England’s housing system is broken, and the out of area placement process could not make it more obvious. Out of area placements are used by local authorities across the country in order to address the ever growing demands for housing. Council’s often failing to find a local solution, will offer individuals the opportunity of accommodation outside of their hometowns.
Generally, authorities will use this option to source temporary accommodation opportunities, which are meant to provide short –term housing, but in some cases can last for over three years. Residents can also be offered permanent relocations out of an authority’s jurisdiction, if suitable housing is not available locally, through the private rented sector.
On the face of it that sounds like it should make sense, but in practice where real lives are involved, it is often a tragedy bordering on farce. Struggling London boroughs, not able to meet housing demands in already heated markets, eye up housing in the comparatively cheaper Home Counties to relocate their residents. Likewise, the now saturated out-of-London housing markets in turn force those local authorities to seek housing solutions elsewhere, some sending residents as far as 250 miles away to northern cities, in order to secure affordable accommodation, having made deals with private sector landlords.
These are capacity and cost based decisions that reflect the state of our housing market. In fact, some councils are paying hefty incentives to private sector landlords outside of their borough, in order to secure accommodation. Such incentives can be for thousands of pounds and can undermine an authority’s ability to procure housing in the local market, creating a vicious cycle of need.
In theory people can only be placed out of area for housing with their consent. In reality there are increasing questions about the legitimacy of this claim. A recent documentary, Forced out Families*, featured families from Medway who were moved as far as Bradford. One resident interviewed, claimed that he had been threatened with having his children placed in care, if he did not take the accommodation offer, while another was told he would not be able to keep his dog if he decided to stay local. The pressures placed on the housing system makes it incapable of addressing the needs of residents, forcing them to make decisions with little ‘real’ choice.
It is often the most vulnerable in our communities who find themselves in such challenging circumstances with the potential to have significant long-term impacts. Residents in need could potentially be moved hundreds of miles away from their families and local networks to completely different towns and cities without the support they need. Most at risk are children who in their formative years could be faced with unstable circumstances, with the potential to have a detrimental impact on educational achievement and mental health.
The impact on local resources is also significant. The law governing out of area placements requires that the receiving authority is made aware when residents are placed in temporary accommodation within their borough, but this does not always apply when the transfer is on a permanent basis. This means that local authorities will often have no real grasp of the numbers moving into their jurisdiction. In places like Medway, the increasing number of families relocating under this system is placing additional pressures, on already creaking local services, including schools and health care.
Most local authorities will express their frustrations at the current system, and stress that out of area placements are often a last resort. So what can really be done to fix this growing trend? Understanding the origins of the problem is the first step in finding solutions. A housing crisis, which sees house building failing to keep up with demand and chronic lack of social housing is central to the challenge.
It has been exacerbated in recent years by an increasingly unaffordable private rented sector and changes to the welfare system, driven by a Conservative government, which has placed an increasing number of households at risk of homelessness and left local councils struggling to meet housing demands. Regional economic inequalities are also highlighted, confirming that house prices in London and the South East are no longer sustainable.
The causes are complex, which means that the solutions are also not simple. Local authorities do not necessarily have the answer and in the long term it requires a complete overhaul of our housing system, addressing the inherent problems which have led to the current crisis. In the short term, local councils need to come together to look at how we can work better together to manage housing demands, share information and alleviate the burden on local resources.