No room to crawl, play or use a potty: why do thousands of young children live in B&Bs? | Katharine Swindells

PRaising a young child is hard enough. But imagine taking care of a baby in a single room shared with two or three older siblings. The bathroom and kitchen are communal, so you will have to take the child with you or lock him in the bedroom. If you need to wash another set of baby clothes or sterilize the bottle, you should do so using a small sink and kettle in your bedroom.

That’s what one woman told me: it’s like living in a temporary hostel in England with her young children. When I interviewed her, she talked about how she worried about his safety and health in the early months of raising her newborn son, especially because of that accommodation. Her story is not unique: as shown by recent research by my colleagues at Inside Housing more than 35,000 households just like her, who lived in temporary accommodation with children under five in England, Scotland and Wales in 2023.

We conducted this study because there is no regularly published data on the number of families with young children and infants in temporary accommodation. The government’s quarterly data set does not distinguish between babies and teenagers. This is surprising, as we know that the early years are so crucial to a child’s development, providing a crucial foundation for their learning, health and behavior for the rest of their lives.

Our research also found that almost 2,400 families with young children were living in B&Bs – temporary accommodation rented by councils, where families typically have just one room plus other shared facilities. Families have told us that living in small spaces in B&Bs and hotels makes it a nightmare to get a baby to sleep. Everyone sharing one bedroom – often more than five people – means that if the baby doesn’t sleep, none of the other children do either.

In a B&B there may be multiple fire doors between the bedroom and the communal bathroom, making toilet training virtually impossible and some children may have to learn to use a toilet. jar in a cupboard. The lack of space in the bedroom limits the child’s ability to learn to crawl and walk, let alone play, all of which can contribute to significant developmental problems.

The government knows this is unacceptable. Therefore, it is illegal to keep children in shared accommodation for more than six weeks. And yet we discovered that in England almost two-thirds of families with young children stayed in a B&B for more than six weeks. In London it was even worse, with a third living in B&Bs for more than six months.

Even when a family is housed in appropriate, self-contained temporary housing, the properties are usually in poor condition, infested with mice and cockroaches, with poor insulation making them dangerously hot or cold, or with severe dampness or mold – all of which pose significant health risks to infants and young children, whose immune systems are not yet fully developed. There is often no cot available in temporary housing, meaning babies do not have a safe place to sleep: recently the government published guidance about this, but it is still not strictly enforced.

We need detailed data on the number of families in these living conditions so that we can truly understand the extent of the damage this may have caused to hundreds of thousands of children over a generation. We need it not least because these conditions can be deadly. Between 2019 and 2023, temporary housing was a factor in the deaths of 55 childrenof whom 42 were less than a year old.

We need to know more. It is terrifying to think that there are councils that have no data on the number of toddlers and babies living in these conditions, especially when you consider that in some areas tens of thousands of people live with their children in temporary accommodation.

As journalists, it is our job to hold the government to account – that is why we undertook this investigation. But without an obligation on the government or municipalities to collect such data, journalists can only go so far: a third of municipalities told us they could not provide the figures because they would have to manually go through each family’s paperwork.

The data available to the government speaks volumes about what its priorities are. Without this, how will the public ensure that the government delivers on its promises? The housing crisis means there are tens of thousands of babies and toddlers live in a state of enormous unrest, in homes that damage their health and development every week they spend there.

As the general election campaign begins in earnest, I am sure we will hear a lot from all parties about unlocking opportunity. But without an ambitious housing plan, it all sounds empty to me. How can we expect the next generation to fulfill their potential when these are the conditions in which so many spend their early years?