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12 December 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 6:07pm

Inside Britain’s container towns – the latest answer to the housing crisis

Councils faced with increased numbers of homeless households are turning to a stackable solution. 

By John Keenan

The largest “container town” development for homeless people in the UK has opened its doors in West London.

Meath Court in Hope Gardens, Ealing, comprises 60 apartments and will house 290 homeless people. The joint venture between QED Sustainable Urban Developments and Ealing Council is intended to provide a short-term fix or families living in bed-and breakfast accommodation. 

At Meath Court, the upfront costs of building were covered by the developer, while the council pays the tenants’ rent of £30 a night. It is the latest attempt by Ealing Council to respond to the high price of houses, the impact of welfare reforms and a reduced supply of affordable homes. 

“More and more residents are asking the council for assistance, which in many cases leads to the council accommodating such households until longer term options become available,” says Phillip Brent, a council communications officer. Typically, these families are placed in a council hostel or a private B&B, but the increase in homelessness is outstripping available accommodation. 

The container units, by contrast, can be easily picked up, transported and reassembled on another site. 

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The developer, QED, has invested £4.3m in Meath Court following a £2.2m project elsewhere in the borough. The container units were manufactured in Sussex by CargoTek, a joint venture company incorporating QED Sustainable Urban Development and shipping container conversion specialists ISO Spaces. Ross Gilbert is managing director of both CargoTek and QED. He said: “By pooling our respective resources we provide a one-stop-shop for any portable building project – from conception through to completion on site.”

London has the highest proportion of homelessness in the country, featuring 31 of the worst hit-boroughs. There are 6,529 people living in temporary accommodation in Ealing according to the latest figures from Shelter.

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Bedroom inside a container home at Meath Court. Credit: QED.

It was in Brighton – where Shelter says one in 69 people are homeless – that the country’s first container units for homeless people opened in 2013, at derelict land in Richardson’s Yard. These container units were adapted by QED from pre-built units shipped from Amsterdam. If the Brighton experience is any guide, the “short term” solution in Ealing could prove to be longer than expected. QED has recently applied for a five-year extension to the project and Brighton city council is expected to approve the application soon.

Andy Winter, chief executive at Brighton Housing Trust, which manages the site, points out that since 2011, when discussions regarding the development began, the situation for homeless people has grown inexorably worse, with 140 people estimated to be sleeping rough in the city. The housing affordability crisis in the city has sharpened, he says, and options from specialist supported housing have reduced dramatically.

The current housing crisis stretches the definition of “temporary” – the turnover of residents is six to 18 months – and although the appeal of container towns may be obvious to councils, for residents a container does not always feel as cosy a solution. 

There have been reports of anti-social behaviour at the Brighton site, which Winter claims is inevitable in a development of 36 homes for people with a history of homelessness. He points out that Richardson’s Yard allows people to experience independent living, and gain references they can later present to private landlords. “To date the development has housed 64 individuals with over half able to move on to longer term tenancies within Brighton,” he says. Richardson’s Yard, he tells me, has been an incredible success.

But three current residents I spoke to this month took a different view.

Charles Devus, a long-term tenant, said it took an “avalanche of complaints and a petition” before the developer painted over rusted metal work, replaced inadequate heaters, put in wind breaks between the containers and upgraded security. Before an electronic key fob system was added to the front gate, random strangers would bang on residents’ front doors and ask to look round the units.

Another resident, Charlie Clark, a 30-year-old former carpenter, said the fob system has had limited success in deterring trespassers and worse. When I visited the site he showed me how easy it was for people to use metal steps on the exterior of the site to get over the fencing.

He said: “One morning I opened my curtains and saw six blokes with metal poles coming over the fence. Dealers congregate at the units because the type of people who are living here are vulnerable. People in the flats have armed themselves with knives, axes, just in case. I know people who are too scared to leave their units.”

Charlie says that efforts to improve the heating in the units have also been partially successful at best.

“It’s like being out on the streets. In winter you sit there with three jumpers on and the heating going full blast and it is still cold.”

Charlie was housed in the unit after sleeping rough, losing his job, suffering mental health problems compounded with alcohol and drug use.

Core rents at the units are £135.00 per week – one tenant sent me a quarterly statement itemising the rent at £740 a month, which includes an element for social care, plus an additional service charge of £189 a month. The majority of tenants claim housing benefit.

Charlie said: “When you have to choose between eating and being warm it gets you down.”

Tony Ormiston, 34-year-old father of two boys, said his ex-wife will not allow his sons to visit him at the site following an armed raid at one of the units.

He said: “I can see where she’s coming from. It can be a bit like a jungle at night. That said I do value having my own space, being able to close the door and my business is my business.”

He criticised Brighton Housing Trust for its failure to offer any after-care in the wake of the armed raid.

He said: “We have to tell them what needs to be done.”

Ross Gilbert insisted that by working closely with Brighton Housing Trust, his company has addressed issues raised by residents including the heating, security and energy points.

He said lessons learned from the experience in Brighton will help the company manage future developments including the project at Hope Gardens in Ealing.

He said: “The rent at Richardson’s Yard is in the cheapest 30 per cent of the whole of Brighton and for those residents eligible for Local Housing Allowance it is covered.

He pointed out that QED has invested in excess of £1m into the development at Richardson’s Yard and to date the development has not generated a profit.

Gilbert said: “We have applied to extend the temporary planning consent for the Richardson’s Yard development for a further five years, to continue helping vulnerable adults turn their lives around and live independently.”

This month QED picked up a gong in the Sussex Business Awards for “innovation in business”.

Tony Ormiston said: “I’d give them five out of ten.”