The ‘Guardian’ reports;
“Londoner Kevin Mullins and his wife need a bigger home in prime Covent Garden, where he grew up. But council rules say they should go to the ‘affordable’ fringes
Sam and Kevin Mullins and their three children live in what many would regard as one of the most desirable council homes in Britain. The flat is opposite Covent Garden tube station in the heart of London, and a stone’s throw from the hustle and bustle of Leicester Square. Luxury apartments in the area sell for as much as £3m, while flats in their block that went into private hands under right-to-buy legislation are now fetching £1m-plus.
But the Mullins are not happy. The flat is not theirs – they are sharing with Kevin’s mum, who has been a council tenant there for 25 years, her partner and Kevin’s brother. The couple’s three children are squeezed into a bedroom that you can only enter sideways, and the council’s own environmental health department has said that the flat is not big enough. Kevin wants Westminster council to find them a home in the borough he grew up in, within walking distance of their children’s schools and his job as a security guard in Holborn. But, after seven years of fighting, the family still can’t get on the housing list.
It’s a case that goes to the heart of the UK’s housing crisis, raising questions about the importance of communities, whether market forces should be the only determinant of where people live, and whether councils should be holding on to prime real estate.
Sam and Kevin’s battle began in 2007 when they asked Westminster council to put them on the list for social housing. At the time they were both working – Kevin was on £26,000 and Sam earning more than £30,000 at a law firm, but she was about to go on maternity leave and they wanted to stay in the area where Kevin had always lived. Kevin’s mother had a spare room so the couple moved in with her while their request was considered. The council refused, so in February 2008 they decided that, rather than struggle to rent in the capital, they would move to the Wirral, where they had their first child.
Two-and-a-half years later Kevin was made redundant, and they headed back to London to start a new job. Kevin’s mother once again gave the family space in her Covent Garden flat while they waited for the council to find them a home. But more than three years later they have been unable to save much of Kevin’s £24,000 salary and are still with his mother. The family is still trying to get on to the housing list.
The council says it will only help them with obtaining a privately rented flat in the outer fringes of London, or emergency accommodation, again on the outskirts of London, if Kevin’s mother turns them out of the property. But Sam says: “We don’t mind moving to the other side of the river, but I don’t see why we should move to Dagenham and have no family or community to call on.”
The crux of the issue for the Mullins is Westminster’s council homes waiting list policy, which requires that anybody applying must have lived in the borough for at least three years. Because they moved out temporarily to find work, they fell foul of this rule.
Sam and Kevin say that they want to continue as part of a family and a community. Kevin grew up in the flat he now shares with his mum, they know and support local traders, and their children attend the nearby school and nursery. “What about the people that were born here, live and work in the area? Why shouldn’t we be able to reside here too?
The Mullins complained to the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO), which said the council failed to correctly assess their application in 2007, when it should have placed them on a family quota scheme which would have allowed them to be among the priority groups for social housing. It found the council had failed to tell them about residency rules which would have changed their decision to move away, and not assessed the size of the property when the first application was made. The ombudsman found “evidence of administrative fault that has caused a significant injustice to Mrs [Mullins] and her family”.
The council paid £2,000 in compensation “to reflect [the] lost opportunity to obtain a home”. However, it said the criteria for housing had since changed so the Mullins were still not able to qualify for the list.
In a recent letter it outlined the options: the family would be prioritised for an affordable home but would need a household income of £50,000 and a deposit of £60,000; they could ask for new housing for everyone because they were overcrowded, but the council has no five-bedroom homes available and may say that they had made themselves intentionally overcrowded; they could get help obtaining private rented property in south-east London; or Kevin’s mum could make them homeless and force the council to rehome them, but this new property could be 13 miles away in Ilford. “Your husband may have up to 1hr 30min travelling time to work. As your children are not of the age where they are studying for or taking GCSEs/A-levels then a change of their school may have to be considered,” the letter says.
“We’ve been robbed of a home,” says Sam. “I don’t know what else we could possibly do. We’ve done everything that they’ve asked and they’ve moved the goalposts again. The council are refusing to budge even though they’re the ones who committed a serious breach of duty.” The family have letters from their GP and health visitor “all screaming these people are overcrowded”.
Sam says she moved around a lot as a child, and is determined her children should be able to continue their education at the same school. “I don’t want to pull my kids out of their school. I don’t want to pull them out of their lives,” she says.
But others argue that market forces mean the Mullins simply cannot afford to live in the area and should accept that and move on.
Covent Garden is one of the prime propertly locations in London where last year, a local estate agent reported that more than a quarter of sales in the neighbourhood had been made to bankers. The council rent on Kevin’s mum’s flat is just under £800 a month, while an equivalent three-bed flat in the private market would cost £3,000 a month or more.
One centre-right thinktank, Policy Exchange, suggests councils should release their most valuable properties and use the cash to build in cheaper locations up to 30 miles away. Spokesman Nick Faith says properties worth more than the median value in the private sector should be sold as soon as they became vacant and the proceeds used to provide decent social housing. “Instead of an empty property being used to house one very lucky family on the waiting list it could be used to help several,” he says. The group estimated that this approach could raise £4.5bn a year across the UK and fund between 80,000 and 170,000 new social homes.
However, Danny Dorling, professor of geography at the University of Oxford and author of a new book about the housing market, All That is Solid, says forcing families out of the centre of London shows how dysfunctional the UK’s property market has become. “In most cities in Europe rich and poor can live more closely together and lots of things work better,” he says. “If you look at who is vital to running a city it is the people who clean it, the people who keep the trains moving, who keep the sewers unblocked – they are actually more important than the bankers. There needs to be a mix of housing so it is possible for all the people who need to be nearby to live nearby.”
A Westminster City Council spokesman says: “The council closed the family quota list in 2011 and wrote to everyone at that time to outline housing options in the city. As discussed with the family already, to obtain priority for housing they would need to fall into one of our priority groups. We will continue to work with them to find a way forward. Westminster is committed to reducing overcrowding in the city and we are currently embarking on a £560m housing regeneration scheme to tackle issues like this.”