A MOTHER has described how she and her young son resorted to living in a tent after falling victim to South Lakeland's "dire" housing shortage.

Natalie Searle and her nine-year-old son spent part of the summer living under canvas at a popular Lake District campsite after they became homeless, reports Ruth Lythe.

Miss Searle, 31, was forced to move from her home in Ambleside earlier this year after her landlord decided to let the property out to students.

But she and her son were unable to find anywhere else to live and turned to South Lakeland District Council for help.

They were given a room in a Kendal homeless hostel but because Miss Searle felt it would not be suitable for her son, she turned down the offer.

Instead she chose life under canvas and, armed with a tent and borrowed stove, she spent three weeks of the summer living at Low Wray campsite, near Hawkshead, while she searched for alternative accommodation.

The pair drove each morning to Ambleside, where Miss Searle works in a local cafe and her son attends school.

"I thought I would rather be in a tent because of the horror stories I had heard about hostels. I was rather my son was in a campsite in the open air than in a hostel 13 miles away from his school and friends," she explained.

Miss Searle said she was initially "devastated" to be living in a tent but she said her son adapted well to the outdoor life.

"We were very lucky that Low Wray is a nice campsite. At the weekend, it was almost like a big holiday. Most of the time we had really good weather but when it rained we couldn't go home like the other families," she said.

"It was quite funny to see the holidaymakers' faces when my son got out of the tent with his school uniform on," she added.

And although Miss Searle admits that the council's hands are often tied to help people in her situation, she knew of other people in the area, who had jobs but had also found themselves homeless and had had to resort to camping.

She said that many people, especially those with children, were out-priced by "crazy rents" or were unable to find suitable accommodation because of the "dire shortage of housing" in an area packed with holiday and second homes.

"When we left the campsite each morning we would pass empty holiday homes - it made me quite angry that there are properties that aren't being lived in," she said.

SLDC later offered Miss Searle a flat but she turned it down because she wanted to remain in the Ambleside area she and her son have now managed to find suitable accommodation several months after they first became homeless.

Vanessa Dixon, South Lakeland area manager for homelessness charity, Shelter, explained that the family's experience was symptomatic of the problem of "hidden homelessness" in the area.

"People often think that rough sleepers are male and in their 40s or 50s with drug or alcohol problems. But that isn't the case at all, a lot of rural homelessness is really hidden. This is something that can happen to anybody.

"I would like SLDC to explore what the need is. Providing just one hostel in Kendal is not meeting the individual needs of the people who are facing homelessness," she said.

She added that anyone with housing problems should call the Shelter helpline on 0845-120-4565.

Westmorland and Lonsdale MP Tim Farron reiterated his call for a change in planning law, so that people who wanted to use a house as a second home would have to apply for planning permission. He also said that there should be an increase in council tax on second homes to help provide an income for councils to spend on housing.

The MP also said that that the Government should change the new self-invested personal pensions (SIPPS) rules which allowed people to put a second home into a pension package.

SLDC community and housing manager Ian Elleray said that providing affordable housing was the council's number one priority and it was doing all it could. However, the right to buy council housing had had a "devastating effect" on the available stock.

Ideally, hostel accommodation would be provided in more places than Kendal, but the budget to run such services was very difficult to obtain.

Mr Elleray said that the council was working to provide more affordable housing in Ambleside, but that there was no "quick fix".