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More than a hundred homeless London families have been “left” in limbo to live in a semi-abandoned former army barracks in Kent for years on end.
Many of the families, from Redbridge, voluntarily moved to Canterbury’s Howe Barracks after asking their council for help because they were at risk of homelessness.
Most voluntarily moved to the estate of about 150 homes, on the outskirts of the city, after spending years in bed and breakfasts, hostels, hotels and rented London properties.
Many say they are “happy” with the red-brick homes on the western edge of the Kent city, which Redbridge Council has rented from property giant Annington since 2016.
However, while many said moving a 59 mile drive away to Canterbury was a “positive” experience, they said they lacked secure tenancies despite being permanently relocated.
They complained that despite voting and paying tax locally, the estate’s roads and verges are poorly maintained and there is a lack of contact with Redbridge Council.
Despite the worsening state of London’s housing crisis, when the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) visited last year many of the homes appeared empty, boarded up and some had fallen into disrepair.
Caroline, in her 50s, said she moved from London to the estate in an “act of faith” in 2016 after living in a single hostel room with her young son for more than a year.
Although life in Canterbury is “better” than in London, her two-bed home felt “only temporary,” she said.
She added: “Temporary should be a year, not this long. We have just been moved here and left here and nobody worries about us.
“It’s uncertain, at the end they could say ‘you have to move’… it’s not permanent”.
A couple with children, who declined to be named, said they were “grateful” for the chance to move out of London but concerned that unlike social housing tenants they would never have a right to buy their home.
A single mother, who also asked to stay anonymous, said she felt “completely isolated” from her support network since she and her son moved in 2020.
She accepted a home on the Kent estate after falling homeless and staying in a “horrible” temporary flat in London, provided by Redbridge Council.
The mother, who is black, said her son has faced “racial issues” at school and she has struggled to obtain decent job offers, which she said was also due to local prejudices.
She added: “[Redbridge Council] said if I moved back to the borough they would put me in a hotel.
“They offered me Sunderland the other day, they said they have nice places there – it’s beyond ridiculous.”
Every resident who spoke to the LDRS said they wished the council would improve its contractor Mears’ upkeep of the estate.
Caroline said: “There’s no management and no contact.”
Since a Redbridge Council support worker, known as “Harry”, left his role years ago, there has been regular contact with the council, they said.
Until 2015, the Ministry of Defence (MoD), which is freeholder of the estate, used it as a barracks for army staff and their families.
The following year, Redbridge Council caused uproar with Canterbury locals when it outbid their city council for the homes, which it uses to fulfill its legal duty to protect its residents from homelessness.
A council spokesperson said it has since moved 174 families through the estate as it attempts to help those caught up in the housing crisis.
When asked whether Redbridge has a long-term plan for the homes, they said they would continue to engage and work with tenants “to meet their longer-term housing need”.
They added: “Redbridge, like the rest of London, is in the grip of a severe housing crisis and to meet our statutory duties we accommodate households out of London where there is a lack of accommodation locally.”
However, the council spokesperson failed to mention the ongoing legal battle between the UK government, which owns the freehold, and leaseholder Annington, controlled by financier Guy Hands.
Depending on the outcome of the legal dispute, the government may seize back control of 38,000 ex-MOD homes which were sold-off to Annington in a “disastrous” deal in 1996.
Redbridge has the highest eviction rate in London and the second-highest number of households in temporary accommodation per thousand in the country, government figures show.
In total, the figures show that more than 3,000 households are living in temporary accommodation.
To cope with the crippling cost of supporting residents after more than ten years of austerity, the council is known to place families in temporary accomodation in Slough, Uxbridge and Essex.
Last year, senior housing officer Carol Hinvest said residents on low incomes or benefits “have to move out of the borough” because it is no longer affordable due to the government’s benefit cap.
A Redbridge council spokesperson told the LDRS: “A combination of underinvestment from the government in social housing alongside growing demand for housing means Redbridge and other London boroughs are in the middle of a severe housing crisis.
“This means in some cases, we are faced with having to move people already living in the borough to outside of the borough, as demand far outweighs supply.”
They added that Redbridge has promised to build “600 new homes” in the borough by 2025 and remains focused on providing a “safe, warm place” for local people and families.
A spokesperson for Canterbury City Council said: “While the responsibility for managing the accommodation and housing cases sits with [the London borough of] Redbridge, we have done as much as possible to help these families integrate and become Canterbury residents.
“This has included working with a host of partners such as Kent County Council, health services, local churches, youth providers and other local community organisations.”