Warehousing poverty

Monday night’s Panorama provided a shocking window on the world of temporary accommodation and permitted development – but it also made me think back to an influential think-tank report from a decade ago.

The programme centred on Templefields House, a converted office block in Harlow run by property company Caridon. It provides temporary accommodation for local authorities across the South East but, according to the programme, also has a contract with an ex-offender re-housing charity.

There is no public transport and it’s 40 minutes’ walk from the town centre and, according to residents, the building is also rife with crime, anti-social behaviour and drugs and the police have been called out 600 times in three years.

The building, the company and another converted block it runs in Harlow, Terminus House, have featured in several previous media investigations of temporary accommodation and permitted development. See here, here and here for more details.

What was new in last night’s Panorama was the level of detail from residents and revelations from an undercover reporter.

Nick and his wife, who is on dialysis while waiting for a kidney transplant, have spent three years in temporary accommodation living in one room.

Matt and Tanya and their young daughter were placed at Templefields by Harlow Council after they lost their home but called it ‘a living hell’ where no support was offered to tenants.

Kasey lived there with her three-year-old daughter for eight months, complained about drugs and fights and says she saw crack being cooked in one of the flats.

A survivor of domestic violence placed there found herself living in fear in a building surrounded by domestic violence.

The reporter was offered a stab vest on his first working as a security guard and was told ‘wear them, just for now, till you build up a rapport with people’.

But at the end of the programme Nick poses the question of who would be providing the accommodation if Caridon was not there.

‘So they’re your saviour?’ asks reporter Callum Tulley.

‘Yes, not a very palatable one, not a very nice one, but, yes, there was no one else around,’ says Nick:

‘They’re not doing this out of the kindness of their hearts. They saw a gap and they took it. Caridon is doing their job, they’re making a shelter for people. The council is leasing it out and saying we’ve got available places to put people if we need to.

‘Everyone is doing their job but no one is looking at the big picture. Every little part of the system is optimised, except the entering experience isn’t. The entering experience is shit and it traps people here.’

A statement from Caridon in response to the programme argues that all its properties are ‘built and managed to the highest standards’ and that ‘we break the mould in social housing and the stigma given to social tenants’.

Harlow was of course (like Peterborough) a post-war new town built to solve London’s housing shortage that now finds itself at the centre of a new housing crisis.

The council says it plans to remove all its residents within two years but it takes time to deliver alternative temporary accommodation.

Wider investigation by Shelter shows that almost 90 per cent of the £1.1bn spent by councils on temporary accommodation went to private landlords and letting agents – and that Caridon is by no means the biggest recipient.

But Nick’s grim summary of how the housing system functions in 2020 also made me think of something else.

Buildings like Templefields House are regularly referred to in media coverage as ‘human warehouses’ but it only occurred to me last night where I had heard that before.

In 2009, a think tank report was published that had a big influence on the housing policy of David Cameron’s Conservatives.

Principles for Social Housing Reform argued for an agenda including a move to near market rents for all but the most vulnerable, a right for tenants to part buy their home, an end to security of tenure and open market sales of vacant properties.

This was justified by the argument that:

‘There is real concern that the current social housing system is failing the very people it was designed to help. Social housing was meant to help lift people out of the slums. Instead many social housing estates have become the very ghettos of multiple social deprivation that they were supposed to replace.’

Council estates had, said the report, become ‘barracks for the poor’ and ‘the current social housing is warehousing poverty in the core of our great cities’.

A decade on, with investment cut and switched from social to ‘affordable’ and with temporary accommodation budgets stretched to the limit, the housing system is indeed warehousing poverty.

Except that it is happening in office blocks, business parks and industrial estates on the peripheries of our cities and run for private profit.


2 Comments on “Warehousing poverty”

  1. SandraJ says:

    Shelter states that 90% of the temporary housing budget is received by private landlords, They could equally say that private landlords house 90% of the homeless. Instead, they usually say that the loss of a private tenancy is the main cause of homelessness. How can they square these two claims

    Also, as ‘Nick’ says, where else would people get the roof over their heads they need? Especially as some of the tenants who appear to be living in this temporary accommodation are allegedly engaged in all kinds of criminal behaviour. Organisations which take the risk of housing these riskier client groups deserve praise. Instead, Shelter slags them off, for being paid to do this.

    This leads to a key question: who provides the essential and praiseworthy service? Those like Shelter who slag people off and cast aspersions on them and who sometimes offer the service of pointing people in the direction of where they might find housing or those who actually provide the roofs over heads people so desperately need?

    • julesbirch says:

      Think Nick had the nuances about right which was why I quoted him at length. It’s the system that has created the risk via universal credit, housing benefit cuts etc that some social landlords can’t or won’t take. In this context I think we’re talking about private letting agents rather than landlords (though obviously ultimately landlords) who will take the risk but for a premium or in office blocks converted for maximum profit. But if they stopped doing it who would? What a crazy system. The company in this case also seemed to have a contract to house ex-offenders – who also need accommodation – and there are obvious questions about whether mothers and toddlers should be housed in the same building.

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