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NO PLACE TO GO
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A RECIPROCAL MOVE ARRANGEMENT BETWEEN COUNCILS CAN OFFER WOMEN FLEEING DOMESTIC VIOLENCE A FRESH START.

SO WHY IS THE SCHEME NOT WORKING AND WHAT ARE THE STARK CHOICES FACING VICTIMS? DANIELLE AUMORD INVESTIGATES

Rasheeda Brennan * was cooking her Saturday night dinner when her eight-year-old daughter’s father unexpectedly showed up at the front door. Teary eyed and visibly shaken as she talks to Inside Housing, the 30-year-old remembers the incident clearly.
“I couldn’t see through the spy hole properly, so I opened the door. He pretended to hug me but actually he was pushing me back into my flat so that he could get in.” He then struck her and pushed her to the floor. Neighbours heard her screaming and the police were eventually called. He was later arrested and bailed. The case is ongoing. Understandably, Rasheeda feels unsafe and wants to move home. And, in theory, she should be able to. The reciprocal move scheme is a voluntary programme administered by local authorities working in partnership, typically in six-borough quadrants. Reciprocal move arrangements for victims of domestic violence allow the victim’s home borough to approach another council for a property to transfer to. For example, Camden can approach Islington for a reciprocal move for a victim in council housing in their borough and then – if or when Islington needs proper- ties for reciprocal moves – it can ask Camden for them back. The idea is that the person or family moving can receive another secure or lifetime tenancy in another borough. So how come, three months later, Rasheeda is still living in the same place, scared that the perpetrator will return? Partly, because the system does not always run smoothly. Not always practical Inside Housing understands that Islington Council has told other councils that it does not have any proper- ties available for reciprocal moves, despite having successfully moved many of its own victims away from the borough. Diarmaid Ward, executive member for housing and development at Islington Council, explains: “Unfortunately, like London as a whole, Islington faces a severe shortage of afford- able housing and it is not always easy to find an appropriate property that meets the often complex needs of tenants in such difficult circumstances who are moving from outside the borough.” Rasheeda is now fourth in line for a reciprocal move. Her support worker thinks the move will take too long to organise, leading her to instead apply for an in-borough move. Campaigners have criticised the reciprocal move scheme for being only voluntary and for working in local regional settings as opposed to operating at a London-wide or national level. What is more, some councils may end up giving up a lot of properties but not necessarily get the same number back when they are in need (see box: The north London example). “Some boroughs are reluctant to give properties because they are not sure if they will get them back,” says Gill Herd, housing lead at domestic violence charity Solace Women’s Aid. “We want a well-managed, mandatory, pan-London or even national scheme because often women fleeing violence might leave behind a secure tenancy and end up in private or temporary accommodation. In many cases, the perpetrator gets to stay in a family-sized, secure flat.” Solace, which runs 19 refuges with 150 beds in six London boroughs, is currently working with key organisations to discuss the problems faced by women fleeing domestic violence in accessing or maintaining safe housing. It has floated the idea of a mandatory reciprocal arrangement. “The current reciprocal arrangements are hit and miss, and inconsistently applied,” Ms Herd explains. “Some boroughs are asking victims for local connection even though the rules around domestic violence clearly state that local connection should not be enforced.” Victims of abuse may sometimes want to relocate away from home to another part of the country, which is why regional agreements could be more helpful than those between neighbouring councils. Safer London, an independent London-wide charity, is currently working on a pan-London agreement. It hopes that all boroughs will sign up but it is still voluntary. “We are working on a new way of co-ordinating reciprocal agreements, explains Esther Sample, domestic violence project manager at the charity. “We aim to better monitor and follow up on moves, to keep track on who has put into the scheme and is owed properties, gathering evidence on how voluntary reciprocal arrangements can work.” A national mandatory scheme would help victims to get to a place of safety and, crucially, protect their secure social housing tenancy.
 Last year, according to research by Solace Women’s Aid, more than 60% of women entering one of its refuges from a secure tenancy lost this upon leaving, while 87% moved on to another form of emergency temporary accommodation. Losing a life- time tenancy is a worry for many victims in social housing – and some may prioritise housing security over safety because of the shortage of social housing. Secure tenancy In a 2014 study by the charity, Finding the Costs of Freedom, one key worker summarised the dilemma: “A lot of women I work with have a secure tenancy. They do not want to leave this but often do not have a lot of choice.” When asked about the issue, a Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) spokes- person advises: “Regulations under the Housing and Planning Act set out circumstances in which local authorities can continue to grant lifetime tenancies to existing lifetime tenants including those escaping from domestic violence.” However, despite the regulations, support workers have complained that the guidelines for supporting victims under the Housing and Planning Act are not clear enough, with lifetime tenancies being retained in some incidences but not in others. Emma Pheby, a manager for Toynbee Hall’s Free Legal Advice Centre, highlights how guidance can be applied inappropriately: “We find that local authorities are sometimes placing clients in non-priority banding when they are homeless through domestic violence. It is not until we intervene that they correct their decisions. We want to see more appropriate decision-making at an early stage to prevent further distress.” Sue Gatrell, assistant director for L&Q’s north-east London neighbourhood, welcomes the guidelines for appropriate approaches within abuse cases but also wants to see changes in legislation: “Legislation should be a priority in terms of strengthening the work undertaken in tackling domestic violence.” Solace is also advocating for the guidelines within the Housing and Planning Act to become legislation, to minimize the damage done to victims upon a move. Another criticism of the scheme is that it is only available to council tenants. But housing associations are beginning to take note. Women’s Pioneer Housing, for example, which has 1,000 properties spread across Middlesex and west London, sets aside a small number of flats for women leaving refuges. “We’re optimistic about a reciprocal scheme being developed,” insists chief executive Janet Davies. “Domes- tic violence needs a quick response and the capital’s housing shortage means that the turnover is slow. Access to another landlord’s accommodation may be vital in these circumstances.” Women’s Pioneer Housing is unique in that only women can be lead tenants in its properties. This provision acts as a safeguard for women who often lose their homes when they have joint tenancies with abusive partners. The East London Housing Partnership (ELHP) developed an agreement in 2009 that includes eight local authorities but also covers 20 housing associations. ELHP is also actively supporting Safer London’s new London-wide arrangement. Margaret Williams, homelessness project manager at ELHP, explains: “We are clear that the reciprocal agreement should be open to registered providers, too. The main objections authorities have is a concern that they will not get a reciprocated property. However, the new pan-London version does away with that concern using the ‘property pot’ model.” Loss of security With the fear of losing lifetime tenancies hanging over many victims, strategies such as the proposed pan-London reciprocal agreement could help to increase the confidence of victims to move at a time when fewer and fewer traditional social housing homes are being built. According to the Greater London Authority, in 2014/15, of the 12,641 new affordable homes to rent built, 3,031 were available for social rent with the other properties being rented out for up to 80% of local private market rents. In 2015/16, just 738 units were completed for social rent. These figures, well known to much of the sector, are of particular relevance to victims of domestic violence, some of whom are faced with an impossible choice: security of tenure or personal safety. For many tenants who have suffered abuse, so-called affordable tenancies are out of their price range, as opposed to social housing, which is generally at 20-40% of the market. So in an ideal world, what would the housing solution for domestic violence victims look like? Anthony Owen, a solicitor at TV Edwards, tells Inside Housing that social housing tenants who are victims of abuse should be supported by their councils or housing associations so that a sympathetic, convenient and confidential move can be arranged where they retain their original tenancy agreement. “Victims should have a direct communication with someone in authority,” he explains. “There should be a managed move and it should be sympathetic. They shouldn’t have to bid for it or go homeless and go into a hostel.” Women fleeing abuse who enter refuges can present at any council for housing – but if they have not been to a refuge they must first present a case for a move to their own council before approaching other local authorities. “When councils are applying a social residency test for social housing, we expect them to apply appropriate exemptions for those fleeing violence,” says the DCLG spokesperson. The Housing Act 1977 placed a duty on local housing authorities in England to secure permanent accommodation for unintentionally homeless people in priority need – including abuse victims. Presenting persons can be placed in social housing or private rented accommodation – some- thing that many are keen to avoid because of the obvious added expense. Clearer thinking The clarion call from those working within the field is for clearer-cut legislation to provide safety and security of tenure for victims of abuse. This combined with a nationalised, mandatory reciprocal moves scheme would help to make services for victims more consistent. But what about Rasheeda? She has been told that she has been accepted for an in-borough move but she still does not know where she will end up or when the move will happen. She has a panic button that will activate an emergency call to the police if pressed. The button was installed courtesy of the Sanctuary Scheme, a DCLG initiative. A spokesperson describes the scheme as helping “to ensure people can stay close to family, friends and key services”, but for Rasheeda while she is waiting to move, the Sanctuary Scheme may not be enough. She is nervous about her former partner coming back. “You should watch that documentary,” she tells me. “Murdered by my Boyfriend.” ■
*Name changed to protect identity
 
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