How ‘temporary’ became permanent

Originally published on August 21 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Today’s report by the Children’s Commissioner on families in temporary accommodation is a shocking indictment of a system that has become institutionalised into permanence.

If you judge it by the types of building involved – the shipping containers and converted office blocks that make most of this morning’s press coverage – and you have the physical manifestation of what are almost the opposite of ‘homes’.

For all the effort put into finding ‘meanwhile’ sites for containers and despite the fact that some schemes are well designed and that many other forms of temporary accommodation are much worse, just look at the headlines for what the media makes of it.

Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield speaks of containers that are ‘blisteringly hot in summer and freezing in the winter months’ and of ‘homes’ in office blocks converted under permitted development that are barely bigger than a parking space.

If you look at the numbers of children affected – just over 124,000 in temporary accommodation at the end of 2018 – you can get some idea of a phenomenon that has almost doubled since 2010.

You also begin to appreciate how stretched the terminology has become – analysis for the report says that four out of ten of those 124,000 children have lived in ‘temporary’ accommodation continuously for at least six months and one in 20 for at least a year.

And that does not include another 90,000 children sofa surfing with their families and 375,000 in households at risk of homelessness because they have fallen behind with their rent or mortgage payments.

But it’s the individual stories of the families affected that really brings home what it means to live and be brought up in temporary accommodation. To take just a brief selection:

  • The mother and nine-year-old son stuck in a converted office block on an industrial estate who complained about the quality of this temporary accommodation and being stuck outside her local area but could not bid for a permanent home for six months while the council assessed her case
  • The mother and four-year-old moved out of area for eight weeks and left with no support from the council
  • One mother of four children moved out of area spending £80 a week in travel to get them to and from their school and another who found the journey to school with her daughter took so long that by the time she got ‘home’ it was time to leave to leave to pick her up again
  • A mother stuck in a B&B forced to eat out all the time because she was surrounded by drug dealers and people cooking crack in the kitchen.
  • A child stuck a play space the size of a cot because her mother was too scared to let her out of her sight
  • A family in Cornwall with four children under eight who were rehoused 13 times in 18 weeks.

Yes, some of these cases are exceptional, and yes they reflect the impact of austerity on councils and the £195m funding gap in homelessness services that the Local Government Association complained about in its reaction to the report.

And yes the underlying problems are structural ones – years of under-investment in social housing and welfare ‘reform’.

But what this report shows is the way that a ‘temporary’ system has become institutionalised.

For all the ministerial warning letters, there are still 2,400 families with children in B&Bs including 800 beyond the six-week legal limit – eight times the level in 2010.

Those figures only cover privately-owned B&Bs and there are probably even more families living in B&Bs owned by local authorities: at least 1,600 according to Freedom of Information research last year based on responses from only 58% of councils.

On top of that, there are families who are not entitled to help with their housing, perhaps because they have been classed as intentionally homeless.

Local authorities still have a duty to help those with kids under the Children Act, but there is no monitoring of the numbers involved or the quality of the accommodation and no legal limit on how long a family can be housed in a B&B.

A quarter of all the families in temporary accommodation are now in self-contained accommodation that is nightly-paid, the very definition of ‘temporary’ but almost certainly more profitable for the providers.

There are now 23,000 families in temporary accommodation outside their local area – four times more than in 2010 – some in neighbouring boroughs but others in cities miles away from home.

With numbers like that, and suffering from years of austerity, it’s little wonder that councils look for savings and efficiencies in their temporary accommodation.

Compared to the costs of bed and breakfast, shipping containers that cost around £35,000 to set up begin to look like a great option, as does shipping families out to cheaper areas.

By devolving the problem to local authorities after cutting their budgets, central government induces these kind of calculations.

The Children’s Commissioner finds some examples of good practice, including the Capital Letters procurement company launched by 13 London boroughs that aims to reduce competition between them for accommodation.

And she praises Lewisham’s Place/Ladywell ‘pop-up village’ of shipping containers for the quality of homes that exceed the London Space Standard and are well-insulated and provide a positive environment for children.

But these are positive signs in times that could hardly be more gloomy and not much will change without action at a national level.

The report makes a series of recommendations on everything from proper investment in new homes to action on benefits to prevent the need for temporary accommodation in the first place and reversing permitted development rights office conversions to applying national space standards to improve the experience for families.

And it calls for a formal target for government to reduce the number of children in temporary accommodation.

For context, there were actually more families in temporary accommodation in the mid-2000s than there are now – but the Labour government of the time achieved a target of halving the numbers by 2010 and also introduced the six-week limit on B&B use.

For all the good things in the Homelessness Reduction Act and all the hard work by local authorities and the voluntary sector there are few signs that any such improvement is on the horizon. Now would be a good time to start.


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