Supporting local authorities to rethink temporary accommodation.

08 January 2024

We have thousands of vacant and unsuitable buildings. We have millions of people in need of good-quality homes. Councils are struggling to afford temporary accommodation. We want to help them work out what can be re-used, and how to fund it.

Wintry weather prompts us to have compassion for our fellow citizens who are stranded on the streets and to feel gratitude for our homes - their space, warmth, and security. 

But of course homelessness exists all year round, and in every climate, and much of it (families sharing a single room in a shared hostel) is much less visible than street sleepers, and sometimes even more tragic. Years of chronic undersupply of social housing, and almost no purpose-built ‘temporary’ housing, are pushing our councils - those who look after our cities, streets, services and provide our social safety net - into a financial death spiral.

Whilst, as always, there will be many and varying factors at play within each local authority, the huge weight of discharging their homelessness obligations (by providing immediate emergency accommodation) is a massive - and preventable – one. In October 2023, The Guardian published figures showing a record 104,000 households in England are now in temporary accommodation, at a combined cost to councils of £1.7bn; some local authorities are spending half their total annual budget on providing - in many cases unfit - homes to their most vulnerable residents. This isn’t a choice – they have a legal obligation to house, and they have very little in the way of accommodation options – hence the last resort of on private sector housing - loosely regulated and with no rent caps - to provide the space people at risk of homelessness need. As we see across much of the built environment, those with the power are not the same as those with the responsibility.

We've been working with architecture practice Morris + Company and housing charity Commonweal on a new Family Emergency Accommodation Guidance – an analysis of what currently exists for families in emergency need, and a series of recommendations as to how new emergency homes of quality could be provided. Current standards (such as they are) for emergency accommodation are dotted across various regulatory documents, with the primary baseline contained within the 1985 Housing Act…which counts children aged 1-10 years as “half-individuals” and overlooks entirely the space needs of kids under 1 year old – assuming they will share a bed with their parents, despite the well-documented risks of doing so.

At the same time, a 2021 report, conducted by The Empty Homes Network on behalf of Habitat for Humanity Great Britain and funded by M&G, put the number of vacant commercial buildings owned by councils in England, Scotland and Wales at 7,000, with the potential to create over 16,000 homes; and estimates there are 165,000 privately-owned commercial and business premises likewise empty – also with potential for re-purposing.

Not every empty building is suitable for conversion into emergency accommodation - but applying the guidance on design standards in Morris + Company’s report, thereby assessing their spatial viability, is an important first step.

At Common, we feel a deep responsibility to use our experience in the private sector to support those working for public good, so we’ve been digging through the quagmire of regulation around allowable legal and leasing structures, figuring out what local authorities truly are and are not able to do in this space, and debunking widely-accepted myths, in order to create workable financing and delivery models – the critical second step.

We have thousands of vacant and unsuitable buildings. We have millions of people in need of good-quality homes. These do not need to be ‘parallel’ issues. We need to use the ‘development’ skills we have to identify what can be re-used, and work out how to fund it.

We are already working with a number of councils on fully-funded strategies to deliver purpose built emergency housing, giving them direct control over quality, timescales, and importantly cost - rather than having to rely on a largely unregulated open market. If you work for a local authority and are finding yourselves overwhelmed by the enormity of the task of meeting your emergency housing duties, then please do get in touch.