In the case of Birmingham Council v Ali; Moran v Manchester Council, Lady Hale sensibly observed that accommodation which may be unreasonable for a person to occupy for a long period may be reasonable for them to occupy for a short period. As an unfortunate result, some local authorities have taken this to mean that they are ‘fireproof’ and at liberty to provide run-down local authority-owned hostels as temporary accommodation. (It is already unlawful to provide private hostels unless there is no alternative, and in any case after six weeks.)

Six months in a hostel

Mr A applied as homeless to Southwark Council with his two sons (four and 14 years old). After two weeks they were moved into a local authority-owned hostel. The application did not go smoothly, and it was only after a county court appeal that Southwark accepted a full duty to house the family six months later.

It is a single bedsit, with a small attached kitchen and the shared use of a bathroom. The furniture and fittings were past their useful lives and unsuitable. The heating was inadequate, which led to problems with condensation. There were two bathrooms between five units, for a total of 13 people including children. For most of Mr A’s stay, one bathroom or the other had no hot water and everyone had to share the one remaining. Both bathrooms leaked profusely through the light fittings whenever it rained. The only toilets were inside the bathrooms. The boys had trouble getting enough sleep and studying, and it was overcrowded. After four months, and before the council had accepted a full duty to house the family, Mr A’s recently instructed solicitors wrote to the authority to challenge the suitability of the temporary accommodation. Southwark replied to say it considered the accommodation met his and his sons’ needs.

High Court review

The solicitors issued a claim for judicial review. Three weeks later the High Court granted permission to apply for judicial review and listed the case for hearing in a further three weeks’ time. During the week before the hearing, Southwark made a number of offers of alternative temporary accommodation to Mr A, one of which he accepted.

The case is noteworthy in that the High Court granted permission to apply even though no full duty had been accepted. It shows that the courts will pay attention to a suitability challenge, despite Lady Hale’s dictum, and that it behoves local authorities to make genuine efforts to ensure the accommodation provided is suitable to the homelessness applicant.

Families should be taken out of such (council-owned) hostel accommodation before more than a few weeks elapses.

This article first appeared in Inside Housing.