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A call to arms

Stephen Battersby31/10/2012 - 13:00

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3,960 homeless families are in B&Bs
3,960 homeless families are in B&Bs

The number of families in bed and breakfast accommodation has increased by 44 per cent. Stephen Battersby, former CIEH president, argues it will get worse unless the environmental health profession takes a stand.

Government figures show 51,640 households in temporary accommodation at the end of June 2012, 7 per cent higher than at the same date in 2011. Some 4,270 households were in bed and breakfast (B&B) hotels compared with 3,120 at the same date last year, a 37 per cent increase. In London, the number of households in B&Bs increased since the same quarter last year from 1,480 to 2,100 households. The National Housing Federation reported 3,960 families were in B&Bs nationwide in the first quarter of 2012 – a 44 per cent increase on the previous 12 months.

The law says local authorities should use B&Bs for a homeless applicant with children or if pregnant, only in exceptional circumstances, and then for a maximum of six weeks.

But a BBC Newsnight investigation this month found this maximum being exceeded. In truth homeless families should never be placed in B&Bs. How can children hope to be able to succeed in school when home is an overcrowded room, in a hotel shared with people with a range of problems, including mental ill-health?

EHPs were actively involved in reducing the use of B&B accommodation in the 1980s and in ensuring that when used, it was in reasonable condition. EHPs again need to be working to ensure that when B&B accommodation has to be used, it is well managed, safe and health risks are minimised. The power to make HMO declarations should be used so that such hotels fall within the licensing regime.

Newsnight highlighted conditions at Gilroy Court Hotel in Croydon, London. Independent EHP Philip Moxon found overcrowding, evidence of rodents, fire risks, and a category 1 hazard - a damaged ground floor window through which intruders had been able to enter the house months before.

Croydon Council told the BBC it inspects B&Bs at least once a month, and have staff in Gilroy Court Hotel at least once a week.

If that is the case, then what Mr Moxon found raises some serious questions as to the quality of inspections. EHPs should be arguing that temporary accommodation is not used until it has been fully inspected and assessed by properly trained staff. They should then act to secure the removal of any serious health and safety hazards – and that is not just Category 1 hazards – before placing homeless households there. It is not good enough to say there are insufficient resources. It is difficult for local authorities, but if need be, they can commission EHPs in private practice.

Fundamentally, EHPs and the CIEH need to be campaigning to stop the use of B&B for families.
It makes no financial sense either. In the first seven months of this year, Croydon alone paid more than £1.5m to the B&B provider who runs Gilroy Court.

As one charity helping young people hit by housing benefit cuts told the Guardian: ‘Instead of capping housing benefit, perhaps the government should be focusing on providing low-cost housing that gives back to the tax payer over generations, rather than squandering our money on exorbitant rents.’ 

David Kidney, CIEH head of policy, responds: ‘There is plenty of evidence that poor housing causes poor health. However, the poorest health of all affects those with no home at all. If we are serious about environmental health being a decisive force for good in new, more dynamic public health services, it is essential that we are seen and heard to be advocates for the poorest and hardest to reach in our communities. In the case of homeless individuals and families, of course we must address the direct causes of their poor health – lack of access to healthcare – but we must also address the “causes of the causes” namely the lack of adequate, affordable housing and poverty.’

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