Olympic torch shouldn't light the way for London's exiles
WITH less than 100 days to the Olympics, excitement is mounting. Plans for the torch procession into Stoke-on-Trent on May 30 are well advanced, while Wedgwood is working hard on delivering its 2012 merchandise.
As someone lucky enough to have won two tickets in the ballot, I am looking forward to taking my son to the weight-lifting events.
But there is a less welcome side to the London Olympics: plans to disperse some of the toughest tenants from east London's poorest boroughs into cities such as our own. And it needs to be stopped.
Last week, a Hanley-based housing association received a disturbing letter from Newham Council, the local authority hosting July's extravaganza, asking for help.
The correspondence explained that due to an overheating of the local private rented sector in their borough – caused by a combination of this summer's Olympics and a buoyant market for London's young professionals – it could no longer afford to house tenants on its waiting list in private accommodation.
Prices have been pushed too high. As a result, the gap between rents and the Local Housing Allowance – the fixed rate of housing benefit paid to tenants in the private rented sector – was too large.
It didn't mention anything about its social housing supply but, with a chronic shortage of social housing affecting communities across Britain, it didn't need to.
However, it was the proposed 'solution' that gave the Hanley charity cause for alarm. Accompanied by a generous financial incentive, it offered the 'opportunity' to take 500 families from Newham, presumably those most in need, to house them in Stoke-on-Trent.
Newham's proposal is, at the moment, entirely voluntary. But for those charities which have been involved in local housing for many years, it evokes the spectre of past compulsory dispersal programmes, where thousands of needy people from other parts of the country were dumped into privately-owned properties in North Staffordshire. In the last decade, this has included refugees and asylum seekers with complex and demanding needs, which local public services are often poorly set up to cater for. Meanwhile, communities began to feel ignored as their streets and schools changed before their eyes.
In Stoke-on-Trent, this has placed a big strain on education, health and criminal justice systems that were unprepared for the extra demand. Meanwhile, unscrupulous absentee landlords, with little interest in property maintenance, tenant welfare or the local area, moved in to make large returns on cheap properties knowing that they were being let to the Home Office or to other councils prepared to pay over the odds because of their problems.
The inevitable result of such unplanned pressure was the disintegration of vulnerable neighbourhoods and, in certain cases, the rise of the British National Party and an unpleasant extremism that preyed on the collapse of community cohesion.
To repeat such mistakes in times of greater economic uncertainty would be a devastating step backwards for Stoke-on-Trent.
Sadly, this is not just an Olympic problem. In part it is to do with the Government's rudimentary approach to housing and its reluctance to commit to building affordable homes in areas that really need them.
Combined with cuts to housing benefit, perhaps we are witnessing the social cleansing of the poorest parts of London, predicted by Tory Mayor of London Boris Johnson.
Of course housing benefit needs reform, but the price of change should not mean communities of vulnerable people are uprooted and dumped in parts of the country they have no connection with.
The bigger story is one of economic inequality between London and the rest of the country.
We desperately need to rebalance our economy with a strategy that prioritises regional investment and growth to prevent the kind of housing mess currently gathering pace in the capital.
And the rest of the country certainly doesn't need the difficult-to-house cases London boroughs have had enough of.
Stoke-on-Trent has a proud history of welcoming outsiders and finding a place for everyone in the city.
But as our city seeks to re-build communities ruptured by the decline of traditional industries and create stable neighbourhoods, an unplanned influx of Olympic exiles will do us little good.
The 2012 games are bringing huge riches into London. The least those boroughs could do is look after their poor and needy. We look forward to welcoming the flame from Stratford – but not east London's exiles.