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Why do authorities use temporary accommodation?

Local housing authorities in England have a duty to secure accommodation for unintentionally homeless households in priority need under Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996 (as amended). Households might be placed in temporary accommodation pending the completion of inquiries into an application, or they might spend time waiting in temporary accommodation after an application is accepted until suitable secure accommodation becomes available.

Numbers in temporary accommodation are increasing

Official statistics published in December 2011 marked the end of the long-term downward trend in the number of households in temporary accommodation; seasonally-adjusted figures had fallen in each successive quarter since peaking in 2004. The most recent quarterly statistics recorded 93,000 households in temporary accommodation at the end of March 2020, an increase of 9.4% on 31 March 2019. The statistical release attributes this increase to a rise in single households which may be related to the Covid-19 ‘Everyone in’ scheme.

The quarterly statistics for September 2019 mark the thirty-fourth time that the number of households in temporary accommodation is higher than in the same quarter of the previous year. The 93,000 households include 129,380 children. Of these households, 60,720 (65% of the total) were placed in temporary accommodation by London local authorities. The number of families with dependent children placed in B&B-style accommodation increased from 630 at the end of March 2010 to 1,550 at the end of March 2020, although this figure is 55% lower than its recent peak in September 2016.

Securing suitable temporary accommodation

Various initiatives have been pursued to try to limit the use of unsuitable B&B-type temporary accommodation. For example, local authorities have focused on securing private rented housing through lease agreements with private landlords. Authorities, particularly in areas of high housing demand, argue that their ability to do this has been affected by Housing Benefit reforms, meaning that landlords can secure higher returns from letting their properties on the open market to non-Housing Benefit claimants (although not all homeless applicants are in receipt of Housing Benefit). One response has been for authorities to seek temporary accommodation outside of their own areas. There was a 370% increase in the number of households placed in temporary accommodation outside of their local authority between the end of March 2010 and the end of March 2020. Local authority expenditure on homelessness services, including temporary accommodation, has “steadily increased since 2010”.

Particular challenges faced by London boroughs

February 2016 saw the publication of research commissioned by London Councils from the Centre for Housing Policy at the University of York which identified specific issues for London authorities in securing temporary accommodation:

“A perfect storm of market conditions and policy changes means that providing temporary accommodation for homeless individuals and families is increasingly challenging for London boroughs.”

Communities and Local Government Select Committee inquiry

On 17 December 2015 the Communities and Local Government Select Committee launched an inquiry into the causes of homelessness, as well as the approach taken by national and local government to prevent and tackle homelessness. The Committee asked for written evidence to be submitted by 8 February 2016. Some respondents submitted evidence calling for more flexibility in providing temporary accommodation outside of their local areas. The Committee’s report was published on 18 August 2016. The Committee called on the Government to initiate a “renewed, cross-Departmental Government strategy”.

National Audit Office September 2017 & PAC December 2017

The National Audit Office (NAO) published a report on Homelessness in September 2017 in which it observed that of the £1.1bn spent by English local authorities in 2015-16, £845 million was spent on temporary accommodation:

Three-quarters of this spending – £638 million – was funded by housing benefit, of which £585 million was recovered from the Department for Work & Pensions. Spending on temporary accommodation has increased by 39% in real terms since 2010‑11. There is also a wider cost stemming from the impact of homelessness on public services such as healthcare. The Department does not have a robust estimate of this wider cost.

The NAO recommended that:

The Department should work with local authorities to ensure that they are making the most effective use of temporary accommodation. This work should include enabling local authorities to increase their use of the innovative short-term solutions that they are taking.

The Public Accounts Committee’s (PAC) December 2017 report, Homeless Households, observed that temporary accommodation is “often of a poor standard and does not offer value for money”.  The Committee recommended:

The Department should take steps to eliminate the use of non-decent temporary accommodation and to enable local authorities to replace this supply with local alternatives that offer better value for money.

The Government’s response was published in March 2018.

An analysis of expenditure by local authorities conducted by Crisis and BBC’s Panorama and reported in Inside Housing on 3 February 2020, found that “English councils paid £939m in temporary accommodation costs to private accommodation providers in 2018/19, up 48% from the £490m spent in 2013/14.” Research by Shelter, published in February 2020, suggests that a lucrative private market has developed in which brokers are exploiting the difficulties authorities’ face in sourcing temporary accommodation.

Other relevant briefings

Time-series data on the number of households in different types of temporary accommodation can be downloaded from the landing page for this briefing. For information on wider Government initiatives to tackle homelessness, see Library Briefing Paper 01164, Statutory Homelessness in England. Variations in approaches to homelessness in Scotland and Wales are outlined in Library Briefing Paper 07201 Comparison of homelessness duties in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.


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