
Requirement to make a homelessness application: Network Homes also confirmed that in T’s case there was no policy or requirement that she make herself homeless in order to access accommodation. Therefore, if Network Homes suggest that an applicant should make a homelessness application before a management transfer can be processed, caseworkers can point to this judgment as a basis for challenging that assertion.
Non-molestation orders: the judge in the case noted that Network Homes ‘will have well in mind’ points relating to the relevance of non-molestation orders and the history of the perpetrator. In future Network Homes should consider whether a non-molestation order is enough to protect a survivor (they cannot assume it is) and must instead consider the history and nature of the of the perpetrator’s conduct towards the applicant and their children.
Requirement to provide police or MARAC reports: the court clarified that Network Homes’ policy on management transfers does not require a police report or MARAC report be obtained in every case.
We’re in the High Court today for a hearing on a judicial-review challenge our client is bringing against Network Homes.
The challenge relates to the housing association’s refusal to allow T, a domestic abuse survivor, to move to new accommodation where she and her children will be safe. The court will also consider in what circumstances judicial review challenges can be brought against housing associations.
In the latest in our series of Q&As on PILC legal cases, we outline the basis for the challenge and explore the wider issues raised by our client’s case.
What’s the issue?
T lives with her children in a flat that she rents from the housing association Network Homes. T’s ex-partner was physically and emotionally abusive both during and after their relationship and continues to present a risk to T and her children.
In early 2021 T applied for a management transfer that would allow her to move to new accommodation where she and her children would be safe. (A management transfer is when a local authority or housing association allows a tenant to transfer to new accommodation because of exceptional circumstances.)
In July Network Homes refused to grant T’s request.
Why is this a problem?
T has bravely taken steps to protect herself and her children from further abuse by engaging with domestic abuse charities, seeking civil protective orders and now by requesting a move. Network Homes’ refusal to grant her a management transfer means she and her children remain at risk from her ex-partner.
The housing association’s own policy states that the ‘exceptional circumstances’ that might lead to a request for a management transfer being granted include ‘[where] there is a severe or immediate risk to life or personal safety of a […] resident because of domestic violence, harassment, hate crime, safeguarding issues or [if they become the] victim of a serious crime.’
But they have said that the domestic abuse in T’s case does not meet their threshold, outlined in a sub-policy, of constituting a ‘threat to life and limb’. They have suggested she could instead seek a civil injunction against the perpetrator (which she has done) and report any new incidents of abuse to the police.
Are other people experiencing this same problem?
Yes. Councils and housing associations across London are imposing excessively high thresholds when it comes to survivors’ access to management transfers. This is despite the passage of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, which provides a statutory definition of domestic abuse going beyond physical violence and was designed to make it easier for survivors to retain secure tenancies.
What are the legal grounds of our challenge?
We are arguing that Network Homes’s decision to refuse our client’s application for a management transfer on the basis that ‘she was unable to provide any evidence of threats to life or limb’ is unlawful because it takes an excessively restrictive view of domestic abuse, limiting it to acts of physical violence. We say that the housing association’s decision goes against its own published policy.
Network Homes have claimed that T ‘could approach the police or local authority to take more immediate and effective action’ as an alternative to the housing association moving her to new accommodation.But when T did approach her local authority, it confirmed that it supported her application for a management transfer. There was no suggestion that the council could or would accommodate her instead.
In our view, expecting survivors to approach their local authority places them in the invidious position of having to choose between their current stable accommodation and taking their chances with whatever (likely precarious) accommodation the council may provide.
Finally, Network Homes’ sub-policy requires domestic abuse cited in support of an application for a management transfer to have been reported to the police or a MARAC. We are arguing that this is both irrational and indirectly discriminatory.
It is irrational, in our view, because of the widely acknowledged fact that many survivors do not report abuse to the police or other public authorities. Therefore, the absence of a police or MARAC report does not indicate an absence of risk.
It is discriminatory, we say, because women are disproportionately likely to face domestic abuse and abuse is often not reported. Therefore, whilst it may be rational to require evidence from the police or other relevant authorities when considering applications for transfers not based on domestic abuse, the requirement places survivors of domestic abuse at an unfair disadvantage.
What are the wider issues raised by this challenge?
It is our view that housing associations fulfil a public function by providing social housing. They receive public funding in order to do so. As such, the safety of domestic abuse survivors should be paramount in the decisions they take.
Social housing providers should not be taking so narrow a view of domestic abuse as to grant the vital safety measure of a management transfer only to survivors who can prove they have experienced a ‘threat to life or limb’.
Domestic abuse survivors seek management transfers in order to remain safe whilst retaining security of tenure. The message Network Homes’ decision in this case sends to survivors is that they should either seek homelessness assistance from the local authority, move into the private sector, or remain in an unsafe home. All of these options are likely to result in reduced safety and security for survivors and their children.
From the decision in a case known as Weaver, the relevant question is whether the act under scrutiny is a private act. To determine that, it will be necessary to examine the nature of the act in the context of the body’s activities as a whole.
We are arguing that Network Homes’s decision in this case, and its policies relating to transfers, are amenable to judicial review. We do not believe that a decision concerning the transfer of a social housing tenancy can be a private act.
Please check back for updates about this case in the coming weeks.
In November we issued a claim for permission to apply for judicial review of the Home Office’s delay in processing the application for settled status of an EU citizen facing pending criminal charges.
In the second in our series of Q&As on PILC legal cases, we outline the basis for the challenge and explore the wider issues raised by this case.
What’s the issue?
Our client, F, is a Polish citizen who has lived in the UK since 2006. He applied for settled status in September 2020 but has not yet received a decision on his application.
F has been told that his application has been stayed (a legal term meaning ‘put on hold’) because he is facing criminal charges. The Home Office say F will not receive a decision on his settled status application until there is an outcome in the criminal proceedings.
Why is this a problem?
The criminal charges F faces are highly unlikely to result in a custodial sentence or deportation action. Having lived in the UK for fifteen years, he meets the criteria for settled status.
F suffers from mental health difficulties and alcohol-addiction issues after experiencing significant trauma. These challenges have made it difficult for him to work and have contributed towards him becoming homeless in the past. They have also had a bearing on his contact with the criminal justice system.
Yet F is being prevented from regularising his immigration status. As a result he has been unable to claim welfare benefits or secure housing assistance.
The Home Office’s policy has effected trapped F in destitution.
What are the legal grounds of our challenge?
We are arguing that the Home Office policy which has caused F’s application to be put on hold is unlawful.
Previous versions of the policy directed Home Office caseworkers to consider whether it was ‘reasonable and proportionate’ to delay decisions on applications in cases where applicants face pending criminal charges. However, this discretion has been removed in recent versions and it is now mandatory for applications such as F’s to be delayed, even where delay will cause serious harm.
We say that inflexibility of the current version of the policy is unlawful, and that it breaches the United Kingdom’s obligations under the Withdrawal Agreement.
We are also arguing that the Home Office has failed to consider F’s application for settled status in a reasonable time frame. The standard time frame for considering EU Settlement Scheme applications (EUSS) is five working days or no longer than a month. Yet F has been waiting for more than a year.
Moreover, in view of the nature of the criminal charges and the length of time the criminal proceedings are taking, we believe it is unreasonable for the Home Office to pause consideration of F’s application. Finally, we are also arguing that the delay has directly resulted in the hardship to F, which amounts to a violation of his rights under Article 3 and Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Are other people experiencing the same issues?
Our partner organisations report that other vulnerable EU citizens are experiencing long delays (of over six months and in some cases well over a year) in the processing of their EUSS applications.
These delays are causing uncertainty about people’s rights and entitlements. Some applicants are struggling to access benefits they should be entitled to. Others have not been able to obtain valid certificates of application that would allow them to continue to prove their right to work pending a decision.
A significant number of those left in limbo have disabilities or other complex needs. In some cases support organisations and even MPs have written to the Home Office asking for decisions to be expedited—usually to no avail. (Both individuals and support organisations report difficulties contacting the Home Office.)
Many (though not all) of those experiencing EUSS delays have had their cases put on hold either because they have a criminal record or because they are facing criminal charges. The charges or convictions concerned frequently relate to low-level offences linked to poverty and addiction.
Applicants report distress and anxiety as a result of the delays. At least one has been denied the opportunity to study at university because they could not prove their eligibility for student finance.
What wider issues does this challenge raise?
The Home Office’s policy of staying EUSS applications where there is a pending prosecution benefits nobody.
As PILC solicitor Ellen Fotheringham puts it: ‘Our client, who has lived in the UK for over 15 years, is on the verge of street homelessness as a result of this policy. It is clear that despite countless warnings no lessons have been learned by this government from the Windrush Scandal, with EU citizens now being exposed to the same devastating uncertainty about their rights.’
There is another an important principle at play in this case: a person’s right to remain should not depend on whether they have been charged with or convicted of a criminal offence.
Over 11 million people in the UK have a criminal record. There is a strong link between poverty (and other forms of structural injustice) and having a criminal conviction. Those who are racialised as non-white and those from a migrant background are disproportionately likely to have a criminal record despite people from such groups not being more likely to commit crime.
Stopping people from regularising their immigration status due to a pending prosecution is just one instance of a trend through which rights that should be universal (such as a person’s right to live in the country they call home) are increasingly being differentiated. This means some people are accorded those rights unconditionally, while others (usually members of marginalised groups) may be denied them in certain circumstances.
At the beginning of October PILC issued a claim for permission to apply for judicial review of Southwark council’s housing allocations policy.
In the first in a new series of Q&As on PILC legal cases, we outline the basis for the challenge as well as exploring the wider implications of our client’s case.
What’s the issue?
Our client, Milton, lives with his wife, son and daughter in a privately rented studio apartment in Southwark. They are severely overcrowded and have endured extremely cramped housing conditions for almost five years.
The family applied to join Southwark’s housing register in April 2018. However, Southwark has refused to prioritise the family’s application for housing. The council claims that the family’s overcrowding is the result of a ‘deliberate act’.
Why is this a problem?
Priority on the housing register is determined by band. Southwark’s housing allocation policy awards the highest band (Band 1) to applicants who, like Milton and his family, are statutorily overcrowded.
This policy is in line with the council’s obligations under Part VI of the Housing Act 1996, which states that ‘reasonable preference’ must be given to people living in overcrowded housing.
However, there is an exception in Southwark’s housing allocation policy for people who have caused their overcrowding by a ‘deliberate act’, who are to be deprioritised.
Southwark accept that Milton and his family are statutorily overcrowded. But they claim this is the result of a ‘deliberate act’ on their part. In making this decision they have relied on an unpublished policy which appears to state that anyone who moves into accommodation that becomes overcrowded at the point at which they move in should be considered to have caused that overcrowding by a ‘deliberate act’.
However, Milton and his family had no choice but to move into their current accommodation. As Milton explains with the help of his daughter Rebecca: ‘I had to move to this flat. When we looked at other places the agencies asked us for many months’ rent in advance. I couldn’t rent a bigger house because it was too expensive.’
How has overcrowding affected Milton and his family?
Being overcrowded is affecting the whole family’s mental health, as well as making it difficult for the children to study.
As Milton explains: ‘My children cannot study in this environment. During the pandemic they had to take classes online at the same time. They found it difficult to listen and concentrate in class because they were in the same room.’
‘We do not have any privacy, either: we have to go to the bathroom to change.’
What are the grounds for our legal challenge?
PILC is arguing that Milton and his family had no choice but to move into their current accommodation and therefore should not be penalised and deprioritised.
The legal grounds for our challenge are that:
It was irrational for Southwark to conclude that the family’s statutory overcrowding was caused by a ‘deliberate act’ (and, in particular, it was irrational to conclude that at the time Milton moved into the current accommodation he had the option of instead moving into suitable alternative accommodation which was not statutorily overcrowded)
Given that Milton was not able to afford alternative accommodation that was not statutorily overcrowded, his decision to move into statutorily overcrowded accommodation was not a “deliberate act” within the meaning of paragraph 6.2 of Southwark’s Housing Allocation Scheme
Southwark’s Housing Allocations Scheme does not explain the criteria used when considering whether an applicant has committed a ‘deliberate act’
This is not the first time Southwark has blamed low-income families for their overcrowding. In December 2020, another family successfully challenged a ‘deliberate act’ decision.
Such cases raise broader issues relating to the chronic shortage of decent housing for low-income families in London, and the ‘social cleansing’ of migrant communities and communities of colour from central areas of the city.
It is now incredibly difficult for low-income Londoners to access secure, long term social housing. Families find themselves stuck for years in temporary accommodation that is either too small for their needs or miles away from children’s schools or parent’s workplaces. In the private rented sector levels of overcrowding have almost doubled in the last ten years due to a combination of rent rises and benefit cuts.
As Sam Tippet, a PILC paralegal working on the case, explains: ‘This case is a clear example of how Southwark continues to penalise working-class families. Milton’s family have spent almost five years living in accommodation so severely overcrowded they are legally homeless. Like so many others, they are being punished for earning too little money to live safely in London.’
‘Southwark continues to have too little housing stock for social tenants. This is the result of the longstanding failure of local and national government to resource adequate accommodation for people on low incomes. Even if successful, our legal challenge will not resolve this problem. There is an urgent need both to increase the provision of social housing and introduce rent controls to ensure private tenants can afford a decent home.’
Councils are also using ‘gatekeeping’ tactics to deter low-income and homeless households from accessing support to which they are legally entitled. There is an established culture of disbelief in housing offices, with families routinely being accused of fraud or of causing their own housing problems. Such issues disproportionately affect migrant communities and communities of colour, who are more likely than other groups to be homeless and live in poor housing.
As Izzy Koksal from Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth (HASL)—the local housing campaign group that Milton is part of—puts it: ‘We are all too familiar with these cruel and insulting decisions from the council, which blame migrant families and families of colour for living in overcrowded housing. We have successfully overturned many of them with the help of PILC. Our members will continue to campaign for an end to the use of ‘deliberate act’ and this culture of blame and refusal.’
We’ve been working with our friends at Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth (HASL) on a challenge to Lambeth’s unfair and misleading ‘Temp2Settled’ scheme. In the second of our series of interviews with PILC solicitors, we spoke to Helen Mowatt about how working with grassroots groups can help lawyers see the bigger picture when it comes to strategic litigation.
Can you tell us a bit about the Temp2Settled case?
When a homeless family presents to Lambeth as homeless, the council gives them a number of options. One option is Lambeth’s Temp2Settled Scheme. Under this scheme, if a household agrees go into private rented sector accommodation rather than council-provided temporary accommodation, the council will put them into a higher band on the housing register. (Councils decide who gets offered housing based on a priority ‘banding’ system. The higher your band the more likely you are to get housed). Families are advised they’ll have a much higher chance of getting permanent accommodation because they’ll be in band B instead of band C.
They’re also told that if they stay in band C they’re unlikely ever to get permanent accommodation—or that it could take years and years. Basically the council is saying: ‘You should go down the Temp2Settled route. Go into band B and you’ll have a much better chance of getting permanent accommodation.’
So what’s the problem?
The problem is it isn’t true! Families often think it sounds like a really good deal and they accept the offer. But what Lambeth council don’t tell them is that if they’re placed in private rented accommodation outside of the borough, they’ll be removed from the waiting list after two years if they haven’t been successful in securing a property.
We’ve got FOI data showing that only 2% of households needing a 2-bedroom property were accommodated through the housing register within a 2-year period. Far from having a better chance of securing permanent accommodation through Temp2Settled Scheme, people have almost no chance of securing accommodation within those two years, at the end of which they’ll be removed from the housing register.
What kind of people are being affected by this?
Many of those affected are families from South London’s Latinx community. The issue tends to affect migrant families for two reasons. One is that they are more likely to be new to the borough so they haven’t had a chance to build up time on the housing register before entering the scheme. The other reason is that—for language reasons—migrant families often don’t understand the nature of the scheme. They might not be aware of whether they’re in private rented accommodation or council temporary accommodation.
What are the potential consequences for families?
One consequence is that if you go down the private rental sector route you’re giving up your right to suitable housing. If there’s something wrong with your accommodation and you’re in the private sector, you don’t have the same rights as if you have a council tenancy. You can’t challenge the suitability of your accommodation in the same way and you don’t have the same rights when threatened with eviction.
People are giving up these rights in order to have a ‘much better chance’ of getting permanent accommodation’—but most families stand no chance of getting permanent housing through the scheme.
So the council is trying to ‘game’ the homelessness statistics by reducing the number of people on the list?
It appears that way. When they issue their homelessness figures they can say ‘we’re doing better than in previous years and we’re doing better than neighbouring boroughs’. Temp2Settled also helps them reduce the number of people they have a responsibility to house and get homeless families out of the borough. This is a big deal in a time of rising homelessness and huge housing shortages.
How have you worked with HASL to bring this challenge?
HASL have great links with the community in Lambeth—in fact, they’re part of the community. This means they can see what’s happening on the ground more easily than, say, a local law centre.
HASL initially referred a domestic violence case to us. We helped get the client into permanent accommodation. Then we started meeting up more and instead of just discussing individual cases we found ourselves talking about the wider situation with housing in Lambeth. Temp2Settled was one of the themes that emerged from those conversations.
One of the reasons we think this hasn’t been picked up before is that housing solicitors tend to work at the ‘micro’ level. They’re meeting clients’ needs case-by-case, so they don’t have time to look at the wider trends that are emerging.
What do schemes like Temp2Settled says about the culture of local authority housing departments—and what outcome are you hoping for from this case?
It appears that this is more than just negligence, but potentially bad faith. There’s a wickedness in the culture of some housing departments. People are seen as numbers and not as people. It doesn’t matter how vulnerable you are or what your circumstances are, the goal is to get the numbers down.
Of course, this mentality is related to the limited housing stock and to austerity. But councils need to be pushing back against that—not passing the pain onto vulnerable people.
Schemes like these also support the gentrification agenda of many London local authorities – it’s in the commercial interests of councils to get as many homeless and low-income families out of the borough as possible
If Lambeth council have deliberately misinformed people in an attempt to get their numbers down, we want them to admit this and apologise. We want all these families to be put back on the register. This would send a huge message to councils—that it’s not acceptable to put your targets ahead of the needs of the community.