Byers promises end to families living in B&Bs

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The Government pledged to end the misery of thousands of families living in bed and breakfast hotels yesterday in unveiling a £75m drive against "hidden" homelessness.

Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, won praise from housing charities after promising that no children would be in B&B accommodation by March 2004. The ambitious pledge, to find alternative homes for 6,500 families currently in such hotels across Britain, came after a report urged ministers to take action on the root causes of homelessness.

However, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the housing minister, admitted that overall homelessness would continue to rise. Decades of underinvestment in affordable homes, a rise in people living on their own and greater eligibility for statutory help would combine to push up the figures, he warned.

The new money announced by the Government is part of a wider £125m strategy to help not just those who sleep rough on the streets but also the 78,000 people living in temporary housing.

It came as the homelessness directorate in Mr Byers' department published More Than A Roof. The report pointed out that one of the "worst manifestations" of homelessness in Britain was the rising number of children forced to live in bed and breakfast hotels. The number of overall homeless has risen by 12,000 since Labour came to power in 1997, but the number of families in B&B has soared by 125 per cent. Housing workers have long campaigned for an end to the use of B&Bs, many of which provide sub-standard, cramped quarters at high cost to the taxpayer.

Under plans outlined by Mr Byers and the Department for Work and Pensions, cash incentives for councils to use bed and breakfast accommodation will be removed. The families will be switched instead to homes provided by housing associations or commercial landlords. Mr Byers said: "It is unacceptable that so many families are forced to live in B&B accommodation – our children deserve a better start in life."

Figures due today are expected to show a slight seasonal dip in the number of people classifying themselves as homeless, but the levels will increase again, Lord Falconer told The Independent. The minister said the number of new homes built in Britain stood at their lowest since 1948. Although the Government had doubled the cash given to housing associations in 2000, it would take years for it to filter through the system, he said.

Chris Holmes, director of the campaign group Shelter, said he welcomed the move. But he warned that real, long-term investment in affordable homes was needed in the Chancellor's forthcoming spending review.

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