For the first time, data seen by VICE shows how many "poverty exiles" London has.
When the housing benefit cap was announced in 2010, Boris Johnson said he would "not accept any kind of Kosovo-style social cleansing of London", adding, "The last thing we want to have in our city is a situation such as Paris where the less well-off are pushed out to the suburbs."
Fast forward five years and everyone to the left of Boris has at some point bemoaned the ongoing social cleansing of the city. But who is actually being purged from London, and how do they feel about it? Sadly, the most under-reported aspect of the rapidly changing capital is the fate of the people who are being forced to leave it. There was a flurry of headlines in 2012 and 2013 about London councils finding speculative locations for their homeless tenants in places like Stoke, Hastings, Birmingham and beyond. But it was always speculative: no-one has actually demonstrated how many people are being pushed out – until now.
For the first time, VICE can confirm with hard facts what had always been the possibility of an exodus of London's poor. It's not an easy trend to measure, or give flesh to – quite simply, there is no London-wide monitoring system. But a data set gleaned from a series of FOI requests submitted by the Green Party over the last five years, seen exclusively by VICE, fleshes out some details on one of the most significant issues to be debated in the forthcoming election.
All the graphs below show figures for the 15 out of 32 London councils that have provided consistent answers to the Green Party's five years' worth of FOI requests.
The first graph – below – shows the number of families with children who have been moved out of London each year since 2010/11:
In this substantial sample – which includes inner boroughs such as Camden, Lambeth and Kensington & Chelsea, as well as outer boroughs like Bromley and Merton – the number of families with children forced out of London rose from ten in the municipal year 2010/11, to 307 in 2013/14, and already stands at 364 for the current year, with several months' worth of data still to come in. While the sample is incomplete, the pattern is clear: according to our data, over 35 times more families are having to move out of London this year compared to five years ago.
They tell me I don't have any choice. They send me these letters saying I have to move. I can't sleep from the worry.
These people aren't just numbers on a bar chart. They are people like Amal, a single mother of three children, all younger than seven years of age, who Wandsworth Council are trying to send out of London. "They tell me I don't have any choice. They send me these letters saying I have to move. I can't sleep from the worry." We are sitting on a grimy sofa in the family's temporary accommodation in Tooting, and she has just stopped crying. "I wake up so sick, you know? I have to go to study but I feel so sick."
The housing crisis triple-whammy of social housing shortages, welfare reforms and rapid gentrification have seen Wandsworth Council sending its poorest and most vulnerable further and further away. While the Battersea Power Station luxury development continues on one side of the borough, last year the council announced a £5 million project to buy properties to house its homeless outside the borough. They've just announced more emergency funding, and arrangements with private landlords in Leicester, Portsmouth, Birmingham and West Bromwich.
"The council asked what situation would you like ideally. I told her I would like Tooting or Battersea, because I don't know any other area," says Amal. She is studying business administration at a local FE college, doing voluntary work at a nearby nursery and desperately relying on her neighbours and ex-husband – who left last year by mutual arrangement, after he hit her for the second time – for childcare support. "At the end of the call she said, 'OK, I found the house for you.' I didn't know the area, and I asked where is it, and she said 'near Newcastle'."
After this, they repeated the same dance they have performed a few times: Amal pleading "no", and the council maintaining "you have to, you have no choice, you're homeless".
The council eventually demurred. The next time they spoke, they said they'd found another property for Amal – in West Bromwich. "I said to them, 'I already told you, I have a job interview in London, I am studying in London, my children are at school in London, my ex-husband visits every week to help with the children.'" This, they explained, was the last chance, no more debate – come and see the property in West Bromwich, because that's where you're going. "They said: 'No option, just one option: West Bromwich.' If I said no, they wouldn't give me another chance." She said no, and is now waiting on a distant court date.
The example of Paris given by Boris Johnson in 2010, where the poor "banlieues" on the outskirts are hidden from the gleaming, tourist and business-friendly centre, is a sadly apposite one. Finding data to supplement the substantial anecdotal evidence for this "banlieueisation" of London is hard, but by no means impossible.
The map below shows the number of housing benefit claimants in London who are claiming Local Housing Allowance in the private rented sector – i.e. those who are supplementing the rent they pay to private landlords with government money – and the change in those numbers since 2011:
The substantial drop in housing benefit claimants renting in "Inner West" (a grouping which contains expensive places like Camden, Hammersmith & Fulham, Kensington & Chelsea, Wandsworth and Westminster) contrasts sharply with the rise in "Outer West and North West", which contains Barnet, Brent, Ealing, Harrow, Hillingdon, Hounslow and Richmond-upon-Thames.
The reason is simple: with their benefits capped, and rents soaring, thousands are being forced away from their homes in inner London boroughs. Anti-poverty charities like the Westminster-based Zaccheas 2000 Trust have seen these trends dramatically alter their case-work. Week after week, they have had new clients, many of whom are in work, turn up in their surgeries – people who have lived in Westminster for decades, and can no longer afford the rent. A 2014 study found that the average two-bedroom monthly rent in Westminster had risen to £4,174. Only two boroughs out of 32 had average monthly rents less than £1,000 – Bexley and Havering.
Official Mayoral policy dictates that the upheaval of families with school-aged children is of particular concern. Boris Johnson has previously said in Mayor's Question Time that he was successfully lobbying councils "to allow those families who are in particular need, who needed to live near their place of work, or keep kids in school, to have special circumstances".
The reality on the ground appears rather less successful. The churn of the capital's most vulnerable families between different London boroughs is also seeing consistent rises. In the year 2010/11, 928 families with school-aged children were relocated from one London borough to another, rising to 1,828 by 2012/13, and 2,483 in 2013/14. The implications for "poverty exiles" pushed out from inner London boroughs like Westminster are severe: a life of stressful, 90-minute long commutes from far-flung hostels for children as young as five, and exhaustion, worry and depression for their parents.
This year, the figure currently stands at 2,332 – so it looks very likely to rise again.
Rebutting a parliamentary question about "benefit migration" as a result of his new welfare legislation, Iain Duncan Smith said in November 2014: "There has been very little movement of more than about five miles from people's existing homes as a result of the benefit cap." Five miles is the government's chosen watershed of acceptability, but the thing is, even for those Londoners who have not been sent hundreds of miles away, five miles is not an inconsiderable amount of space to traverse in London. In more rural areas, five miles might mean moving from one small town to a neighbouring town. In London it is the difference between Bow and Ilford – and potentially new schools, longer commutes and a substantial estrangement from childcare and support networks.
For Amal, the future offers only insecurity. She told me she tried to think positively about the idea of West Bromwich, and agreed to go and visit with a council employee. Maybe if it was a new house – a warm, dry house, somewhere with space, somewhere that gave her a good feeling – she would try to get her head around starting from scratch, as a single mother of three young children in a region where she knows literally no one.
She showed me photos of the West Bromwich property: it looked dilapidated and damp. There were exposed wires and ripped up skirting boards, dirty carpets and suspicious bulges in the wallpaper. The council employee who accompanied her sounded bored and unsympathetic about the whole process. "I asked her, 'Where is the school?' She said, 'I don't know.' I asked her, 'Where is the college?' She said 'I don't know.' I asked, 'Where's the hospital? My son has asthma.' She said, 'I don't know – wait for the landlord.' Eventually, the landlord came and I asked him all the same questions, he said, 'I'm sorry, I came from Birmingham, I don't know.'
"I am always so polite with them, even when they are rude. I said to the council lady, 'Would you live here?' She said, 'I'm not homeless. You're homeless.'"
In a letter to the Mayor seen by VICE, Green Party Assembly Member Darren Johnson condemned the rising incidences of children being uprooted from their schools, while their parents are separated from friends and families, and the vital support networks they provide. Johnson also lamented the worrying lack of oversight at council and Mayoral level. Over half of the boroughs failed to reply to the Green Party's FOI requests at all. "With such huge public concern about the impact of the welfare cuts," he wrote, "I find it astonishing that many boroughs aren't keeping an eye on the impact in their own local area."
The problem is simple: without oversight – or at least, FOI compliance – it is impossible to gauge the true scale of the exodus. Some boroughs, like Tower Hamlets and Hackney, have provided answers one year, then failed to do so the next. Croydon and Westminster said it would be too expensive to answer the question, Kingston said it would be too complicated, and Newham, Redbridge, Harrow and Lewisham are now months overdue in replying. Tower Hamlets managed an intricate, multi-layered excuse which said it was too complicated, and anyway they publish their own (impenetrable) data, and then finally that they'd had a think, and decided it wasn't in the public interest to answer the FOI.
Nevertheless, the data obtained by the Green Party and presented here by VICE makes it clear that the forced exodus of London's poor is not only happening, but worsening every year. The housing crisis will be a key issue in the general election, with "generation rent" a buzz-phrase on the lips of earnest politicians. But its greatest victims are already being submerged by the sham campaigns of property industry lobbyists and saturated by the navel-gazing of those in a position to buy a house in Redbridge but not in Hackney. As ever, it is those at the bottom whose voices will go unheard.
Amal's name has been changed.
The issues raised in this article are explored more fully in VICE's brand new film, Regeneration Game – a documentary about the war to live in London that you should watch here.
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