Come North, poor are told

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WHO SAID there was no such thing as a north/south divide? A West Yorkshire council is so keen to fill its growing number of empty council houses it has resorted to advertising for tenants in London.

Kirklees council, based in the town of Huddersfield, is writing to the capital's boroughs and homelessness charities to promote the 260 empty properties on its books.

It is hoping to woo tenants from the South-east, where social housing is in short supply, with a booklet promising a life in "Last of the Summer Wine Country" and is even offering a one-day coach trip so they can view the homes and talk to council officials about job opportunities in the area.

The rents are low - around pounds 35 a week for a one-bedroom flat and between pounds 40 and pounds 55 for a two or three bedroom house. The council will provide a decorating allowance of pounds 37.50 per room for new tenants.

"The South-east is overcrowded but we have all these empty homes available for people who wish to move to villages or towns in this area," said John Earnshaw, the manager of what the council calls its "void" properties.

"The properties were built in the Forties, Fifties and Sixties but are in good condition. The more we can fill, the more money we will have to carry out improvements across the council stock. At the moment they are a drain on council resources." According to Mr Earnshaw, the fall in demand for council properties is partly a result of competition from newer homes built by housing associations.

In addition, stable house prices have allowed increasing numbers of people to use their council homes as a stepping stone before buying their own properties.

"People have tended to assume that council housing is only for those in dire need and that there is a huge waiting list but this simply isn't the case," he added.

The initiative has been welcomed by the Association of London Government, which represents the 32 London boroughs. "Social housing in London has reached saturation point and the homeless crisis has never been worse," said ALG spokesman Steve Pearce.

"Because of the shortage of permanent housing, councils are having to find additional money to keep 40,000 homeless families in temporary bed and breakfast accommodation, not including 20,000 asylum seekers.

"Part of the problem is that the house prices are so inflated that people can no longer afford to get onto the housing ladder and the number of people switching from council into private accommodation has almost dried up. If people want to move we would help and encourage them to do so."

Mr Pearce said that some London boroughs have already approached councils elsewhere, particularly in the North, to try to relocate homeless families. The ALG is also asking the Government to make money available for councils to buy up derelict private sector homes to ease the problem.

He said that although 95 per cent of the rent for low income families was provided by housing benefit, reducing the remaining 5 per cent could mean substantial savings, even though London boroughs would be responsible for relocation costs. "The accommodation outside London tends to be much better quality as well as being permanent," he said.

"The north/south divide is not a London issue, there are pockets of deprivation in the capital that are far more severe than other parts of the country."

However, Frances Newell, of the National Homeless Alliance, cautioned that moving people without providing adequate advice and support systems could increase social exclusion.

"Moving people to another part of the country away from their network of family and friends can increase isolation," she said.

"There is more to housing people than giving them a tenancy - they need continuing support and advice on benefits, job training programmes or voluntary work."