Opinion

Jeremy Hunt's Spring Budget ignored our national shame – the crisis of unsafe housing

With councils on the brink, doing nothing to address the situation of temporary accommodation is a scandal

Image: Tayfun Salci/ZUMA Press Wire/Shutterstock

I paid careful attention. I wondered when the chancellor in his Spring Budget statement would get to issues around a genuine national shame and unveil details on how he would deal with it. But the answer came there none.

Earlier this week, it was revealed that temporary accommodation had contributed to the death of dozens of children in the UK. Between April 2019 and March 2023, 55 children in England died unexpected deaths, with the place where they lived being a factor. Of these, 42 were aged one or under.

Imagine that. You have no home. Your family is placed somewhere non-permanent, it might be a hostel or some sort of B&B or some other place that, due to the national chronic housing shortage, is damp and unsuitable. And then your infant child dies. And then what? You’re a statistic, a headline for a moment before somebody says something must be done and then the camera moves on.

There were 139,000 children in temporary accommodation in England by last Christmas. When this government came to power in 2010 that number was just over 60,000 – that doesn’t include those children in temporary places in the devolved nations.

While any number of children at all in temporary accommodation is not welcome, sometimes, due to family situation or a need for a place of security, there will be children and families who desperately need it.

But when that place of shelter is so poor it is contributing to the death of infants, not in a report from Engels in the mid-19th century but here, now in the 21st century, and when the total number of children impacted is bigger than the population of Chester or Norwich, we should not accept this.

We should not turn away and allow any collective national shrug. Each of those children will see life choices limited, they will be damaged by going through what they went through. The ripples for them, their families and society, will quickly turn to waves.

The costs now are huge too. The bill for housing families in temporary accommodation across England for the coming year is estimated to reach £2.1bn. As councils face catastrophic cuts to all services, it’s going to be some reach to meet bills as they stand, never mind when they grow.

So, the lack of housing stock, and also cuts to the local social services that can apply preventative measures to stop people falling into homelessness, will see the problems escalate. And don’t forget, many people now slipping into homelessness are in work – victims of Section 21 eviction orders, or just simply unable to meet ever-mushrooming rent.

Following the Spring Budget there was the customary look at what it means for the pound in your pocket. 

The extra wrinkle this time was what it means about the timing of a general election, whether things like the national insurance cut and the change to the child benefit system were sweeteners for a May election, or for something later.

It’s moot. It doesn’t matter. When the government are so empty of thought that the escalating shame of children in temporary accommodation, and the fear over how to pay to house them, never mind discussions about prevention to stop this crisis, is not part of any high-level national discourse then the rest is just dancing on the head of a pin.

We all know the reality we’re in, not some sunlit upland that is sold to us, yet turns out to be a green screen on a bare wall. 

Paul McNamee is editor of the Big IssueRead more of his columns here. Follow him on Twitter.

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