Over half a million children homeless or at risk of losing their home

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A new report from the Children's Commissioner for England reveals hundreds of thousands of children are living in converted office blocks, shipping containers and B&Bs.

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According to the Children's Commissioner's report, some councils are using shipping containers as temporary accommodation for families

Bleak Houses estimates there are between 550,000 and 600,000 children in England who are either homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.

Of those, over 210,000 are living in temporary accommodation and around 90,000 are 'sofa-surfing' families.

A further 375,000 children are living in households that are behind on rent or mortgage payments – assuming the number has not changed significantly since 2014-16, says the report from the Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield.

The numbers are far higher than official Government figures on homelessness, which found at the end of 2018, there were 124,000 children living in temporary accommodation. However, the figures do not include the ‘hidden homeless’ – those that stay with friends or family, nor do they include the small numbers of highly vulnerable homeless children who have been placed in temporary accommodation by children’s services rather than by the council’s housing department.

As part of its research, the Children’s Commissioner’s Office also carried out an analysis into the numbers of children living in temporary accommodation for extended periods.

Currently, official figures do not show how long children have been in temporary accommodation - this will gradually change with the introduction of a new data collection system.

The analysis suggests that in 2017, around two in five children in temporary accommodation – an estimated 51,000 children – had been there for at least six months. Around one in 20 – an estimated 6,000 children – had been there for at least a year.

Further findings from the Children’s Commissioner’s report show that despite Government guidance around suitability of temporary accommodation, many families are forced to stay in accommodation that is ‘wholly inappropriate’ to their needs, due mainly to the level of demand and shortage of permanent council housing.

In December 2018, there were 2,420 households with children living in B&Bs, according to Government statistics, and a third of these had been there for more than the legal limit of six weeks, after which the family must be moved on to suitable accommodation. However, the legal limit only applies to families housed in private B&Bs not council-owned B&Bs.

Office block conversions

Ms Longfield says that a ‘more recent and deeply worrying development’ has been the conversion of former office blocks and warehouses into temporary accommodation.

In 2013, the Government changed planning rules so under permitted development rights, developers no longer need to seek planning permission from the council in order to convert office blocks to residential use.

In April, the former communities secretary James Brokenshire said the Government would review its policy of allowing the conversion of offices into homes without planning permission.

The Children’s Commissioner claims that many of the flats within the office blocks are small, single rooms, which do not come close to meeting national space standards.

She says that crime and anti-social behaviour is a constant problem as homeless families may find themselves living in close proximity to vulnerable adults, including people recently released from prison, exposing children to possible harm.

The report refers to office blocks being used as temporary accommodation in Harlow (Essex), Mitcham and Morden, as well as East London.

Robert Halfon, MP for Harlow, told Nursery World magazine, ‘Permitted development rights have been a disaster and created ghettos. It has resulted in significant movements of troubled families from London to areas such as Harlow.

‘Often accommodation within office block conversions is tiny and of poor quality. The Government needs to change the rules. There also needs to be a proper database where councils are informed of people being moved into their area and extra funding provided to pay for healthcare and schooling for these families.’

Shipping containers

According to the report, some councils are using shipping containers as temporary accommodation for families, including Brighton, Cardiff, Ealing and Bristol. Often they are located on ‘meanwhile sites’ – land that is earmarked for future development but currently not in use.

The containers become very hot in the summer but are too cold in the winter. Antisocial behaviour can also be a problem, leaving some parents worrying about letting their children play outside, forcing them to stay in cramped conditions inside instead.

Another issue highlighted in the report is that many families are forced into temporary accommodation away from their local area, which can mean moving to different jobs, schools and being isolated from friends and family.

In December 2018, over 23,000 households in temporary accommodation had been moved to a different area – the vast majority from London, who might have been sent to a neighbouring borough, to the outskirts of the city, or even as far away as Birmingham.

In some instances, when a council moves a family away to a different area, they do not inform the new council that the family has moved in, meaning that the new council cannot provide the support the family might need. This is despite the fact that when a family moves to a new area, it is their new council that is responsible for providing them with the education, health and social services they need. Vulnerable children in need of help can begin to fall through the gaps under these circumstances, says the report.

As part of the research, the Children’s Commissioner’s Office visited three local areas to speak to children and parents about their experiences, as well as frontline professionals including a specialist health visitor team working with families in temporary accommodation.

'One mother told us she became so stressed and isolated after moving away from home that she had to see her GP about it. Some councils offer support when they place a family in accommodation away from home, such as helping to sort a new school place or connecting parents with employment opportunities, but some offer very little or no help.'

The specialist health visitor team described one case in which a mother was afraid to allow her daughter to play on the floor of their accommodation.

They said, ‘We’ve been working with a mum who won’t put her 18-month-old baby on the floor to play because of a mice infestation so she spends a lot of time in her highchair. But children need floor play. As she’s been placed out of borough the mum has to do the school run with her older child which takes two hours, and so her baby is in the pushchair for much of the day. Her baby can stand up and balance but has only really been standing up in her cot.’

Recommendations

The report concludes by making a number of recommendations, they are:

  • In the medium and long-term, the Government must invest properly in housebuilding.
  • A formal target for Government to reduce the number of children in temporary accommodation should be introduced.
  • The Duty to Refer, which requires certain public bodies to notify local authorities of people they think are homeless or at risk of homelessness, should be extended to schools and GPs. The duty should also be triggered earlier than 56 days before homelessness is anticipated.
  • The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) must make it easier for councils to acquire the data they need to identify families at risk of homelessness in their area.
  • The Government must use its review of permitted development rights, which allow office blocks to be converted to residential use without planning permission, to reverse the policy with immediate effect.
  • Children should not be housed in the same accommodation blocks as vulnerable adults if kitchen and/or bathroom facilities are shared.
  • Local authorities should be required to report the number of children being housed by children’s services, just as they are required to do so for children housed by the housing department. Unless the Government begins collecting this data, the Children’s Commissioner’s Office will use its powers to do so.

Comments

Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, said, ‘Something has gone very wrong with our housing system when children are growing up in B&Bs, shipping containers and old office blocks. Children have told us of the disruptive and at times frightening impact this can have on their lives.

‘It is a scandal that a country as prosperous as ours is leaving tens of thousands of families in temporary accommodation for long periods of time, or to sofa surf.

‘It is essential that the Government invests properly in a major house-building programme and that it sets itself a formal target to reduce the number of children in temporary accommodation.’

Councillor Martin Tett, the local Government Association’s housing spokesman, said, ‘Councils desperately want to find every family a good quality, secure home, and prevent homelessness from happening in the first place. However, the severe lack of social rented homes available in which to house families means councils have no choice but to place households into temporary accommodation, including – in emergencies - bed and breakfasts.

‘With homelessness services facing a £159 million funding gap next year (2020/21), the Government needs to use the upcoming Spending Round to ensure councils have long-term sustainable funding to prevent homelessness, and give councils the tools they need to resume their historic role of building homes with the right infrastructure that the country needs. This includes allowing councils to keep 100 per cent of receipts of council homes sold under Right to Buy, so that they can be reinvested in new replacement homes, and the ability to set Right to Buy discounts locally.

‘It should also scrap the permitted development right which is taking away the ability of local communities to shape the area they live in, ensure homes are built to high standards with the necessary infrastructure in place and have resulted in the potential loss of thousands of desperately-needed affordable homes.’

Government response

A Government spokesperson said, 'No child should ever be without a roof over their head and we are working to ensure all families have a safe place to stay.

'If anyone believes they have been placed in unsuitable accommodation, we urge them to exercise their right to request a review.

'We have invested £1.2bn to tackle all types of homelessness, including funding a team of specialist advisors which has, in two years, helped LAs [local authorities] to reduce the number of families in B&B accommodation for more than six weeks by 28 per cent.'

  • The report is available here
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