English councils struggle to maintain Ukraine refugee scheme as war drags on


There were deer outside her window and pheasants in the woods when Ukrainian refugee Alina Shakirova and her eight-year-old son first woke up in the cottage lent to them by their Wiltshire hosts in May.

Relative to what greets many other refugees landing in the UK, the 105,000 Ukrainians like Shakirova, who have come with visas under the Homes for Ukraine scheme have been treated to a generous welcome.

But the scheme, which offered sanctuary to Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion provided they found a British sponsor willing to host them for at least six months, is fraying as it enters its 10th month with no sign of the war abating.

Around a quarter of volunteer hosts surveyed do not want to continue beyond the initial six months they agreed to, according to the Office for National Statistics. Some Ukrainians are themselves eager to become more independent now and by the end of October, 2,175 across England had presented as homeless.

This combination is placing huge strain on cash-strapped local authorities with a duty to ensure the refugees are housed.

“Sooner or later, you need to move on,” said Shakirova, a special needs psychologist. She found solace in rural Wiltshire in south-west England, which has among the largest number of Ukrainians, and her son had loved the village school. But it had proved tough rebuilding her life in isolation in a place with little public transport, she said.

She has been lucky, however. Having saved money from welfare credits, and with help from a network of local volunteers in Salisbury, she found a landlord willing to reduce her rent. She is now learning English with a view to getting a job.

Support for Ukraine in Twickenham
Support for Ukraine in Twickenham. Refugees have tended to be housed in more prosperous areas where there are willing hosts © Richard Baker/Alamy

What alarms local councils, particularly in London and the south of England, is the likelihood that the number of hosting arrangements that end will spike in months to come, and many thousands more Ukrainians will present as homeless.

An additional concern is finding new school places for the children of the refugees, many of whom have settled into affluent areas where they were welcomed but where there are few affordable rental options for them to move to.

“It’s tied into the overall situation with housing. Wiltshire didn’t have a housing crisis. I do have one now,” said Richard Clewer, Conservative leader of the county council, who said the number of people waiting for social housing as a result of cost of living pressures has leapt from 2,300 before the Covid pandemic to 4,300 now.

One of the unique aspects of the Homes for Ukraine scheme is that it has dispersed large number of refugees across Britain according to where there are willing hosts, which has tended to be in more prosperous areas, such as Wiltshire. There are nearly 1,000 Ukrainians in the county housed under the scheme.

Unlike asylum seekers from other parts of the world, Ukrainians are allowed to work in Britain. In Salisbury, local council officials estimated that more than three quarters have found jobs. Jane Ebel, linchpin of the volunteer network, said many Ukrainians were working in restaurants, construction, warehouses and the hospital laundry.

Jane Ebel
Jane Ebel said it is difficult for Ukrainians to transition to rented accommodation © Gareth Iwan Jones/FT

But she said it remains difficult for them to transition to rented accommodation without a credit history or guarantor. The ONS found that almost half of Ukrainians it surveyed were encountering such obstacles nationally.

Clewer said that rocketing rent and the demands of other refugees in the county was straining the emergency accommodation available. The last time he looked, he said, he found just one rental property in the county that came in under the monthly rent threshold for state housing allowance.

“The rental market is broken,” he said.

Wiltshire’s planned solution is to pool what remains of the funding — £10,500 for each Ukrainian — granted to councils by the government under the Homes for Ukraine scheme and leverage this to acquire property.

Volunteers chat to Ukrainian refugees in Salisbury
Volunteers chat to Ukrainian refugees in Salisbury © Gareth Iwan Jones/FT

Clewer estimated this will equip a housing subsidiary of the council with £20mn, and that properties acquired will provide both medium-term stability for the Ukrainians, and a longer-term means of rebuilding social housing stock.

Many other counties, meanwhile, have increased their monthly funding to sponsors from £350 in an attempt to persuade hosts to extend their welcome. So far, central government has been reluctant to help councils with the extra bill.

“It is absolutely crucial that support to sponsors is enhanced as inflation and energy costs increase, so new or existing hosts are encouraged to sponsor in the longer term,” said James Jamieson, chair of the Local Government Association, which represents councils across the country.

Buckinghamshire, west of London, is home to 1,400 people under the scheme.

“We are facing a lot of pressure now. Some families have already moved into private rented accommodation. A small number have turned up as homeless,” said Martin Tett, Conservative leader of the council.

He is looking at several ways of heading off a crisis including increasing support to sponsors, persuading some hosts to start renting, and offering landlords cash incentives to take on Ukrainians. He is also exploring leveraging government funds to buy up larger properties where multiple families can be housed.

But he said there was little clarity on what additional support councils could expect from government in the future.

The Department for Levelling up, Housing and Communities said it had already provided funding for the scheme. “We are working closely with councils to ensure all those who have fled Putin’s war have a safe place to live,” it said.


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