Regeneration concern for 'model' communities excludes those most in need of stable homes - those labelled 'antisocial' The scandal of properties lying empty while hundreds of thousands of people languish in bed and breakfast accommodation has been talked about for ages. The overall number of households* in temporary accommodation in London alone reached 43,500 in 1999/2000, and this has led to the search for drastic solutions.
The Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions is eager to dispel the notion that the North/ South poverty divide no longer exists, yet it recognizes that there are areas of the North where the level of deprivation is such that neighbourhood decline leads to people moving away and tenants abandoning social housing. In the past 13 years the percentage of empty properties in England (excluding privately owned dwellings) has increased. In April 2000 there were 124,000 vacant local authority and registered social landlord (RSL) properties, according to the DETR.
The solution seems obvious: fill the empty properties with homeless people. But the need is in the South and the properties are in the North.
Kirklees council, which covers the Huddersfield area, has more than 1,000 empty homes and has produced a brochure to entice those in London needing a home. A partnership with the London Borough of Camden has been in existence for five months but the take up has been low.
Despite a quarter of the Huddersfield properties being semi-detached, just 28 families have made the move.
Removal men The government's Social Exclusion Unit was established in December 1997 to tackle the problem of declining communities. Eighteen Policy Action Teams were set up to target specific areas covering crime reduction, unpopular housing, and antisocial behaviour. Invariably, the perpetrators of antisocial attitudes are portrayed as social housing tenants on council estates, causing havoc and grief to their neighbours.
Rather than homelessness being seen as a problem of housing supply not meeting demand, it is now portrayed as a behavioural problem.
The Conservative government's 1996 Housing Act extended grounds for possession against social tenants for nuisance to include visitors to a dwelling and conduct 'likely to cause a nuisance'. It also extended those who were 'suffering' the nuisance to include any persons 'residing, visiting or otherwise engaging in a lawful activity in the locality'.
The new Labour government introduced antisocial behaviour orders (ASBOs) under the Crime And Disorder Act 1998, which can be obtained against anyone aged 10 upwards. Far from helping to fill empty properties, the climate of zero tolerance towards people with behavioural problems - be it nuisance to neighbours or rent arrears - has led to their exclusion from the social housing sector.
Shout and you are out Spurred by central government initiatives, local councils have seized the opportunity to exclude any person it deems to be undesirable from their housing registers. For example, East Staffordshire District Council excludes anyone recently released from prison or who has been convicted of an arrestable offence in the past four years. In a Shelter survey, the number of households excluded and suspended from local authority housing registers increased by 290 per cent between 1996-98. One local authority in the North East states that: 'The exclusion policy sends a much clearer messageà that 'problem' tenants will not be tolerated and given access to the social housing register.'
The use of ASBOs is set to increase, using local authority staff and de facto private investigators. Covert surveillance using hi-tech cameras, and close liaison with the police to pass on useful 'intelligence', produces evidence for local authorities to put before the courts when seeking an ASBO.
Although the consequence of a breach of the ASBO is imprisonment of up to five years, the Court of Appeal recently ruled that, as the application for an ASBO is a civil - rather than a criminal - matter, the level of evidence required to obtain one is less than what it would be in a criminal court.
The Social Exclusion Unit focuses on antisocial behaviour of some of the most vulnerable members of communities. Lawyers and housing officers testify that many of these tenants have discernible mental health and social problems. Councils deem those evicted for antisocial behaviour to have made themselves intentionally homeless, so their access to social housing is denied. The consequence for these evicted tenants is that they face a future of hostels and substandard privately rented housing. Hostel residents can be thrown out with only 24 hours' notice, with the consequence that vital support networks are lost.
It is clear that the regeneration of rundown areas is not just about the innovative design of new buildings for community participation. The regeneration of communities goes much deeper. In redesigning areas to consist of model citizens, giving housing to those in need takes a back seat to the preoccupation with antisocial behaviour.
Janet Slater is a housing officer for an east London local authority but writes in a personal capacity *Under Part VII of the Housing Act 1996, a household is 'a person or persons reasonably expected to reside together'