Cllr Promise KnightCabinet Member for Housing, Homelessness & Renters Security, Brent Council
Cllr Promise Knight of Brent explains the dangerous tactic of “cuckooing” that drug dealers are using to conduct illegal activity in other people’s homes.
Cuckooing is a hostile home takeover by drug dealers whereby a vulnerable individual is befriended and the individual’s home is used to conduct illegal drug activity. We are perhaps more familiar with its links to the so-called ‘County Lines’ supply method, where council-owned homes are, at times, outposts for drug dealing. Whilst the obvious connections to serious violence and crime are rightly recognised, cuckooing’s ability to seriously impact the well-being of vulnerable council tenants is evident in Brent.
In Brent, we have seen good examples of tackling County Lines and cuckooing. In response to increased County Lines referrals across the capital, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan’s rescue and response support service has provided funding to enable gang prevention work with high-risk individuals. The pan-London rescue and response work is coordinated through Brent Council and has provided alternative routes to a growing number of young people in our borough. Despite this, we are seeing an increase in cuckooing in our properties.
Drug gangs are intentionally targeting people with complex health, housing, and social care issues, such as those with poor mental health, disabled people, re-housed homeless tenants, and elderly people with care needs such as dementia. In Brent and across the country, tenancy sustainment needs to take a public health approach. Cuckooing victim profiles are needed and there is also a need for a whole system approach that joins up primary care services with tenancy sustainment. Referrals are often made at a departmental level and do not always account for the complex health needs that cuckooing victims may have, nor their feelings of isolation and loneliness.
Current housing legislation gives powers to social landlords to seek injunctions against unlawful use of their premises. Nonetheless, policy now needs to ensure that context and place are taken into consideration. Traditional housing officer roles need to change – they need to receive complex housing, health, and social care needs training. Detailed work is required to identify, review, and address tenants’ needs, alongside the close monitoring of several registers, such as At-Risk Tenants, Anti-Social Behaviour Tenants, and Elderly & Vulnerable Tenants Lists.
In Brent we have identified two things that are required to achieve healthy tenancy sustainment and proactively identify cuckooing victims – operational changes and enhanced roles.
Brent has recognised that tackling the complex nature of cuckooing, and its impact on the well-being of vulnerable adults, requires a joined-up approach between housing, health, and social care.
Social tenants are 1.5 times more likely to suffer with poor mental health. Despite the recognised link between housing and mental health, local government’s ability to exert change is limited by the sustained austerity agenda, budget constraints, and policy decisions made at a national level. Housing management and security remain second in terms of budget priorities, after adult social care.
Brent has recognised that housing can assist with health and well-being through effective tenancy sustainment. A Housing Officer-plus model, in areas where a local authority is the largest provider of social housing, should be considered.
The composition of housing officer-plus activities will vary by locality. Increased contact, home visits, and early intervention in areas that negatively impact health will require budgetary commitments and early-stage prioritization by a future government. I am cognizant that proposed amendments to the Social Housing Regulation Bill mean that housing managers will now be required to have an appropriate level of management qualification. While this is about professionalising the role, it does not give the necessary spotlight on standardising or making tenancy management more sustainable through those that are on the ground, i.e. housing officers.
Brent Council recognises that cuckooing will require cross departmental partnership and dedicated attention. We are working towards a joint policy of solid agreement to ensure that partnership agencies are working together across housing, health, social care, and community safety to proactively address the problem. Therefore, the following principles will need to underpin future housing policy development
- A restructure of housing management and services
- Health equity and housing security
People should be at the centre of any strategy to deliver on housing. Such a strategy would need to employ a bottom-up, context-specific approach, rather than an absolute top-down imposition. It needs to be one that considers the experiences of local authorities that have a track record of delivering on the ground. Addressing cuckooing and broader housing management issues should be an iterative process. This should be considered in light of continuous policy development and the kind of involvement enhanced by community experience. One thing is for sure in a world riddled with uncertainties, local authorities are best placed to deliver on local issues. Local government has had to deliver under a prolonged austerity landscape. The first mission of any future government should be how to bring forward better funding for key services like housing management.