Overcrowded families in Southwark have achieved a significant victory, with the council responding positively to a community-led campaign and legal challenge around the issue.

The term ‘deliberate act’ has been removed from a new draft of the local authority’s housing allocations scheme. The council has also promised to take a number of concrete steps that will benefit families in overcrowded housing. The council has invited Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth (HASL) to a meeting to discuss potential improvements to their allocations scheme.

This is a welcome change of approach from Southwark. For far too long families have had their priority on the waiting list significantly reduced simply because – as a result of high rents, benefit cuts and a shortage of council homes – they were unable to afford suitable accommodation. Most of the families affected are from migrant and BAME households, and have therefore faced additional structural barriers in terms of access to housing.

In September, PILC, HASL and 30+ local community groups wrote an open letter to Southwark about the culture of blame and refusal faced by families in overcrowded housing. The letter highlighted how the council’s actions were negatively impacting low-income families from BAME and migrant backgrounds.

Southwark’s initial response continued to blame families for their overcrowding. The council argued that living in overcrowded housing was a ‘choice’, suggested other areas of the country where families might live and accused families of trying to ‘exploit’ the housing register.

In response, we launched an email campaign. Over 250 protest emails were sent to the leader of Southwark council demanding a change to the council’s policies and practices on overcrowding. The emails highlighted the hardship that families were facing as a result of the council’s policy, which described severely overcrowded families as having ‘deliberately’ caused their overcrowding and penalised them by reducing their priority on the waiting list. In other cases, housing officers were not interpreting the housing allocations scheme properly. In some cases it was decided, wrongly and without evidence, that families had ‘deliberately worsened their circumstances’: i.e. that they were effectively living in overcrowded accommodation ‘on purpose’ so as to exploit the housing register.

In response to the email campaign:

  • The leader of the council, Kieron Williams, agreed to meet with HASL to discuss improvements to the council’s housing allocations scheme;
  • The council’s housing manager agreed to revise guidance to staff administering the housing allocations scheme, specifically in relation to the ‘deliberately worsening of circumstances’;
  • The council has undertaken to review all cases in which a decision has been issued stating that there has been a ‘deliberately worsening of circumstances’;
  • All officers within the housing department will be issued with updated guidance; and
  • The council will consult on a new allocations scheme. (We have been requested to participate in ‘help[ing to] shape the future of allocations in Southwark.’

We welcome the council’s response to our campaign. We will now fight to ensure that:

  1. The updated guidance to staff is clear so that decisions are made fairly and lawfully;
  2. The council’s allocations scheme is re-drafted clearly and fairly so that it operates in a way that supports rather than penalises families facing hardship. The scheme must make clear that no family should ever be penalised or blamed for living in overcrowded conditions.