We need to be braver and more radical in finding solutions. Photo: Getty
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Homelessness will not be solved by building private homes – we need a radical solution

After a decade advocating for homeless people at the helm of Crisis, Leslie Morphy has a message for government.

There’s lots of talk about young professionals struggling to buy their first home, especially in London, but for me there is a much harsher reality. There are thousands of homeless people whose lives are far beyond the bottom of the property ladder. They are stuck in hostels and bed and breakfast accommodation, hidden from view in over-crowded homes, garden sheds and worse of all, on our city streets, sleeping in woods and parkland. The solution for these people is not going to be through tinkering with the mortgage market or giving incentives for first time buyers.

As I step down from almost a decade immersed in advocating for single homeless people at the helm of Crisis, a message to government both locally and nationally is that we need to be braver and more radical in finding solutions to a housing crisis which underpins homelessness.

There is the very obvious issue that people simply cannot afford accommodation suitable for their circumstances. Affordable must mean affordable, including in London. For some this can be achieved through a reinforced commitment to social housing and not a sleep walk where social housing to rent becomes a distant memory in many parts of the country. For others the housing may not be social but it needs to have some of the characteristics of social housing and in particular some greater security of tenure than currently exists.

For the last year local authorities have been able to fulfil their duty to house people by housing them in the private rented sector. Those so housed should be able to expect at least some semblance of equality of tenure arrangements. As someone who spent their early years in a council house it is clear to me that there are good reasons why rents are low in social housing. They are low so that people’s income covers more than just the bare bones for survival.

Longer tenancies are something we have long called for. Recent research for Crisis highlights the damage done to tenants on short contracts who face being thrown out when they request repairs or their landlord wants to put the rent up. Abolition of arbitrary and often hidden letting agents’ fees will also do much to protect poorer tenants, for whom such fees can cause devastation and in some cases even homelessness.

Lower rents and greater security of tenure enable people to progress, contribute to their local communities and provide their children with opportunities. Affordable must mean more than subsistence living.

Housing Associations have been and still are important players here. Some are making very significant surpluses and they need to invest this into truly affordable homes rather than in more market rent products. The changes to the way they make their money need not prevent them from remaining our conscience.

But they can only work with what they are given. It is critical that local authorities fight for affordable housing on new developments. It is clear that councils take money from developers in lieu of affordable housing. This is a consequence both of their own budget constraints, that is the money props up their own budgets. But it is also a consequence of failing to provide for those in need, who may require more support and taking an often easier route which avoids discontent within communities.

Homelessness will not be solved by building private homes for sale or for rent. Good quality, supported accommodation needs to be delivered as part of new developments. It needs to be a fundamental part of the planning process and not an afterthought when all the main planning decisions have been made.  

When considering development councils must consider the role of temporary and supported housing. We need decent temporary accommodation for single homeless people.

This must be adequately funded, because at the moment single people who come to their council as homeless rarely get real support. They must be eligible for public funds, prove that they are ‘unintentionally homeless’ and even then will only get proper help if they are vulnerable as a result of old age, mental illness or physical disability or “other special reason”.

If they don’t jump through all these hoops, the inhumane but strictly ‘legal’ position is that a housing officer can simply send someone away with a letter advising them of where their local charity run hostels or day centres might be. That is when people end up on the streets. 

Crisis works with some great landlords who are keen to help people get back on their feet and enjoy full support from local projects who work hard to make tenancies work for both parties. But often our clients are left with little option but to accept rented places in awful condition, just to get a roof over their heads. There is probably enough legislation to drum out those landlords who are providing entirely inadequate housing already. But it needs to be enforced and local authorities need to do the enforcing. Where we do need legislation is so that people cannot simply be turned away with no advice or with an address of a local hostel or a local church where people can sleep at night.

We cannot simply put the onus on local authorities to act differently. It is the role of central government to ensure that they are properly resourced and that the legislative framework addresses the fundamental issues.

It is to their great shame that governments do not always act in the best interests of the country when it comes to housing. We have had 35 years of reducing commitment to housing those on lower incomes or with support needs and of inadequate supply of new homes. We need to reverse this and politicians from all parties need to agree to so over more than one parliament.   

Leslie Morphy is the outgoing Chief Executive of Crisis, the national charity for single homelessness people.

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.