The number of homeless families shunted into bed and breakfast accommodation has almost trebled since the coalition came to power, new figures reveal.
Some 450 households were still in B&Bs six weeks after being placed there by English councils at the end of December, compared with 160 in June 2010. Government rules state that pregnant women or families with children should not be allocated to B&Bs, "except in emergencies and then for no longer than six weeks".
Homelessness charities warn that living in guest houses for long periods can have "a terrible impact on children's lives, robbing them of security and stability".
Grant Shapps, the housing minister, has written to 20 councils with the highest numbers of families in B&B accommodation, complaining that the practice is "unacceptable".
Council leaders blamed the increased use of B&Bs on the economic downturn but said it was exacerbated by government policies, including welfare reforms that limit how much can be spent on a family's rent.
"We take offence at the assumption in Mr Shapps's letter that local authorities put families in B&Bs by choice, rather than necessity," a spokesman for the London Borough of Sutton said. "Mr Shapps ought to be looking a bit closer to home to find the source of this problem. We have to deal with the impact of the cap on housing benefits, which makes many central London homes unaffordable."
Councillor Clyde Loakes, of the Local Government Association, said: "The best way to solve the shortage of affordable housing is with bricks and mortar and investing in homes already available."
Most of the "top 20" councils, which account for almost 80 per cent of families in B&Bs, are London boroughs, led by Barking and Dagenham. Shelter Scotland estimates that 11,500 people, including 5,800 children, are housed in temporary accommodation.
Mr Shapps said the majority of councils were working within the guidelines. But he has written to the 20 worst offenders "urging them to prioritise elimination of the use of long-term B&B accommodation for families, and offering support from my department to do so".
Mr Shapps added: "We are introducing changes through the Localism Act that will give local authorities increased flexibility to use the private rented sector."
Campbell Robb, chief executive of Shelter, said: "Whatever the current financial pressures... it is unacceptable for children to bear the brunt by prolonging the time spent without a place to call home. "
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