The barracks in Canterbury closed in 2014 leaving hundreds of former army accommodation properties empty. Canterbury has around 2,500 households on the waiting list for social housing, including families crammed into one-bedroom flats, so this seemed like a perfect opportunity.
What should have been a quick win for the city became an embarrassing failure. Canterbury’s inability to assess the true market value meant Redbridge, a London council, snapped up the properties and promptly shipped 200 families into the district.
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Canterbury was then left with two problems. Firstly, it still had to find somewhere to put the thousands of families with nowhere to live, and secondly it now had to support the new arrivals.
It has failed on both counts.
The Redbridge families immediately needed school places. They had to find GPs surgeries to register at, and as with any community, a percentage needed immediate support from social services.
Displacing large communities from one area to another is inevitably problematic. Teachers at schools attended by the Redbridge children tell me of the challenges it has brought.
Children in Canterbury can be culturally very different from kids who have grown up in London, and their parents may have different expectations. And it’s not as simple as saying one group are worse behaved than the other. It’s simply that the sudden introduction of a different demographic has created exponentially larger amounts of classroom pressure as kids struggle to fit in. Just extra stress for schools and teachers already struggling to cope.
Educators in overcrowded classes, struggling to cope with behaviour management, don’t get much solace from the council’s platitudes. “We put in a robust bid” pleads the council, wringing its hands. It’s no wonder teachers are leaving the profession in droves.
The issue of housing and schools is inherently linked, and it’s doing much more harm that you might think.
Unless you’ve been to the temporary accommodation and spoken to families crammed into totally unsuitable flats you won’t be able to understand what day-to-day life is really like. The daily grind of sharing a bed with your children and having nowhere to store your things is incredible.
And I see the distress it causes teachers, picking up the pieces after the council’s failure.
Of course, I haven’t touched on the extra work for doctor, nurses and social workers. That’s for another column.
All of that makes this week’s revelation that little more poignant.
One street from the former barracks had been left abandoned. After exasperated locals raised the issue of boarded-up houses, council leader Simon Cook pledged to do something.
And now something has happened. After months, the derelict houses are now to be homes again. To more families from Redbridge.
The irony is that this situation doesn’t suit the Redbridge families either. If I had grown up in London near my family, I’d be pretty peeved at being shipped off to deepest, darkest Kent. If Canterbury hadn’t made it so easy for them, Redbridge council might have been forced to purchase social housing on its own patch.
Of course, it all comes down to money. Canterbury bid what it was prepared to pay. The process was secret, so we’ll probably never know how much the council offered. But I can promise you it was a lot less than they paid for the Whitefriars shopping centre – which in the last year alone has lost around £20 million in value according to experts.
There is a human cost to the failures the city has made. And I’m not sure the powers that be are really prepared to admit it.