Tenant wins battle to stop Westminster council moving her out of London
A single mother of five children has won a protracted legal battle and prevented Westminster council from removing her family to Milton Keynes.
Titina Nzolameso’s victory at the supreme court will have a significant impact on how councils carry out their duty to house the homeless. The number of families forced to accept accommodation outside the capital has risen sharply in the past five years.
In its judgment, the supreme court stressed that local authorities had a statutory duty to provide accommodation in their own area “so far as reasonably practicable”.
Any accommodation must be suitable to the needs of the homeless person and each member of the household, the five justices on the court said. “Location can be relevant to its suitability.”
Nzolameso, a 51-year-old single mother with five children aged between eight and 14, suffers from diabetes and hypertension, and is HIV-positive. She has lived in London since 2000. Between 2008 and 2012 the family lived in a privately rented four-bedroomed house in Westminster.
Her rent of £1,150 per week was covered by housing benefit until 2012 when a cap was placed on the amount payable for privately rented properties according to their size and locality. She was no longer able to afford the rent, and the landlord was not prepared to reduce it, so she was evicted in November 2012.
The council eventually offered her a five-bedroomed house in Bletchley, Milton Keynes, which she rejected because it was too far away from her GP and from those who helped her with the children. She would also have had to change the children’s schools.
Because she rejected the offer, Westminster council informed her that it no longer had a duty to accommodate her. She appealed against the decision. At one stage her children were taken into care.
The judgment says: “There is little to suggest that serious consideration was given to the authority’s obligations before the decision was taken to offer the property in Bletchley.
“The temporary lettings team … did not ask any questions aimed at assessing how practicable it would be for the family to move out of the area. Nor were any inquiries made to see whether school places would be available in Bletchley and what the appellant’s particular medical conditions required.”
Responding to the ruling, Nzolameso said: “I am very happy with today’s outcome and delighted to be reunited with my children after a long legal battle. When I first refused the offer of accommodation in Milton Keynes, I never envisaged that my children would be taken away from me.
“There was an obligation on the council to offer me accommodation in the district which I applied to or closer to it. Westminster simply failed to lawfully address that question.
“Naturally, I am pleased that my case will now set an important precedent for homelessness applicants across the UK who are faced with important decisions (often on very short notice) to move far away from the authority or district they apply to for housing.”
Nzolameso’s lawyer, Jayesh Kunwardia, of the firm Hodge Jones & Allen, said: “This is an important victory for my client and her children. Westminster, like other councils, is under great financial pressure and I would urge politicians on the campaign trail to take note and think long and hard about council and social housing funding. Budget cuts will not be tolerated by the courts as an excuse to move homeless families miles away from their friends and support networks.
“Figures from the Department for Communities and Local Government show that there were over 15,000 homeless households in out-of-borough temporary accommodation, an increase of 123% in three years.”
Giles Peaker, a housing specialist at Anthony Gold solicitors, said that in the first three quarters of 2014/15 more than 360 families were rehoused outside London, compared with only 10 households in 2010/11.
“This judgment is significant in a number of ways,” he said. “Local authorities will now have to give proper reasons for out-of-borough resettlements. They can’t just say: ‘We haven’t got anywhere else available.’ Councils will also have to set out public policy on out-of-borough accommodation, which can be challenged.”
Daniel Astaire, Westminster council’s cabinet member for housing and regeneration, said: “We are disappointed with the ruling, as the court of appeal had previously upheld the council’s decision on this individual case from 2012. Nevertheless, we are already taking on board what the court has said and we will continue to review our procedures, and make any necessary changes to the way in which decisions are explained to applicants.
“However, we are pleased that the ruling does not, in any way, bring into question the principle of this or other authorities housing people out of borough where it is necessary. This could have had major financial implications for central London authorities in particular.”
• This article was amended on 3 April 2015. An earlier version referred to “Bletchley, near Milton Keynes”; Bletchley is in Milton Keynes.