Grant Shapps’ campaign to tackle “beds in sheds” has already provoked a lot of comment, much of it pointing out that the issue is not confined to migrants. In Newham, we now know of a tenant reportedly living in a walk-in freezer.
Official recognition of the problem is welcome. In February, the Housing and Migration Network called for action on beds in sheds and other unsuitable accommodation: garages and outbuildings in cities; barns, containers and defunct caravans in rural areas. In London, people have resorted to camping out in semi-public spaces such as the sheltered space under flyovers. A co-ordinated response is certainly needed.
However, there are some major issues with the way this problem is tackled. Migrant community organisations and support groups must be involved with this new scheme if it is to have any chance of meeting the needs of vulnerable people, and securing the benefits of local knowledge in implementing it. With their help and advice, a national initiative can deal with unpopular environmental hazards and eyesores while benefiting those people who are very vulnerably housed and at risk of becoming rough sleepers.
Success will depend on building trust and communication, so that enforcement of proper rules about suitable accommodation does not inadvertently increase the number of homeless households.
In some areas, local authorities have built up a lot of expertise and any national scheme should tap into this. Councils such as Hastings and East Cambridgeshire employ specialist staff to deal with migrants and have produced training material and guidance for environmental health officers. Services like these may now have stopped or curtailed.
If councils receiving extra funding through the “beds in sheds taskforce” used it to develop their expertise in the housing conditions of migrant groups, and then shard examples of good and best practice across the sector.
It seems Shapps’ taskforce will have dual objectives: closing illegal accommodation, but also checking immigration status and dealing with undocumented or other migrants with no right to stay in the UK. The second objective risks undermining the first as the two issues require different approaches.
The communities affected – who often have a very good picture of what is happening locally – must be confident that complaints reported will lead to action against the perpetrators of the exploitation, not the victims.
The experience of migrant communities with the police and immigration officials is often not a happy one, even for those with every right to live and work here. The new scheme should be directed at the accommodation issue alone.
Of course, migrants and other tenants of illegal structures are likely to be living there out of desperation. They may be employed by their “landlord” and judge that they have no other options when it comes to their housing. Careful preparation of any intervention, involving housing options services and migrant support and advice, will be required and time for this preparation must planned in. The need for new low-cost accommodation for migrants working on low wages is a critical issue, as is shelter for those who are destitute or close to destitute who otherwise risk sleeping out.
If Shapps’ scheme can bring housing and homelessness expertise together with migrant community groups and those skilled in advising migrants it has a much better chance of success.
Original post and comments: Guardian Housing Network