Thousands of homeless children forced to live in shipping containers and office blocks

Thousands of children are growing up in office blocks, B&Bs, and even shipping containers, a shocking new report from the Children’s Commissioner for England reveals.

More than 210,000 children in England are estimated to be homeless – 124,000 officially homeless and living in temporary accommodation, plus around 90,000 children living in “sofa-surfing’ families”, according to the report. Officials believe the total could be even higher due to a lack of data on the number of children placed in temporary accommodation by children’s services.

In the “Bleak Houses” report commissioner Anne Longfield warns changes to planning regulations mean thousands of children are being housed in temporary accommodation that is frequently not fit for them to live in, dangerous due to drug dealers and prostitutes living nearby, and often far away from family, friends and their school.

Her report warns that a further 375,000 children in England are in households that have fallen behind on rent or mortgage payments, putting them at financial risk of becoming homeless in the future.

Unfit housing

The label “temporary” is sometimes anything but: 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. Furthermore, around 1 in 20 – an estimated 6,000 children – had been there for at least a year. Of the 2,420 families known to be living in B&Bs in December 2018, a third had been there for more than six weeks, despite this being unlawful.

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Ms Longfield said she is particularly concerned about the recent development which has seen the “repurposing” of shipping containers for use as temporary accommodation. Often they are located on “meanwhile sites” – land that is earmarked for future development but currently not in use.

The units are typically one or two-bedroom and small in size, meaning that overcrowding can be an issue. They can become really hot in summer and too cold in the winter. As with some office block conversions, antisocial behaviour has been a problem, leaving some parents worrying about letting their children play outside, forcing them to stay in cramped conditions inside instead.

‘They failed me in so many ways’

Lucy is in her early twenties. Her son Jake is 2. When she became homeless they were placed by her local authority in a converted office block far from home. Although this was considered an emergency placement, they were there for 11 months.

“They put me in a small room in an office block which had been converted into flats. It was in an industrial estate in the middle of nowhere. The cars and lorries would whizz round really fast. It was very noisy and it felt unsafe to walk to the shops,” Lucy said.

“There were a lot of people congregating at the entrance who didn’t live there and I felt unsafe. I was approached to buy drugs during the day on the way to the shops with my son.”

It took six months and a formal complaint before Lucy’s local authority completed its assessment and found that it had a duty to find the family a permanent home – but she was then placed on a waiting list. Lucy then had to submit yet another complaint in order to be moved back to her local area. This took a further three months.

Eventually Lucy was able to move back to her local area, where she was offered a self contained flat – up 3 flights of stairs with no lift. She still does not know when she and her son will be offered a permanent home, what it will be like or where it will be.

“They failed me in so many ways. The fact that they get away with it is so, so bad.”

Ms Longfield 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.”

‘Trapped by rents’

A person sleeping rough in a doorway (Photo: Yoi Mok/PA)

Simone Vibert, senior policy analyst at the Children’s Commissioner’s Office and author of the report, said: “Trapped by increasing rents and an unforgiving welfare system, there is very little many families can do to break the cycle of homelessness once it begins.

“Preventing homelessness from happening in the first place is crucial. Yet government statistics fail to capture the hundreds of thousands of children living in families who are behind on their rent and mortgage repayments.

“Frontline professionals working with children and families need greater training to spot the early signs of homelessness and councils urgently need to know what money will be available for them when current funds run out next year.”

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 local authorities to reduce the number of families in B&B accommodation for more than six weeks by 28 per cent.”

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Brexit house prices: Brits go on surprise pre-Brexit house buying spree

British house buyers have been spurred into action ahead of the Brexit deadline, with a 6.1 per cent increase in sales this month compared to last year, new data has shown.

Real estate website, Rightmove, found that the average asking price on a homes fell by 1 per cent, or £3,192 month-on-month, in August, leading to more purchases than is characteristic for this time of year.

The number of sales being agreed is the strongest for this summer holiday period since 2015, and the average price tag stands at £305,500.

The North East of England, the East of England and Yorkshire and the Humber are leading the way with sales over 10 per cent higher than a year earlier, Rightmove said.

‘Summer buying spree’

Rightmove say there is a with a 6.1% increase in sales this month compared to August last year (Photo: PA Wire)

Miles Shipside, Rightmove director, said: “Surprisingly there seems to be a bit of a summer buying spree, despite it normally being a quieter time of year.

“For some reason more buyers have cottoned on to the fact that it can be a good time of year to buy, with less competition from other buyers, and sellers typically more willing to accept a lower price.”

He continued: “While the end-of-October Brexit outcome remains uncertain, more buyers are now going for the certainty of doing a deal, with some having perhaps hesitated earlier in the year.”

Delays in moving in

“While the end of October Brexit outcome remains uncertain, more buyers are now going for the certainty of doing a deal,” a Rightmove spokesperson said (Photo: Getty)

The property website said that the number of properties sold subject to contract and stuck in legal delays is the highest it has been since June 2014 however. This inevitably stops buyers from being able to move into their new homes for some time.

Shipside added: “More prospective movers are taking the plunge, getting stuck into deals with sellers more willing to lower their price expectations, and lenders wanting to lend and offering low rates.

“There’s only so long that buyers and sellers can delay the familial, financial and emotional forces driving the need to move, and with the average time between agreeing a sale and moving in being more than three months, we’re now entering the last chance saloon for those who want to have finished their move before the end of the year.”

Impact of Brexit

Last month, figures indicated that home buyers were comparatively warier about taking the plunge (Photo: Getty)

Last month, the prospect of no-deal Brexit helped create an unexpected drop in house price balances, as they slid seven percentage points lower than expected.

The Cabinet’s commitment to allowing no deal looked likely to have contributed to the flailing house prices, with house buyers not taking the plunge ahead of Brexit before now.

Comparing estate agents and property surveyors expecting rising prices against those expecting a decline in prices, July took an even more drastic hit than the companies had already accounted for.

The house prices balance – the difference between supply and demand – dropped by 8 per cent. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (Rics) said the house prices balance was expected to fall by 1 per cent in July.

Additional reporting from Press Association.

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Housing Crisis: Struggling to find your dream home? Build your own

The UK’s housing crisis is well documented. Over the past 30 years insufficient new homes have been built and house prices have rocketed, which means buying a home is now out of reach for many. House prices in England and Wales soared to 7.8 times the average annual earnings in 2018, up from five times earnings in 2002, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

Analysis by the Resolution Foundation found that just 28 per cent of UK 25 to 34-year-olds owned their own home in 2018, compared to 51 per cent in 1990.

Custom build is one way the government is hoping to tackle this crisis. In 2015, it said it aims to double the number of custom and self-built homes by 2020, putting the building of new homes into the hands of aspiring buyers rather than relying on house-building companies. By promoting custom build it hopes to make the idea of self-building a home more accessible and less daunting.

Custom build explained

Wendy Hunters living room in her custom build house (Border Oak)
Wendy Hunter’s living room in her custom build house (Border Oak)

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In essence, custom build is a way of constructing your own home with input from a developer to make it easier, instead of commissioning all the professionals yourself.

You can start by buying a serviced plot – meaning it already has planning permission, is connected to utilities and is accessible by a road – through a developer or other “enabler”. You can then be as involved as you like in building your home, from working with a developer to design your home from scratch or simply making a few tweaks to an existing design before it is built.

Typically, you can save between 10 and 15 per cent of the cost of your home compared to buying an existing or new home of a similar size, according to Custom Build Homes – a specialist estate agency that sells serviced plots and customisable homes. You only pay stamp duty on the plot and can reclaim VAT on the building materials.

The availability of land to build on

Wendy Hunters Kitchen in her custom build house (Border Oak)
Wendy Hunters Kitchen in her custom build house (Border Oak)

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The key to increasing custom and self-build is enough land being available to meet the demand. Since 2016 the government has required all local authorities in England to keep a register of people who want to build their own home and grant enough planning permissions to match it through its Right to Build legislation. Scotland has just introduced its own rules on keeping registers and Wales is in the process of launching its own self-build fund.

It is an important year for Right to Build as by 30 October, local authorities must grant planning permissions equivalent to the number of people who registered between 1 April 2016, when the rules came into force, and 30 October 2016. However, it is expected that most will fail.

Data gathered by the National Custom & Self Build Association (NaCSBA), the trade body for the custom and self-build housing sector, shows that 18,000 people registered during this period but that local authorities are employing various tactics to reduce the numbers on their registers.

This makes it difficult to see if the true demand is being met. NaCSBA CEO Andrew Baddeley-Chappell said: “We found that 24 per cent of planning authorities now apply a local connection test to people wanting to join their register and 21 per cent impose a charge to stay on it. A third of councils have not even begun the process of trying to match demand as they are not keeping records to track it.”

Ensuring success for Right to Build

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The government will need to take action to ensure Right to Build legislation works.

Andrew believes it will either tighten up the legislation, by introducing penalties, or make it clearer that local authorities are expected to act by ensuring the planning process pays more attention to it.

These deadlines will occur every year going forward on a three-year cycle, so on 30 October 2020 enough permissions should have been granted to match registrations between 31 October 2016 and 30 October 2017.

Merry Albright of Border Oak, which designs and builds oak-framed buildings, said: “People don’t know what Right to Build means and the registers are often hidden. It could be a positive force for homeowners, the environment and communities – it just needs more support.”

Wendy Hunter, 40 – Business owner

Wendy Hunter (Border Oak)

Wendy Hunter and her husband, Steven, custom-built a three-bedroom house in Herefordshire with the help of Border Oak.

The company sold them a plot of land with planning permission and then worked with the couple to design the home they wanted.

Border Oak erected the oak frame and structural panels, and Wendy and Steven built the rest themselves – much of it with their own hands and those of Steven’s parents – to save money.

“The house feels magical to us for many reasons,” says Wendy. “The plot is in the heart of the village but set back from the road with mature trees and country views – something you would not be able to get with a typical new build.

“We love that we have been able to maximise every square metre and choose to spend our budget on items that were important to us such as insulation, the kitchen and flooring.

“It was all at a fixed price, too, so unlike a renovation, we had no nasty surprises. We have also now converted our attached garage, adding a guest bedroom on the first floor.”

The couple spent £400,000 on the land and build, and the house is now worth around £600,000, so they have a bigger and better home than if they had bought an existing house.

This is the second home they have built with Border Oak, allowing them to create more space for themselves and their two daughters.

“One day we want to have a home with more land, so over the past six years we have worked really hard to help us move towards this and have less mortgage,” Wendy adds.

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Mark Hook: One size does not fit all when it comes to planning

Cllr Mark Hook is the Leader of Gosport Borough Council.

Let me congratulate our newly elected leader, Boris Johnson, with his energetic style of management, along with the many new faces in the cabinet looking to bring in additional successful measures beyond what have achieved to date.

From a local Government perspective, there are many things I and my colleagues would like to see happen. We are told the times of austerity are over, yet the shackles and financial burdens we find ourselves under make it difficult day by day to deliver the ever-increasing demands placed on us by central Government and to meet the expectations of the public. Much has already been said and written, issues such as care of the elderly, education, education, education, combating crime and disorder, employing 20,000 new police officers, the work carried out by the NHS and its funding streams. Yet there are many other topics which need careful consideration.

One concern is the National Planning Policy Framework.

The NPPF contains all the matters of Standard Methodology, Affordability Uplift, and the Housing Delivery Test, and is used to determine how many residential dwellings each local authority will have to deliver over a given period to meet the Government’s housing target – currently set at 300,000 dwellings per year. That Standard Methodology is largely based upon household and population projections.

When first devised, these projections generally supported house building approaching the Government’s 300,000 annual target.  However, things have changed following the result of the EU Referendum and those projections have substantially reduced the required number of additional houses needed using the Standard Methodology. Some have suggested the number could even be as low as 159,000 per year. The Government has thus far wanted to stick with the 300,000 target, irrespective of what their own Standard Methodology says.  I believe this has put the Planning Inspectorate in a bit of quandary.  On the one hand they have the Government telling them to allow development, and on the other they are obliged to take account of Local Plans that have the backing of communities through statutory consultation and approved by the Secretary of State.

However, when we look at my district, Gosport, which is currently 72 per cent built on, 12 times the national average, it is unsurprising we have very little available space left. We can help deliver housing numbers through the many brownfield sites left vacant through the reduction in the Armed Forces over the past four decades but what we need is to bring prosperity back into the Borough.

Regarding the remaining areas we have, we need to ensure there is sufficient green open spaces and strategic gaps between settlements. What we do have left, we need for employment as we have a job density of only 0.51, the seventh-lowest in the country. Yet the people of Gosport have a great work ethic with over 20,000 people out commuting daily to work with a struggling road network trying to cope to meet the demand.

With what little space we have available to build on, I would like to see jobs being created and delivered, bringing with it the economic prosperity to our town. People should be able to live, work and play to give them a better quality of life instead of the need to commute, spending hours on the roads adding to congestion, pollution, and poor air quality. People are reliant on the motor car as we don’t have a railway station, although there is heavy investment in public infrastructure through bus transport which helps. You see one size does not fit all.

These problems are not ours alone. Neighbouring authorities are having to look at where they can build houses, even suggesting building in strategic gaps creating urban sprawl, which should be resisted at all costs to ensure we keep the identity and sovereignty of our own communities. However, under the current NPPF it is extremely difficult to meet the demands placed upon us.

So what is it that we would like our Government to do? What is it that we would say to our new energetic leader? We would say please be understanding that some authorities’ needs are different from others. Some authorities are full to capacity and need to deliver improved services for the residents already living there.

In looking for a way through this, we might be able to offer the new Prime Minister with a fragile minority administration a possible way out. The NPPF provision contains, I would contend, unintended consequences. In places like Gosport, and other similar local authorities where there are unique and peculiar circumstances, local considerations are such that the Standard Methodology involving top-down housing targets is counter-productive.  What we therefore need is some flexibility from the Government that will allow local authorities more discretion over housing numbers provided they have a robust case.

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Sean Woodward: How Spitfires are helping the Council Taxpayers of Fareham

Cllr Sean Woodward is the Leader of Fareham Borough Council.

Spitfires have come to the rescue of Fareham Borough Council. Five of the iconic World War Two fighters fly from Solent Airport in Fareham and fuel sales for pleasure flights are reaping thousands of pounds in revenue for the benefit of Fareham council taxpayers. And wise business investment by the Conservatives is sparing Fareham households massive annual council tax rises.

Out of an annual Borough Council spend of £47 million, less than £7 million comes from council tax. So 85 per cent of what we spend includes our trading activities, among them a portfolio of mainly local commercial property that brings in millions of pounds in rent.  For example buildings housing B&Q, Dunelm, Halfords, PC World, etc belong to the Council. Without this income, our council tax, currently almost the lowest in the country, would need to be far higher.

At Solent Airport £30 million has been spent so far on infrastructure and new commercial buildings such as the newly-extended Fareham Innovation Centre, which is already 70 per cent full. Airport operations provide a financial return to the Council, flight movements have increased to 30,000 annually and hundreds of new jobs have been created at what is the Solent Enterprise Zone with many more to come.

I have been Leader of Fareham Borough Council now for 20 years. We have a good record of being a prudent, low taxing Council with excellent services. For the future, we promise more of the same.

Challenges facing the Council include top-down housing figures demanding at least 520 houses per year. I never thought we would see the John Prescott form of meting out housing numbers from a Conservative government.  Something I very much hope the new Johnson team will reverse.  We have never seen much more than half those numbers built in the Borough and they are well above our objectively assessed need.

Ironically while our housing numbers are high our ability to issues planning consents from new homes has been halted by an EU court judgement on nitrates which has stopped any councils in South Hampshire from issuing planning permissions. This is due to the effects of excessive nitrates on the Solent.  Even though some 80 per cent of the issue is run-off from agriculture. Our huge challenge is to develop a mitigation scheme that developers can pay for to reduce the level of nitrates getting into the Solent special protection area. This will require the cooperation of DEFRA (Natural England), the Environment Agency and the water companies. As Fareham is part of the eleven councils forming the Partnership for South Hampshire we are working together to find a solution.

We must deliver a new community called Welborne of 6,000 new homes in North Fareham. As this requires a new motorway junction it is held up by Highways England. We hope to see a planning committee consideration in the autumn.  We have around 3,000 families in need of affordable housing and Welborne will go a significant way over the next 25 years to provide new homes for Fareham people.

As a Council, we will be free of single-use plastics by next year. This is something of great concern to our residents and rightly so having seen the damage caused to our oceans by the fallout from these products.

Town centres are suffering in the light of the switch from conventional retail to online. While Fareham has suffered less than most it is still suffering. We have developed a vision for our town centre to revitalise it with the addition of leisure and housing.  That means us working with the private owners of the shop units to encourage re-use or perhaps conversion to housing.

We have for many years run one of the country’s largest community gardening competitions – Fareham In Bloom. We are successful in repeatedly winning South and South-East England In Bloom with gold for the best large town/small city. We aim to continue to fill Fareham with flowers and enjoy huge community and business support in this work.

We are providing a £10 million+  refurbishment of Ferneham Hall, our entertainment complex which has served our residents well for over 30 years. This will provide an 800 seat auditorium and community facilities. This comes after the recent completion of a second £9 million leisure centre in the west of our Borough. We are all about providing our people with the highest quality services at the lowest possible cost.

Earlier this year we saw some 1,400 good Conservative Councillors lose their seats through no fault of their own. They were swept away by our government’s failure to deliver an exit from the EU.

We distinguish ourselves from such failure by working locally, delivering InTouch newsletters to all of our residents at least quarterly on local successes and issues and working within our wards helping our constituents.  It is by keeping in touch all year round at not just at election time that we hope we can continue to weather national storms.  But we never take anything for granted especially the electors. We do of course live in hope that our new Prime Minister will help with bringing about national enthusiasm for the Conservative cause again.

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