Women fleeing abuse are being “re-traumatised” by the housing system

Action Aid's campaign highlighting violence against women, in London's Marble Arch, May 2016. Image: Action Aid.

“I escaped one abuser, only to be abused again by a group of men in a privileged position.”

When Zara escaped years of abuse and trafficking, she thought she would be safe at last. The years of terror were behind her, and she had plenty of evidence to prove a history of violence and trauma. She was ready to restart her life – and to do that she needed a home. 

But when she tried to present herself as “unintentionally homeless” to her local authority, Zara’s ordeal began. 

“The housing team repeatedly asked me to go over really, really detailed accounts of eight years of trauma again and again,” Zara alleges. “There were no safeguards in place to stop my PTSD flaring up. It’s had a massive impact on my mental health as I feel I’m being re-abused.”

Domestic abuse is a key cause of female homelessness – and women are more likely to be homeless than men. A survey by the charity Crisis in 2014 found that 61 per cent of women who were homeless had experienced domestic abuse. 

Local authorities have a duty to support homeless victims of domestic abuse. But for a woman fleeing violence in England, being a victim of gender-based violence does not automatically qualify her for emergency housing. Instead, she must prove a “priority need” – pregnancy, small children, or a mental or physical disability. If a victim of abuse is unintentionally homeless and not in priority need, then she is entitled to free advice and assistance. 

Campaigners now want this to change – Zara included. She has set up a petition asking for legislative reform so survivors are prioritised for housing. She’s not alone. A report authored by the APPG on Ending Homelessness, and supported by Crisis, recommended 2019’s landmark Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill  ensured “people have access to safe, secure accommodation when they flee domestic abuse.”

Despite the APPG’s report, the bill’s first draft made no specific recommendations on homelessness and abuse. Crisis is now “urging the government to put survivors first and amend the Domestic Abuse Bill so that everyone fleeing domestic abuse has a safe and stable home in which they can recover and thrive”. 

Director of Services Rebecca Pritchard explains: “It should be a source of national shame that survivors of domestic abuse are being left with no option but to return to their abuser or face the devastation of homelessness, because they aren’t considered a priority for help with finding a safe home.”

Survivors of abuse who do not qualify as having a “priority need” are required to demonstrate additional vulnerabilities as a result of domestic violence in order to be housed. It’s up to the individual council to decide what constitutes “vulnerability”. 

One way they attempt to do so is by demanding proof of domestic abuse. For those who have not reported abuse to the police or specialist services, this can present an impossible barrier. It’s for this reason the Homelessness Code of Guidance states the duty to provide accommodation is not dependent on “proof”. It should instead be triggered by a lower evidential requirement – having “reason to believe” the applicant.

This is not happening in every case. In fact, Women’s Aid found 15.4 per cent of women surveyed who were prevented from making a homelessness application were turned down because they did not have sufficient evidence of violence. This policy led to one woman being asked to provide “written proof from my perpetrator that I had been made homeless because of the abuse he inflicted on me”. 

Providing “proof” can be a re-traumatising process. It’s forced Zara to relive years of abuse over a number of face-to-face sessions, during which she alleges she was asked questions that betrayed a lack of understanding of trafficking and gender based violence. 

“They’ve asked me to provide email correspondence to prove there was coercive control from my abuser,” Zara explained. “Even though I’ve provided police reports, letters from domestic violence specialists, and his criminal record. I’ve given them so much evidence, but nothing is good enough. The council can do what they like because guidelines are only guidelines.”

The good news is, change is possible. In Bristol, a campaign by Acorn led to the city changing the way social housing was allocated.

“We supported a survivor who wanted to campaign for survivors of domestic abuse to be moved up to Band 1,” Acorn campaigner Anny Cullum explains. Band 1 is the name the council gives for priority need. “She managed to change it so a survivor who has a MARAC order [multi-agency risk assessment conference] will be moved quicker and more likely to get the place they bid on. It didn’t go as far as she wanted it to. But it did go some way towards it.”

Zara is still waiting for her housing situation to be resolved. Now a single mum of a young daughter, she’s more determined than ever to campaign for “the law to be changed” – and Acorn is supporting her. 

“It’s one thing to be happening to me but now it’s happening to my child as well and it’s completely wrong that she should have to inherit this. She’s done nothing wrong – and neither have I. I’m just trying to escape abuse.”


Here are my five favourite London council estates

The Dunboyne Road estate. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Labour member of the London Assembly. In the name of impartiality, CityMetric would like to extend the invitation to write similar columns to representatives of other political parties.

From successful post-war efforts to move families out of slums and into modern homes, to today’s efforts to construct a new generation of social housing, there’s much to be celebrated in London’s precious council housing stock.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which established a national building programme with government funding for the first time. So here – in no particular order – are my top five London estates:

1. Dunboyne Road

In 1965, the newly established London Borough of Camden was bold and radical when it came to public housing. Their architect’s department boasted 98 staff, led by Sydney Cook. The Grade II listed Dunboyne Road (pictured above) was Britain’s first high-density, low-rise estate. Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1977, it was the first major work by architect Neave Brown.

Its concrete construction and geometric layout are eye-catchingly modernist, but the 71 flats and maisonettes fit neatly into their surroundings; a reimagining of the classic London street for the 1960s. Each has a private terrace and own entrance onto the central pedestrian walkway and communal gardens, with stepped levels and dual-aspect windows creating light throughout.

Neave Brown himself lived on the estate in the final years of his life remarking, “Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful”.

2. Lilington Gardens

Located just off Vauxhall Bridge Road, the fourteen blocks at Lilington Gardens were built between 1964 and 1972. Between three and eight storeys each, it was again a rejection of the tower blocks which dominated the era, showing that mid-rise housing could provide both beauty and density.

Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when Westminster could be proud of the quality of its housing, John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke won a competition to design the new estate. The result was something special, eschewing modernist forms for something more rugged and layered. The layout allows for secluded green spaces, while the red brick cladding echoes the neighbouring Victorian church of St James the Less. Like all good estates, it included a pub – the Grade II*-listed Pimlico Tram (now The Cask). It was included not as an afterthought, but an integral part of the estate’s design.

3. Ossulston Estate

By the early 1950s, the London County Council’s architect’s department was the biggest in the world, building housing on a huge scale in addition to showp iece projects such as the Southbank Centre.

Though their suburban estates – Downham in Bromley, and Becontree in Barking and Dagenham – were pioneering examples of low-rise of modernity in metroland, these efforts did not always suit the needs of poor city dwellers who weren’t able to move further out. The Ossulton Estate, however, built between 1927 and 1931 on the site of a Somerstown slum and located between Euston and St Pancras stations, did exactly that.

Image: Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons.

Chief architect George Topham Forrest’s work was inspired by visits to ‘Red’ Vienna and Ossulston bears distinct similarities to Karl Marx-Hof, which was constructed at the same time. While the roofs and windows have traditional elements, the overall aesthetic is a modernist classic. Like many estates in post-war years, it suffered from neglect and a lack of investment, but following a £6m improvement programme by Camden Council in 2004, the Ossulston is now back to its brilliant best.

4. Alton Estate

Roehampton’s Alton Estate, completed in 1959, was designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt – the first woman to serve as a senior public sector architect in Britain.

The two parts of the estate – East and West – are the crown jewels of British post-war council housing. Alton West was Le Corbusier in Albion: six ultra-modernist blocks modelled on the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, set among the landscape inherited from the Georgian Mount Clare house. Alton East was a softer, Scandinavian-inspired design of the “new Brutalists” in the LCC.

Image: Stevekeiretsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Rising above the trees to the north east of Richmond Park, the Alton Estate stands testament to the visionary idealism of post-war council housebuilding. On its completion, visitors flocked from across the globe, with American critic G.E. Kidder Smith calling it “probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world”.

Sadly, Alton West however is now at risk from ‘regeneration’ proposals which would see 288 existing homes lost. While council estates should not be fetishised, with investment, improvement and expansion encouraged, any change must be done sensitively and with residents’ backing. I hope that Wandsworth Council and Redrow will follow the mayor’s Good Practice for Estate Regeneration and hold a ballot before plans go ahead, and that if they do, they build on Rosemary Stjernstedt’s legacy.

5. King’s Crescent

When it comes to regeneration Hackney Council have taken an altogether different approach to Wandsworth.

Located on Green Lanes opposite the magnificent Clissold Park, King’s Crescent’s route to a successful and well-supported regeneration project hasn’t always been an easy one. The early 1970s estate was blighted by poor construction, navigability issues and an ill-fated partial demolition in 2000 which turned much of the landscape into hoardings and rubble. But thanks to a step-change in resident engagement and a transformation programme funded by Hackney Council, by 2023 it will be host to 765 new and refurbished homes.

Image: David Holt/Wikimedia Commons.

In the era of government-imposed cuts to local authority budgets, councils have to be pragmatic about funding choices and the new King’s Crescent does include homes for private sale. This is understandably a source of some consternation, but it’s also the source of funding which has made the regeneration possible. Hackney has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the new homes are genuinely affordable, with 97 brand new council homes for social rent.

The new developments have greatly enhanced the area, using both new build and renovation to stitch the estate better into its Victorian surroundings. Existing homes have been retrofitted with balconies, while disused garage space has been repurposed for modern flats. Hackney have clearly thought carefully about character and open spaces, as well as ceiling heights, windows and internal storage.

It is an exceptional project – one of a growing number of new schemes now being spearheaded by ambitious councils across the capital. In 2018-19, the Mayor of London funded the start of 1,916 new council homes – the highest figure since 1984-85.

…what about the Barbican?

On the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, it would be remiss not the mention the Barbican. It’s a brutalist masterpiece and a fantastic feat of post-war planning and design. The location and design are clearly outstanding, but it’s the bright and modern interiors which are truly to die for.

So why is it not on the list? Although it was built by the City of London Corporation, not one of the flats was ever available at a social rent. The properties were built to let at market rents to workers in the City, who later found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to snap them up under the Right to Buy – still the fate of far too many of London’s vital social homes.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.