A recent report by Shelter, Far from home: the housing of asylum seekers in private rented accommodation, illustrated what goes wrong when councils lose strategic control of housing for homeless people in their area.
With the help of environmental health officers, Shelter gathered data on 154 dwellings accommodating over 300 asylum seekers.
The results were shocking. Nearly a fifth of the dwellings were in such a poor state that they were deemed unfit for human habitation. Households in 81% of the houses in multiple occupation had inadequate means of escape from fire and 19% of dwellings were infested with cockroaches, bedbugs or fleas.
Nearly half the children surveyed were living in just one room with their families, most in bed and breakfast hotels or bedsits where they shared cooking and bathing facilities with others.
Some placements were wholly inappropriate. In one study area, six young people under 18 had been placed in a converted factory with no adult on hand to
As responsibility for housing destitute asylum seekers fell first to social services departments then to the National Asylum Support Service, the strategic role of housing departments has been largely bypassed. Their involvement is particularly important when most accommodation is being contracted from private landlords.
A number of councils have made huge efforts to improve private rented housing. The best strategies have taken a two-pronged approach - encourage and work with landlords who provide decent housing, and take strong action against those who refuse to provide value for money or bring properties up to standard.
Some areas had started to reap the benefits to the point where the worst landlords were being driven out of business.
The report of Shelter's study makes a number of recommendations, many of which are aimed at councils. A key recommendation of the report is that the regional consortia should work closely with local housing authorities to develop clear strategies for providing appropriate and decent housing.
By contracting housing from landlords without working with councils, NASS is in danger of providing a steady flow of occupants to the very death traps councils were trying to close down.
-Deborah Garvie, policy officer, Shelter.