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Exclusive: 2,300 people died while waiting for a council house last year

Investigation finds underhand tactics used by UK councils to cut wait lists as time runs out for thousands

Martin Williams
2 November 2022, 11.32am

More than 217,000 families have been waiting more than five years for social housing.

Kevin Britland / Alamy Stock Photo

More than 2,300 people died while waiting for social housing in the UK last year, openDemocracy can reveal.

That is despite councils’ efforts to dump families, many of whom are vulnerable, from their heaving housing queues – in some cases using underhand or even unlawful tactics.

Figures obtained by this website under the Freedom of Information Act also show that 217,000 households have been waiting in excess of five years for a home.

Some 30% of these are concentrated in just four London boroughs, while cities such as Southampton, Blackpool and Edinburgh also face huge backlogs.

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And nearly 68,000 households have had to wait more than 10 years, with a few individuals waiting for several decades.

A council house is the only affordable and secure housing option for many as the cost of living soars. But England alone lost a net 1.4 million council houses between 1980 and 2020, the majority through the ‘right to buy’ scheme, while private house prices have rocketed. This has resulted in eye-watering queues in parts of the country, where families can spend years stuck in insecure or overcrowded accommodation while they hang on for a long-term solution.

Some who are still waiting told openDemocracy that local authorities had left them in cramped and freezing temporary homes, whose private landlords pocket huge sums in housing benefit, because of the shortage of permanent housing.

Many councils are now actively discouraging people from applying at all, warning there is no guarantee of getting a house even if they hang on for years. COVID and the cost of living crisis have worsened the situation, with more people turning to their local council for housing help.

openDemocracy’s investigation reveals:

  • 2,361 people died while on waiting lists in the UK for social housing last year;
  • In at least one local authority area during the same period, for every three people who were offered homes, a fourth died while waiting;
  • The record waiting time is 66 years. The person in question, who first applied to Renfrewshire Council in 1956, has recently confirmed that they are still hoping to get a home;
  • Several councils have been accused of breaching laws or regulations by forcing vulnerable families off the waiting list;
  • Families have been pressured to accept temporary private sector homes out of fear they will be bumped down the waiting list if they refuse. One family told us they’d had to line the walls with cardboard in a bid to insulate their freezing flat;
  • Others stuck on the waiting list include a single mother who has spent six years in a tiny one-bed emergency flat with her young daughter after fleeing her violent husband.

Responding to our investigation, the Local Government Association (LGA) called for the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, to greenlight 100,000 new social homes to be built every year.

Current levels are dwindling, with just 6,000 new council and housing association properties completed in England last year. Meanwhile, thousands of social houses are being lost: last year, more than 17,000 were sold off, while another 4,000 were demolished.

In a bid to tackle the burgeoning waiting list, local authorities have been driven to scrubbing off hundreds of thousands of applicants by introducing ever higher bars for eligibility.

For the last decade, councils have had the power to impose blanket bans on certain applicants, such as people without a “local connection”.

But openDemocracy has seen evidence that some families are being rejected on the basis that they are labelled “intentionally homeless” or have “deliberately worsened their circumstances”. Others have been kicked off the waiting list because they have fallen into debt.

Leeds Social housing, UK

Families have been stuck in temporary accommodation for years while they wait for a home.


Paula Solloway / Alamy Stock Photo

In one case, Birmingham City Council – Europe’s largest local authority – deemed around half of all new housing applicants to be ineligible last year. The council also removed another 19,000 existing applicants for a variety of reasons, including people who turned down two houses that the council believed were “suitable”, or failed to respond to council letters on time.

Last year, the Local Government Ombudsman said that Birmingham City Council was “overwhelmed” with housing applications, and that service failures were causing “injustice” to thousands of families. Applications were taking an average of 22 weeks to assess before names could even be added to the waiting list.

The backlog grew so long that, in 2017, Birmingham effectively kicked everyone off its list and forced them to submit new applications. At the same time, it introduced strict new rules that immediately made thousands of households ineligible.

The move has allowed the council to artificially improve its performance figures, because officials can now boast that no applications date back further than 2017. But despite the stringent new measures, 650 households have already waited more than five years, while last year alone, 29 people on the list died before they could be permanently housed.

But waiting times are at their worst in London, where councils have sometimes resorted to moving people miles outside of the capital.

In Greenwich last year, 320 people died while still on the housing waiting list. In the same year, 938 social homes were let, meaning one person died before reaching the front of the queue for every three homes that were rented out.

The south London borough of Lambeth holds the record for the UK’s longest wait times, with more than 22,000 who have been on the list for more than five years. The council says it houses around 1,000 people a year – but three times as many new applications are received.

“Lambeth is one of the most expensive places to live in England,” a council spokesperson said. “There is huge pressure on the availability of social housing in Lambeth and we work hard to ensure the limited supply of available council homes are given to those with the highest need.”

Cardboard for insulation

Grace Oyeyemi first applied to Lambeth Council for housing in 2015. Despite having three children, she was moved into a one-bedroom flat, covered in mould and damp, as a temporary fix.

After a year of waiting, Lambeth said there were still no council houses available – but offered 42-year-old Grace an alternative that felt too good to turn down.

She agreed to move into temporary accommodation in Croydon, in return for being pushed up the waiting list into ‘band B’. Although the new flat was an hour away, Grace was told the arrangement would ultimately fast-track her application in Lambeth.

I’ve had to put cardboard up against the wall, to try and stop the cold... My children keep saying: ‘When are we going to leave this place?’

Grace Oyeyemi

What she wasn’t told was that Lambeth’s strict “local connection” rule meant that living outside of the borough, even temporarily, would see her automatically removed from the waiting list unless officials were able to offer her a home there within two years.

“They pushed me into what I shouldn’t have gone for,” she told openDemocracy. “They are lying to people.”

Grace took matters into her own hands, bringing legal action against the council along with three other households, with help from the local housing action group. Lawyers argued that families had been left in poor-quality accommodation and lost their rights to secure social housing.

Eventually, the council conceded the case, revised its policies, and let Grace back onto the waiting list. Years later, she is still holed up in her Croydon flat, hoping she will one day make it to the front of the queue.

“It’s a very cold house,” she said. “I spoke to the landlord but he doesn’t have the money for the roof insulation. So I’ve had to put cardboard up against the wall, to try and stop the cold.”

Grace’s children go to school in Lambeth, and her friends and wider family still live there.

“I don’t have anybody in Croydon,” she said. “It’s very stressful for my children. It’s a traumatic experience – it got to the point where I couldn’t sleep.

"My children keep saying: ‘When are we going to leave this place?’ I keep saying: ‘Soon, very soon.’ But it’s been five years now, and we’re still here.”

‘There is no chance’

Ana turned to her local council for help in 2016 after fleeing an abusive husband who had stolen her money, beaten and strangled her. The man in question walked free after forcing one of her key witnesses to change their testimony, and Ana has lived in fear of being tracked down ever since.

On top of this, she also cares for her autistic daughter – born while she sought sanctuary in a women’s refuge – who becomes easily distressed.

Authorities have left her waiting for six years for a proper council house, leaving her in a tiny one-bedroom flat.

“The property is not in a good condition,” Ana says. “It’s very small. There’s not enough room for my daughter to play properly.”

Every month, £1,220 of her benefits are sent directly to her private landlord. But Ana says when she complains about disrepair in the flat, her landlord threatens to evict her.

In the corner of the bedroom, a noisy boiler scares and disturbs her daughter. And persistent plumbing problems mean the water supply to the flat often cuts out without warning.

“This has made me very depressed, very stressed,” she said. “I’ve been doing GCSEs and I’m unable to concentrate on my studies because I’m stressed all the time.”

If she is evicted, the council will try to provide so-called ‘emergency accommodation’. But she worries that this could result in her council house application being moved even further down the list.

Ana added: “Because my daughter is autistic, it is very difficult for her to accept a change. The school is very near, so I don’t want to change her school.”

With about 350 households still in front of her on the list, she is losing hope. “There is no chance,” she says. “It looks like I won’t get a home even in another three years.”

‘Dwindling resources’

Records from the Local Government Ombudsman reveal how councils pursue anyone who falls foul of their stringent rules.

In one case, Torbay Council kicked a family off the waiting list because they fell into debt to their private landlord.

Their father – known only as Mr X – said he was reluctant to downsize when he began struggling with the rent as he wanted his children to keep their own bedrooms. The council, however, insisted he should find cheaper accommodation.

When his rent arrears hit £11,500 the council accused him of “intentionally” creating the situation and said he would no longer be eligible for a council house. The ombudsman said this position was “in line with policy”.

But other councils were found to have ignored crucial evidence about families’ financial and medical needs, resulting in their applications being wrongly rejected or deprioritised.

Housing is one of the most fundamental rights that people should have. Governments need to take that extremely seriously.

Jane Meagher, Labour councillor

While removing people from waiting lists causes upset and frustration among families, it is seen by many in local government as one of the few ways to ‘stay on top’ of the spiralling housing crisis.

The LGA lays the blame squarely with the government, and warns that things will get worse.

“Every council will have their own allocation policy,” says David Renard, who chairs the organisation’s Economy, Environment, Housing and Transport Board. “But I’d be very surprised if there was a huge amount of difference between any of them because they will all want to prioritise the most vulnerable groups.

“It is a big challenge and with the current issues facing the country it’s going to get more difficult.”

Next year, rent rises for millions of people living in social housing will be capped, as government ministers have pledged to “protect the most vulnerable households in these exceptional circumstances”. But while the cap will help limit the squeeze on family finances, others warn it will have a knock-on effect on council budgets – which rely on the rent income to fund other housing work.

“There’s a double-edged sword to this issue,” Renard says. “Councils do what they can to build new homes, but some of that is dependent on the annual rent increase. If there’s less money in the system, we’re going to be able to do less to improve existing stock and provide new stock.”

The LGA – along with charities and campaigners – say the best long-term fix is to massively increase the number of social homes. But that requires money, which is scarce, while punitive central government rules restrict what councils are allowed to do even with the cash they do get from right-to-buy sales – whose scale they have no control over.

“Social homes are the only type of homes that are affordable by design, with rents pegged to local incomes,” said Polly Neate, chief executive of the charity Shelter. “We desperately need more of them.”

In the meantime, some councillors feel they have been left to deal with an impossible situation, while Westminster and the UK’s devolved government fail to adequately fund them.

Edinburgh Council’s housing chief Jane Meagher says the Scottish government needs to “put their money where their mouth is” – rather than lumping the problem on local authorities with “dwindling resources”.

More than 5,400 households have now waited more than five years for social housing in the city and even the highest priority families can wait almost three years to be housed.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that we need more support from the Scottish government,” the Labour councillor told openDemocracy. “We’ve got a housing crisis in Edinburgh.

“We have a statutory duty to accommodate people who are homeless. But regardless of how many people present as homeless, we still have the same amount of money. So we have to find it somewhere, because we have no choice. We can’t leave people on the streets.

“What the Scottish government does is blame Westminster. They say the grant we get from Westminster isn’t sufficient.”

However, Meagher points out that the Scottish government actually underspent its annual budget by nearly half a billion pounds last year, while local councils struggled to make ends meet.

“When I was at primary school, we were taught that food, clothing and shelter were the three basic needs for human survival. Not quality of life, but survival. So for me, housing is one of the most fundamental rights that people should have. Governments need to take that extremely seriously.”

Do you know someone who died while waiting for a house? Email [email protected]

*Ana’s name has been changed.

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