UK

‘Heartbroken’ mum was told ‘there are no council houses’ – despite tens of thousands sitting empty

Tens of thousands of council houses are currently empty despite the country facing a national housing crisis.

There are 33,993 vacant council properties in England, the highest number since 2009. And Sky News can reveal more than 6,000 publicly-owned homes have been empty for over a year.

They include several residences that have been sealed off on an estate in Lambeth, south London, for more than two decades and 144 flats in a boarded-up tower block in the bordering borough of Southwark that has been empty since 2015. It was due to be redeveloped but building costs have risen so much it’s set to be demolished.

Sky News has worked with housing campaigner Kwajo Tweneboa to reveal the numbers of vacant council properties by using Freedom of Information requests.

Mr Tweneboa told Sky News: “You’ve got people sleeping on the streets. You’ve got people who are sleeping in garages and storage containers. Yet we’ve got thousands of homes sat empty, council homes up and down the country, which aren’t being used.

“It makes no sense whatsoever. It’s a complete dereliction of duty and failure to care for those that need it most.”

housing campaigner Kwajo Tweneboa still provided by correspondent for empty council houses story pic: Sky
Image:
Housing campaigner Kwajo Tweneboa

Instead of repairing houses they own, councils are paying millions each year to private landlords to house families in emergency temporary accommodation, including bed and breakfasts.

More on Housing

The latest figures show 145,800 children in England are homeless and living in temporary accommodation – a record high and 15% more than a year ago.

Rose, 21, lives with her young daughters in a single room in a bed and breakfast in Streatham, Lambeth.


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For Rose – who works part-time as well as studying to be an air controller – private rent in south London is out of the question.

She says she worries constantly about the impact on her daughters, aged five and two, of being homeless.

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Rose's youngest daughter has only ever known living in a single room with her family
Image:
Rose’s youngest daughter has only ever known living in a single room with her family

“My firstborn still wears nappies because in the middle of the night she can’t just get up and go to a shared toilet with all these people that she doesn’t know,” she says. “My baby – it took her time to walk because she didn’t have enough room and she couldn’t use the baby walker.”

She calls Croydon Council regularly to find out if she is any closer to being offered a permanent home, but a recent call with a council worker has made her worry.

“She said to me that you will have to move out of London and find a house,” Rose says. “She told me there are no council houses, there’s no social houses, those were her words – we have no social houses.”

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Calls to aid rundown housing estate

Yet a short drive from where Rose is living, we showed her dozens of empty houses.

The houses are on a Lambeth estate that was earmarked for redevelopment several years ago. Despite many of the properties being emptied, there is no sign of any building work.

Rose says the revelation there are empty social homes in London makes her feel “heartbroken, lied to and deceived”.

The Local Government Association (LGA) blames a shortage of funding for councils for the number of vacant properties.

still provided by correspondent for empty council houses story pic: Sky
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Boarded-up houses on an estate in Lambeth, south London

Victor Chamberlain, a housing spokesperson for the LGA, told Sky News that in many cases “the council doesn’t have the money in place to be able to refurbish them and bring them back into use as council homes”.

He said money is instead paid to private landlords for temporary accommodation because councils “have a duty as a local authority to make sure that nobody is sleeping rough or that they don’t have a secure place to sleep each night”.

Victor Chamberlain, still provided by correspondent for housing story Pic: Sky
Image:
LGA housing spokesperson Victor Chamberlain

Mr Chamberlain continued: “That means that we have to divert funding to those causes and not to building the new council homes, which are absolutely essential to solving the problem.

“It’s complete mismanagement. You know, there’s a complete false economy.

“If we’re not able to spend the money on the actual solution, but we’re using a sticking plaster of temporary accommodation, then the system is broken.”

Lambeth Council told Sky News: “Lambeth is committed to bringing empty homes back into use as quickly as possible.”

It added: “The majority of our empty properties have been vacant for less than six months.”

Rose plays with her children in their cramped accommodation
Image:
Rose plays with her children in their cramped accommodation

We asked Croydon Council why Rose had been told there was no social housing available.

Several days later, it responded: “We have been working with our resident to find more suitable accommodation that meets their needs and have identified a permanent home that we will offer them soon.

“Croydon has been impacted by an increase in homelessness and a London-wide housing shortage.

“Unfortunately, this means that there are not always permanent homes available for families as quickly as we would like.”

Additional reporting by Nick Stylianou, Communities Producer.

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