THE Leader of Harlow Council has written to over 70 council leaders in London and the South East of England about the use of converted office blocks in Harlow.
In his letter sent this week Councillor Mark Ingall is calling on councils to review their housing policies and to end “out of borough” placements if they place or plan to place families and children in converted office blocks in Harlow.
Councillor Mark Ingall, Leader of Harlow Council, said: “I know that there is a national housing crisis, which brings many challenges to councils in placing people in affordable accommodation. However last week’s BBC Panorama programme on life inside converted office blocks has once again highlighted the unsuitability of placing people in permitted developments without proper assessment and support.
“Not only do I call for councils to review their housing policies, but I also repeat my call for permitted development rights to be reviewed and for the local housing allowance cap to change.”
RE: Placing residents and families in converted office blocks in Harlow
I hope you were able to watch the “Panorama” programme “Cashing in on the Housing Crisis” which aired on BBC1 on the 3 February 2020. If you haven’t it can be still be watched back on BBC iPlayer.
It showed residents living in converted office blocks (developed under Permitted Development Rights [PDRs]) in Harlow with some examples of alarming evidence of inadequate security and alleged examples of inadequate support and supervision that really falls well short of adequate housing standards.
We are all aware of the acute housing crisis and the need to provide homeless and vulnerable persons with a roof over their head. However, as I have mentioned before there needs to be a change in the law relating to PDRs and office conversions and also changes to the Local Housing Allowance cap. In terms of Permitted Development some local authorities have been using them in Harlow to discharge their homelessness duty, where placements are housed in unsuitable housing conditions which have an impact on local services. Major issues continue to surface regarding the mix of tenants in Permitted Development without suitable identification of need and appropriate support, with the mix of tenants having competing lifestyles without family or proper infrastructure.
The use of converted office blocks for councils to discharge their homelessness duty without appropriate support, and improved landlord supervision is both unsafe and unfair on those people who are already in vulnerable situations. We know of examples in Harlow’s Permitted Developments where recovering drug addicts have been place next to convicted drug dealers. I am passionate to do all we can to help recovering addicts reintegrate into society, but without identification of need and appropriate support into a suitable allocation could mean the current mix of tenants in these developments seriously jeopardises their recovery and the quality of life for many others.
We are not alone with our serious concerns about this issue and the impact of converted office blocks.
Last summer the Bleak Houses report by the independent Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield OBE, revealed the terrible reality of children living in converted office blocks.
The Commissioner’s report referenced Harlow’s converted office blocks and stated: “Crime and antisocial behaviour is a constant problem. As with Bed & Breakfasts, homeless families may find themselves living in close proximity to vulnerable adults also being housed by the council, including people recently released from prison, exposing children to possible harm. The Children’s Commissioner’s Office has heard from children that they are sometimes afraid to go home at the end of the day.”
The report went on to say: “Living in the developments can also be a stigmatising experience for children and families. There are reports of children being referred to “office block kids”, compounding their sense of isolation and difference to their peers.”
There is also much more general point to be made about removing people from their support and social structures. We are aware of many instances of children having to commute into London each day for school. This cannot be sustainable for the children, and cannot be financially sustainable for their parents. The current cost of a return train fare for a child from Harlow Town station to Tottenham Hale is £9 per day.
In the Local Government Association’s recent call to Government for PDRs to be scrapped, they also highlighted the serious concerns Councils have about the quality, design and safety of housing converted under PDR, as well as the location of these developments.
If you take the commissioner’s report and Panorama’s expose of life inside a converted office block, it is pretty shocking and we must all stop placing people in Permitted Developments. I know there is a serious lack of social housing and temporary accommodation. We face the same problems in Harlow and it is a hugely challenging issue. However, we took the decision last November to start the process of removing the small number of our residents that we house in the one converted office block in Harlow, and some other councils who place people in the town are doing the same.
I have instigated the need for more formal and accountable protocols for outer borough placements, importantly, to appropriately involve local councils so that they can influence placements and the support and resources required so that individual’s housing needs can be met. A bilateral agreement is currently being developed between London Boroughs and Essex County Council which is due to be considered at the Essex Leader and Chief Executive’s meeting in March 2020.
It is clear that the concentration of “hard to house” tenants together in such large blocks is hazardous, and the impact on families and children is life changing. I would ask that you review your housing policies too, ending out of borough placements in Harlow’s Permitted Developments, and beginning to take back to your own areas those residents you have moved so far away from their vital support networks.
Councillor Mark Ingall Leader of the Council
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