TV is an incredibly powerful medium and last night’s Newsnight investigation into the use of bed and breakfast accommodation for homeless families got the point across more effectively than a hundred reports. If you missed it, make sure to check it out on BBC i-player.
Tim Whewell has an understated style and gave clear explanations both of the policies that have led to a new explosion in the use of B&Bs and of the laws that are being broken by councils. The families that featured were articulate and were given an opportunity to explain their circumstances and the issues they faced.
Essentially, a number of councils, mainly in London, have faced a surge in homelessness and they have a duty to secure accommodation at least whilst enquiries are undertaken. Having kept the use of B&B under firm control for many years now, the lack of available accommodation at an acceptable price – the Government were warned! – has once again led to families being kept in B&B longer than the statutory maximum of 6 weeks and at huge cost to local taxpayers. Conditions, as we saw in the programme, which featured Croydon, are often scandalous: we saw examples of dangerous overcrowding, with families virtually living on a bed in a room with no circulation space, wholly inadequate bathing, toileting and cooking facilities, fire hazards and infestation. Owners are making money hand over fist.
The numbers have risen alarmingly over the last two years and the programme revealed a significant amount of denial and buck passing. Jon Rouse, ironically the former chief executive of the Housing Corporation and now of Croydon Council, tried to pretend all was well and under control when the evidence of the film was the complete opposite. How he can claim the properties were regularly inspected is beyond me and was clearly beyond the evidence gathered by the indpependent environmental health officer used in the investigation.
Buck passing was clearly central to the briefing given to new Lib Dem Minister for defending the indefensible, Don Foster – who was almost as embarrassing on his first Newsnight interview as his boss Nick Boles when he appeared last month after the reshuffle to talk about planning. Foster was fresh from the Lib Dem Conference where a new policy was agreed which completely contradicts everything he will now be doing in Government. But his main line of defence – we give these councils money to manage homelessness, so it’s their fault not ours – reminded me of the great Michael Green, sorry Grant Shapps, when he was Housing Minister. At least Shapps didn’t hide like his replacement, Mark Prisk, who should have fronted this rather than leaving it the rather lost and hopeless Foster. Shapps also tried to blame the councils, last year writing cheekily to the worst offenders expressing his shock at the use of B&B, but it is a localist con. The fault for lack of supply and the increasingly harsh attitude to the homeless lies firmly with central Government.
Whewell’s report gave me a strong sense of deja vu. It was so reminiscent of the 1980s when a range of councils reached a sudden tipping point and couldn’t keep up with the numbers of families becoming homeless. Low emergency use of B&Bs turned into frequent use and then before anyone knew where they were it was out of control. Hundreds, thousands of people in hotels across the whole country. It took years to get it back under effective management, at huge cost to the people involved. We are now looking over the same precipice.
The most depressing echoes of the 1980s were the conditions the families were living in, the rooms, the hallways, the bathrooms, the kitchens, and their desperation. Not even Nick Knowles could take that on. No doubt next week we will get flowery language from Cameron Gove and Pickles about their commitment to children getting a good start in life. But the true impact of their policies can be found in the hotels of Croydon.