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19 November 2008

End to rough sleepers estimate

The commitment to end street homelessness in England “for good” could mark a landmark. But with virt

By Chris Ames

Doubts have arisen over a landmark commitment to end street homelessness by 2012, after it emerged that the government will no longer publish a national estimate of the number of people sleeping rough. Opposition MPs have criticised ministers for undermining their own policy.

Housing minister Margaret Beckett declared yesterday that “rough sleeping in 21st Century Britain is unacceptable” as she launched a new plan to solve the problem in time for the Olympics. The commitment to end street homelessness in England “for good” could mark a landmark in social policy. But with virtually no new resources and few new ideas, it’s hard to see how it will be achieved.

Labour’s attempt to tackle the most visible form of homelessness dates back to Tony Blair’s promise in 1998 to reduce rough sleeping “as close to zero as possible” and by at least two thirds. The fallback target was met in 2002 and ministers frequently refer to a “sustained reduction”, but the headline figure in the national rough sleeping estimate has remained at around 500 people “on any given night” for the last five years. Now, the government is seeking to distance itself from that controversial figure.

A spokesman for Communities and Local Government (CLG) told newstatesman.com that the department will still publish an annual total derived from local counts but declined to describe this as a national estimate. Beckett’s new strategy, “No one left out”, states that ministers will now make clear that the figure is “not an estimate of the number of people sleeping rough in the country”. Ministers have repeatedly cited this figure in recent media coverage.

Tory housing spokesman Grant Shapps expressed disappointment that ministers had not addressed his concerns over the figures, which are based on street counts by some – but not all – councils. He pointed out that the absence of an accurate annual measure of street homelessness will make it impossible to measure progress towards the 2012 target. He added: “The problems with the way the number of rough sleepers is calculated need to be addressed before solutions can be fully effective.”

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Liberal Democrat Sarah Teather has also criticised the absence of a credible yardstick. She told newstatesman.com: “The new target is meaningless unless it is based on reliable information.”

In spite of media reports of £200 million to support the plan, yesterday’s announcement includes virtually no new money beyond a further £2.5m for a scheme to support new social enterprise start-ups.

Many of the headline measures announced yesterday have little substance when set out in the detailed action plan. Where CLG’s announcement promised to increase the options available to single homeless people through “help with deposits”, the action plan revealed that the government will only be “encouraging local authorities” to expand access to rent deposit schemes, with no promise of additional funding.

CLG was unable to substantiate a promise to expand “street rescue” teams run by charities. Homelessness charity Thamesreach, whose street rescue service covers 21 London boroughs and was cited by CLG as a case study, has confirmed that its scheme is not due to expand.