Beds in sheds
John researches and writes on housing, migration and refugee issues. John was Director of Policy at the CIH for twelve years until 2003, before moving to Nicaragua, where he co-ordinates projects with low income families. He regularly writes for the Migration Pulse as a guest contributor.
It must be said is that his recognition that the problem exists is very welcome. Indeed, the Housing and Migration Network called for action on the problem only in February. ‘Sheds’ is a metaphor for a wide range of unsuitable accommodation in buildings that aren’t houses – sheds, garages and outbuildings in cities; barns, containers and defunct caravans in rural areas.
No one knows the scale of the problem and it certainly can’t be assessed through Google Earth as fancifully claimed in the government announcement. But it is an inhumane (as well as illegal) way to accommodate people. A co-ordinated response, involving the different agencies required if action is to be effective, is definitely needed.
However, there are some significant issues about the way this is going to be tackled that call for further thought before it begins.
First, although this may just be about getting the story into the press, it doesn’t help if the victims of the problem – the immigrants illegally housed in unsuitable buildings (or worse) – are also seen as the culprits. But this is what the first line of the government press release appears to do. It promises action not only against ‘criminal landlords’ but also to remove ‘illegal immigrants’, some of whom apparently want to return home but have ‘destroyed their passports’ to avoid removal. Immigration minister Damien Green adds that "(…) those with no right to be in the UK must leave the country. If they volunteer to leave, we will help. If they refuse, we will enforce their removal."
So it seems that the new ‘taskforce’ will have dual objectives – closing down illegal accommodation and sending any illegal immigrants packing. Which means of course that it’s very unlikely to work: any migrants living in these conditions will be even more scared to notify the authorities than they were before: not only those who are undocumented but even the many who have a right to be here but fear that it might be challenged. It also suggests that – if it gets no co-operation from the victims themselves – the taskforce will rely on tittle-tattle from neighbours and could even encourage more persecution of migrants than already exists.
So the second point is that the taskforce should focus on the accommodation issue and in doing so aim to work with local migrant groups and support groups who (as well as the local authority) are the ones likely to know where the worst problems are and why. As it stands, support groups will rightly be suspicious of the initiative and may well be reluctant to co-operate, yet with their support and advice it could work in a way which benefits poorly housed migrants instead of criminalising them.
Third, the problems in London are known to be broadly of two kinds. One is people being rented illegal structures, but the other is people camping out in semi-public or hidden spaces (e.g.under flyovers), for lack of access to any proper accommodation at all. These two issues are quite different and will require different solutions.
Fourth, it is clear that unless some form of move-on accommodation is available, the taskforce could well solve one problem and create another – more rough sleeping, which has been a growing problem for migrants already. Clearly, careful preparation with homelessness services and advice agencies will also be required, and these services are already at stretching point. This will not be easy.
Fifth, the main local authority input will be by environmental health staff, which raises two issues. One is simply that their services too are over-stretched and subject to cuts. Grant Shapps has already exhorted them to be more active in tackling ‘rogue landlords’ but at the same time the government is drastically cutting the revenue support that helps fund this side of local authorities’ housing services.
The other local authority issue – which comes back to liaison with migrant support groups – is having staff available who have experience or training in dealing with migrants, their housing issues and their language and other support needs. While many environmental health officers (EHOs) may be sympathetic, they may not have these skills and knowledge. In the recent past, some councils such as Hastings and East Cambridgeshire appointed special staff to deal with migrants and migrant groups, and produced training material or guidance for EHOs. Because these services were often funded by the now-defunct Migration Impacts Fund (MIF), they may now have ceased or be under threat.
So the environment for tackling ‘beds in sheds’ is not a promising one, especially given the overall context of the housing crisis. We should therefore offer two cheers for the government’s initiative, but urge them to think carefully – and consult migrant support organisations – on how it should be put into practice.