Fixing London’s housing crisis has never been more urgent. Today, there are more than 75,000 homeless children in the capital. And, in the last quarter of 2022, more than 13,000 households approached London councils for help with housing. But cash-strapped councils are struggling to cope, and, in Croydon, things are only set to get worse.
In November 2022, Croydon Council announced their third bankruptcy in two years. Now, it appears it is housing workers that are likely to pay the price. Workers are worried and angry over a proposed restructuring of its vital housing department at a time when demand for housing support in Croydon has never been higher. Jobs are likely to be slashed and workloads increased. With pleas from anxious workers ignored, members of the GMB union have raised a collective grievance and taken to the picket line to protect a vital local service and their livelihoods.
The cutting of twenty-six frontline roles will fall primarily on the Housing Advice and Homelessness Department, with cuts to youth services, support for individuals with no resource to public funds and the discretionary housing payment team on the cards. Housing advice and homelessness support is a statutory service supporting residents to avoid the risk of homelessness, including through negotiation with landlords. The housing team provide accommodation, practical advice on finding and maintaining a home within a budget and financial assistance for those struggling with deposits and rent arrears.
Emily, a housing worker at Croydon Council, was left bemused by the proposed restructuring, particularly at a time when demand for housing support services is growing. ‘Over the past few years and especially since the pandemic, we are finding more residents in distress with high levels of debt and struggling with the increasing cost of living, which is having a knock-on effect to rent affordability, whilst rents are going through the roof.’ With residents unable to find affordable housing in the private rental market, more and more are turning to the council for assistance. The combined pressure of withdrawn mortgage interest tax relief and interest rate rises has meant more and more landlords in Croydon are selling up, meaning even fewer rental properties and increased rent prices.
Escalating the Housing Crisis
The current stock of social housing in Croydon is nowhere near enough to deal with the current housing crisis. Over 7000 households are on the council’s housing register and average wait times stand at around ten years. Families find themselves in homeless hostels, bedsits and hotel rooms as demand for temporary accommodation soars.
If Croydon Council’s housing team cannot assist a resident in avoiding homeless, the council has a legal duty to provide accommodation for those in ‘priority need’. Just as residents are finding it hard to find affordable accommodation, so too are councils, meaning homeless families are spending even longer in temporary accommodation.
‘With the increasing level of demand for housing advice and homelessness applications, council officers have been raising concerns about increasing caseloads and the negative effect this has on being able to provide timely advice and assistance to residents,’ explains Emily.
‘Residents feel this too, as they will know first-hand how difficult it is to get in touch with an officer, which can cause difficulties, especially if they are seeking urgent assistance to be able to complete a tenancy sign-up, which they could otherwise miss out on.’ For the past few years, says Emily, council officers have repeatedly made the case for more housing staff, but to no avail. ‘Because there aren’t enough housing officers to meet the increased demand, residents are now finding it can take three months from initial enquiry to get to speak to an officer. This has also taken its toll on officers, some who have become unwell due to the workload and the lack of meaningful support from senior management.’
Instead, Croydon Council are set to cut the number of housing officers. Those that remain will be expected to take on additional duties, increasing the workload for burnout staff.
‘This restructure is going to have a negative effect on the service that Croydon Residents receive, and because it will make it more difficult for vulnerable households to get the help they require, this will impact local communities.’
Lara, a Croydon council worker likely to be affected by the restructuring, has been working for Croydon Council for a number of years and currently manages an increasingly heavy caseload. She’s furious about the way long-standing staff members like her have been treated. ‘The whole restructure is being managed by people who recently joined the council. They do not have any knowledge of the challenges we face and what we do on a daily basis. They go by outdated job descriptions and information. We’ve been working here for many years, and they don’t listen to us. When questions were asked, we were not being given the whole answer and were told everything is going as planned.’
‘Senior management have had no regard for staff wellbeing, staff who will soon be asked to do an impossible and unmanageable job,’ says Emily. ‘Too many colleagues have already suffered ill health even before this botched restructure was announced.’
Prior to 2016, explains Emily, housing officers had a generic role with additional responsibilities. This, she says, led to a huge backlog of residents in temporary accommodation. There are fears that history will repeat itself as too few officers with massively increased caseloads will have less time to investigate and write formal decisions.
Housing staff allege that the proposed restructuring has been justified on the basis of incorrect data. In a recent meeting with management and the director, Emily alleges that the council admitted that they had underreported the actual demand for Housing Advice and Homelessness services but made clear their intention to pursue the restructuring regardless.
‘We were shocked and couldn’t believe it. You would think that after the council went bankrupt, using accurate data to inform financial decisions would kind of be a priority. And most bizarrely, the director confirmed that we would need additional staff resources to clear the backlog of pending advice applications but wouldn’t provide that extra resource until after the restructure when we’d have less officers.’
In late May, GMB, the union for many housing staff, began balloting its members for strike action. The workers voted by 94 percent for strike action and took two days of strike action on 28 and 29 June.
Lara says this strike was entirely avoidable, but she was left with no choice after the concerns she repeatedly raised were ignored. She sees this restructuring as nothing more than a short-term cost-cutting exercise that will only expose the council to greater financial risk in the long term.
‘I can’t understand how things will be better by reducing a service that is already understaffed and is struggling to meet demands. How would the restructure actually benefit the council when they will be losing more staff and resources?’
The union has also accused council leaders, including Mayor Jason Perry and CEO Katherine Kerswell, of ignoring a collective grievance signed by eighty staff and being deliberately evasive, with meeting minutes having been lost and formal questions remaining unanswered by HR and Heads of Service.
Rachael Baylis, a GMB Organising Assistant, says Croydon council is totally failing housing workers and service users in what she describes as a ‘botched restructure’. ‘The current proposals are an absolute dog’s dinner with little thought to the practical application. GMB has major concerns about the equalities impacts of these proposals, which have been completely ignored. It was not our members who bankrupted the council, and they should not be the ones paying for it with their jobs, their workloads and their health.’
After years of ever-increasing workloads and now their livelihoods under threat, housing workers are organising for better—and they aren’t afraid to call further strike action to demand their worth. ‘Our members will be showing the full force of their anger at not only these plans but also the way they’ve been treated. They have been warned.’