SOUTHEND could see a return to the dark days of bedsit city as a cap on housing benefit looks set to force thousands of low-income Londoners out of the capital and into the town.

Announced as part of the coalition Government’s cost-saving measures, the cap would mean poorer people could be priced out of privately-rented property in many areas, with up to 200,000 potentially at risk of having to leave London for cheaper towns.

With cheaper accommodation available in Southend in the form of bed-and-breakfasts and bedsits, the town could end up taking thousands of families left unable to afford their current homes.

Ten years ago, London boroughs were heavily criticised by Southend Council for sending their tenants to stay in accommodation like the Palace Hotel, before its impressive £25million revamp.

Anna Waite, Southend councillor responsible for adult social care and housing, fears the cap will cause a repeat of the situation between 2000 and 2005, when London councils block-booked seaside accommodation to house refugees, asylum seekers and residents.

Mrs Waite said: “It was cheaper for them to take a block-booking for somewhere like the Palace than it was to provide housing in the capital.

“They were shipping people out, giving them a train ticket and sending them here, and they would move in. Before you knew what was going on, they had their children into schools.

“I am extremely fearful this will happen again.

“That’s not to say there shouldn’t be some movement from expensive cities to less expensive suburbs, but it has to be done with our knowledge and some money to support those residents.”

The changes, which will be introduced in April, will see housing benefit capped at £400 a week for a four-bedroom home, £340 for a three-bedroom property, £290 for two bedrooms and £250 for a one-bedroom property, meaning many inner-city residents will be priced out of the market.

Some London councils have already begun making block bookings for bed-and-breakfast accommodation in towns including Hastings, Reading and Luton.

In order to protect Southend, Mrs Waite and council chief executive Rob Tinlin are preparing to write to the Local Government Association about the issue, and to individual London councils to tell them they should not send residents to Southend without first speaking to the council.

Mrs Waite said: “We have to send out a very strong message that we are not going to allow this to happen.

“We are going to be doing everything we can to assist the London boroughs to make sensible choices as to how they deal with people who can’t afford their current homes.

“London councils should be dealing with their problems inside their boroughs and should be talking to us about any vacancies we have in approved housing, and how they are going to fund them.

“The town can’t cope with this, and we need to put the people who live here now first.”

But Mrs Waite is also worried with a shortage of good quality cheap housing available in Southend, newcomers could end up in sub-standard properties run by unscrupulous landlords.

She said: “The London boroughs need to make sure they aren’t putting people into housing we wouldn’t put people into.

“All the decent housing in town is being used to get as many of our residents off the housing list and into accommodation, so all that’s left are the less desirable residences, and landlords running poor quality housing are going to have a real market.”

The council is working to make it easier for officers to close poor-quality properties, but the red tape involved in taking action often means without an official complaint about standards, the council cannot act.