A London council is criticised after contacting housing associations in other parts of the country to see if they will take private tenants whose high rents are not covered by housing benefit.

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Newham Council in east London has written to 1,179 housing associations around the country, including one 160 miles away in Stoke-on-Trent, to find accommodation for the 32,000 families on its waiting list.

Westminster, Hammersmith and Fulham and Kensington and Chelsea councils are also considering a proposal for 150 households living in temporary accommodation to be housed in Derby and Nottingham.

Newham Mayor Sir Robin Wales said rising rents in the borough, which hosts the London Olympics, and the government's housing benefit cap meant it could no longer afford to put up tenants in the private rented sector.

I think there is a real issue of social cleansing going on. Gill Brown, Brighter Futures Housing Association

'Dumping tenants'

But Gill Brown, chief executive of Brighter Futures in Stoke-on-Trent, one of the organisations contacted by Newham, said London councils should not be allowed to "dump" tenants in other parts of Britain.

"I think there is a real issue of social cleansing going on," she told the BBC. "We are very anxious about this letter, which we believe signals the start of a movement which could see thousands of needy people dumped in Stoke with no proper plan for their support or their welfare."

Sir Robin said Labour-run Newham was finding it difficult to cope with a rise in the numbers of people relocating to the borough because of the housing benefit cap.

Poor

"We are one of the poorest areas in the country, we have massive overcrowding, the people who are here we are trying to deal with," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"What happens? The government, they pursue policies that push people out from the centre of London out to here. There just isn't the capacity to deal with them and we end up chasing round the country trying to deal with people who are in need."

Newham Council said in a statement: "Alongside a number of other London councils, we are also exploring the option of working with housing associations outside the borough to house people with an immediate need in the private sector, when there is no other alternative."

Newham declined to name the other housing associations it had contacted. The National Housing Federation (NHF), which represents housing associations, could not name them either.

But NHF chief executive David Orr said Newham's actions were a "desperate move which demonstrates the scale of the housing crisis", adding: "The government's welfare cuts will increase the pressure on local authorities to seek accommodation for its homeless residents far further afield. Newham's proposal could represent the tip of the iceberg among 32 London boroughs facing similar pressures."

A Stoke-on-Trent Council spokesman said: "We have received no approach from Newham Borough Council. They contacted a city housing association directly, and we understand they have given a clear refusal. However, we are very concerned about any impact another council's plans would have on our city, and the capacity the city would have to accommodate such a request."

'Playing politics'

Housing Minister Grant Shapps accused Newham of "playing politics" in the run-up to the local elections. He said there was no justification for forcing families out of London. An internet search had shown there were almost 1,000 homes available for affordable rents within a five-mile radius of Newham.

"The system is still very generous and I think that Newham are perhaps playing politics, given that we are in an election season, by writing these letters out," he told the Today programme."

Shadow Housing Minister Jack Dromey said Communities Secretary Eric Pickles' "own private secretary warned privately that proposals would force families out of London". He added: "They tried to deny this, but now we know the truth."

Westminster, Hammersmith and Fulham and Kensington and Chelsea councils have been approached by a housing association, Smart Housing Group, which has accommodation available for 150 households in Derby and Nottingham.

Westminster Council is considering a proposal that could see families living in temporary accommodation offered housing in these East Midlands cities. The scheme is voluntary.

Ben Denton, Westminster Council's housing director, said Westminster was among many London authorities "looking at temporary housing alternatives outside of the city, both in neighbouring boroughs and elsewhere".

A London council is criticised after contacting housing associations in other parts of the country to see if they will take private tenants whose high rents are not covered by housing benefit (Getty)

What changes is the government making to benefits?

The benefits bill is being targeted by the government as it seeks to cut the deficit.

In April 2011, it introduced a cap to limit the amount of housing benefit available to people living in private, rented accommodation. The cap is fixed at £250 a week for a one-bedroom home, £290 for two bedrooms, £340 for three and £400 for four.

While rents in many parts of the country, including Stoke, are way below these limits, the situation in expensive areas like London is differerent.

London Councils, which represents local authorities in the capital, carried out a survey in Sepetmber 2010, which estimated that 82,000 households (up to 250,000 people) would be at risk of losing their homes as a result of the cap - because their rents were higher.

The government has said it expects landlords to lower rents in response to the cap. But the survey showed that 60 per cent of landlords would not do so if a tenant was unable to pay their rent because of the cap.

Almost all landlords said they would evict tenants or refuse to renew tenancies if the shortfall in rent exceeded £20 a week. London Councils said the result would be a rise in homelessness and people forced to move to less expensive areas.

In November 2011, London Councils said new research has shown that 133,000 households would be unable to afford their rent because of changes to the welfare system.

The research looked at the effects of the government's proposed welfare cap of £500 a week (£26,000 a year), which includes housing benefit. This cap has yet to be introduced.

What does the government say?

Housing Minister Grant Shapps said on Tuesday that there was no justification for forcing families out of London.

He said an internet search had shown there were almost 1,000 homes available for affordable rents within a five-mile radius of Newham. He described the benefits system as "still very generous".

But in July 2011, a leaked letter from the private office of Communities Secretary Eric Pickles warned that the welfare cap could make 40,000 families homeless.

The letter, written by Mr Pickles' private secretary Nico Heslop, said the cost of rehousing people was likely to outweigh the savings.

The Department of Work and Pensions says the welfare cap will have most effect on large families living in areas where rents are high.

Its modelling assumes 54 per cent of those affected live in London, while under 5 per cent are in Scotland and under 3 per cent in Wales.

The government's rationale is simple: people out of work should not receive more in benefits than the £35,000 gross that the average working family earns in a year.

It says working people can only live in homes they can afford, and it is wrong that people out of work should not have to make similar calculations when they are looking for a home to rent.

Why is the expression "social cleansing" being used?

Gill Brown, chief executive of Brighter Futures Housing Association, is not the first person to use this term.

London's Conservative mayor Boris Johnson used the same expression in October 2010, when he said: "What we will not see, we will not accept, is any kind of Kosovo-style social cleansing. You are not going to see on my watch thousands of families being evicted from the place where they have been living and have put down roots."

After being criticised by government ministers, Mr Johnson later backed down, but he said London had "specific needs, due to the exceptional way in which the housing market works in the capital, and it is my job as mayor to make the government aware of these".