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Evictions soar as councils get tough on arrears: Squatter and tenants who owe rent are being quickly removed from inner-city estates. Ian Gregory reports

EVICTIONS from inner London council properties rose by 78 per cent to 3,034 last year as local authorities engaged in an unprecedented efficiency drive.

As the numbers of owner occupiers losing their homes because of mortgage arrears fell, the number of council tenants losing their homes because of rent arrears in England and Wales rose to more than 7,930. Yet while most owner- occupiers who lose their homes are able to obtain council accommodation, few of those evicted by councils are offered alternative council accommodation.

In some boroughs, whole estates have been transformed as squatters and indebted tenants have been swept from them. For much of the 1980s, Labour-controlled Southwark council in south London had more than 1,000 properties squatted and did not evict tenants for rent arrears. Last year it evicted more than 1,304 tenants for arrears and had only 74 of its homes squatted. Next door Lambeth, also Labour-controlled, evicted 13 tenants in the first three months of last year, but threw out 406 in the rest of the year. In four months it evicted 649 squatters.

'We are evicting as furiously as we can, but the courts are holding us up,' Irwin Van Colle, housing chairman for Conservative-controlled Brent council, in north- west London, which evicted 346 tenants last year, said.

The common theme behind the moves is that Whitehall no longer allows councils to subsidise their housing departments from poll tax revenues. This has left councils determined to maximise rent income so as to avoid rent increases or cuts in their repair budgets. Evictions mean councils have more properties free for homeless families and can save money for areas such as education.

In Southwark, more evictions plus quicker turnover of vacant properties means the council has increased new lettings by 2,300 to 5,700 a year and reduced its use of bed and breakfast by three-quarters. Unless the council decides that those it has evicted have special needs, it will not offer them alternative accommodation. Southwark only rehoused 24 of the 1,304 tenants it evicted last year.

In some boroughs more than one in four tenants are more than a year behind with their rent, and last year Brent evicted a tenant who was eight years behind.

Many tenants are victims of the near breakdown of the council- run housing benefit system. Long delays in processing housing benefit claims mean many tenants were wrongly advised on how much rent to pay in advance of an assessment of a rebate. To avoid this problem the Government legislated that claims for benefit should be settled within 14 days. But in the Hounslow, west London, the average delay is 112 days.

Sue Lukes, of the housing advice group Shac, said. 'For people who have to budget to the last penny, delays in assessments cause chaos as they don't know how much rent to pay.'

Housing advice workers complain that many of the problems caused by housing benefit are due to the complexity of the means- tested system. Tenants often build up arrears and are threatened with eviction because they fail to fill in forms properly.

Devolving housing management to neighbourhood offices is helping many boroughs get on top of arrears and housing benefit problems. Local officers are also more adept at putting homeless families into empty properties before they are squatted, and the proportion of empty properties has started to fall.

The Government is allowing Southwark to spend an extra pounds 10m this year on renovating its housing stock. Mike Gibson, chair of the council's housing committee, said: 'You have to play the game by the Government's rules. The councils which won't adapt are going to slide further and further into the inner-city pit of demoralised staff, high levels of rent arrears and run down estates.'

----------------------------------------------------------------- EMPTY PROPERTIES ----------------------------------------------------------------- Percentage of council's housing stock BEST Solihull 0.6 Wakefield 0.7 Wigan 0.7 Doncaster 0.8 Merton 0.9 WORST Liverpool 11.4 Hackney 8.9 Manchester 5.5 Salford 4.7 North Tyneside 4.4 ----------------------------------------------------------------- RENT ARREARS ----------------------------------------------------------------- Percentage of tenants more than a year in arrears BEST Wakefield 0 Barnsley 0.02 Kingston upon Thames 0.10 St Helens 0.14 Oldham 0.30 WORST Brent 27.75 Haringey 26.30 Southwark 19.73 Lambeth 16.76 Ealing 12.50 ----------------------------------------------------------------- HOUSING BENEFIT ----------------------------------------------------------------- Average delay in processing claims (days) BEST Bradford 3 Newcastle 3 Bury 5 Knowsley 5 Wakefield 5 WORST Hounslow 112 Ealing 37 Hackney 29 Kirklees 28 Southwark 27 -----------------------------------------------------------------

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