Prior to the pandemic, as part of his Extreme World series, Ross Kemp visited three families forced into temporary accommodation in Bradford. They had been sent there by Barnet and Medway councils respectively.
Tenant Austin Kelly described the harsh reality of living away from home: it’s “an open prison” designed to “get rid of the undesirables” – the “out of work, [those with] an addiction [or] mental health problem”. Kelly is now one of tens of thousands of households being “temporarily” re-housed up to 200 miles away from the authority that sent him there. Known as out-of-area temporary accommodation, placements are growing outside London, especially across the North.
In the last three years, families re-housed outside London have risen by 85 per cent – well above the 11 per cent increase from London authorities. In the North West the number of households skyrocketed from 110 in mid-2018 to 1,070 at the beginning of this year. The story is similar elsewhere. The North East and Yorkshire and Humber have increased by 500 per cent and 250 per cent respectively, though from a low base.
Manchester has now firmly taken the top spot outside London for the number of households it places outside its patch. In the last three years placements increased by 40 per cent, with 830 families now living out-of-area.
In some cases accommodation is in a neighbouring borough, but even three miles away is enough to force a child out of school or a family from drawing on their support network, especially if they have no access to a car or are unable to afford the cost of commuting further. In far too many that isn’t the case: in London, Barnet and Bexley both reported sending families as far as Bradford, while Brent and Ealing have placed families in Telford.
There are two crises happening simultaneously. The first is that more families from London are being shipped outside their local area and, in all likelihood, London altogether. The second is that there are more families being placed out-of-area by authorities outside London, such as Manchester.
The challenges are manifold. Local Housing Allowance hasn’t kept pace, following a five-year freeze. Central funding cuts to local authorities have disproportionately affected more deprived authorities, which in turn leaves those authorities with little option but to raise council tax higher than their more affluent counterparts, thereby entrenching inequality. Additional statutory duties from the Homelessness Reduction Act leave councils further stretched. The waiting list for council homes grows ever longer. London authorities are short-changed as homelessness funding does not take into account the higher costs of placements. On the supply side, not enough homes are being built.
The list goes on and the blame must lay at the government’s door, yet despite this, anecdotally a consensus emerges that part of the problem with the out-of-area temporary accommodation system is cultural. Empathy isn’t always applied to the decision-making process. Nzolameso versus City of Westminster in the Supreme Court is a case in point, with the plaintiff challenging accommodation 50 miles from her home. That is not to do down the hard-working local government officials across the country. Far from it. They are labouring under less than ideal conditions.
Despite the responsibility of authorities to consider the distance of placements, their proximity to services and the disruption it may cause to employment, caring responsibilities or education, it isn’t clear to what extent that takes place. It is clear, however, that there is a void in how and when authorities share information with receiving authorities. In too many cases they simply aren’t, meaning that without knowledge of their existence receiving authorities are unable to help put in place the necessary support, educational provision and mental health or misuse services that are often needed by families.
There is no short-term fix to the out-of-area temporary accommodation epidemic, with 95,450 households having been shipped out. The government must take seriously the human toll that out-of-area placements have and the wider societal disruption, in terms of poorer health outcomes and weaker communities. Yet in the meantime, we must do our best to place families in temporary accommodation with dignity.
Jack Shaw is a local government researcher and housing expert