Lawyers worried by council's 'lack of transparency' on Grenfell survivors' rights
Government could bypass housing law and council policy to give those left homeless more certainty over their future
Lawyers have called on the government to rehouse survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire within the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) amid reports that residents may be resettled as far away as Preston or declared ‘intentionally homeless’ by the local council.
The Metropolitan Police has confirmed that 79 residents of the 24-storey block are now dead or presumed dead following last week’s fire in West London. Only five victims of the disaster have so far been formally identified, but lawyers at North Kensington Law Centre have warned that those living in flats sublet without permission may never be identified.
Although the government has announced that those left homeless by the fire will be given at least £5,500 from an emergency fund, reports have surfaced that survivors of the blaze have been put into old people’s homes or offered alternative accommodation outside the borough.
Regular Solicitors Journal columnist Russell Conway, senior partner at Oliver Fisher, told LBC’s Nick Ferrari: ‘What we mustn’t see is these people being sent away to, as I’m hearing, Preston and further afield. Or told local means Bow, Barnet, or Brent. Local means Kensington, these people need to be housed in their local community.’
Jayesh Kunwardia, a partner at Hodge Jones & Allen, expressed concern that RBKC has yet to explain how its current homelessness policy – which sets out the council’s duty of care under the Housing Act – will apply to the hundreds of people it now must house.
‘I’ve already spoken to a number of former Grenfell Tower residents who have refused RBKC’s offer of temporary accommodation outside of the borough and have opted to stay with family or friends instead. However, by doing so, this means that under the council’s current policy, RBKC could now refuse to accept a duty to house them under the Housing Act as they have made themselves “intentionally homeless”.
‘I’m worried that former Grenfell Tower residents, who have very good reasons for refusing an offer of accommodation, because of potential difficulties with work, schooling, medical appointments, or their social network, may be penalised as a result. It seems to me that there is a lack of transparency by RBKC on the legal rights available to the victims of this tragic disaster.’
Kunwardia said the council must make clear to each tenant how any decisions its makes now will impact their chances of being housed later on.
‘Better still, RBKC should immediately revoke its own housing policy for all Grenfell Tower’s former residents and commit to working with each resident to find suitable accommodation,’ he added. ‘No resident should be at risk of losing their right to be housed if they refuse accommodation that is unsuitable.’
Given the circumstances, the housing solicitor explained that the government could invoke the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, which would allow ministers to create emergency temporary legislation and help RBKC change its current policy.
Any emergency provisions would then have to be presented to parliament for approval. Parliament may amend the regulations but must approve them within seven days of laying.
Labour’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has called on the government to requisition vacant luxury properties to help those left homeless by the fire, an idea that Conway, talking to LBC, argued would be ‘troublesome and difficult’.
‘Getting legalisation through to requisition homes in Kensington would be quite troublesome and difficult,’ he said. ‘The other way is to do it by compulsory purchase order, that’s almost impossible there are rights for appeal and the process could take a year if not longer.
‘The solution is really much simpler,’ he continued, ‘just look in any estate agents in Kensington, there are literally hundreds if not thousands of flats available which the [RBKC] could rent.’
The prime minister has promised that all those affected by the fire will be rehoused within three weeks either in Kensington and Chelsea or a neighbouring borough.
John van der Luit-Drummond is deputy editor of Solicitors Journal