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13 May 2015

Without a U-Turn, the homeless will be the biggest victims of the Conservative victory

David Cameron's record on homelessness has been shambolic. Now, benefit cuts will make it worse.

By Heather Spurr Heather Spurr

With his new-won majority, David Cameron’s first priority is implementing his manifesto. Unfettered by pesky Liberal Democrat interference, he willl now fully realise proposals that the document says will give families a ‘better future’ and build a ‘healthy’ economy. Key plans expected to be implemented soon are scrapping housing benefit for 18-21-year-olds and lowering the benefit cap from £26,000 a year to £23,000.

Well how’s this for a healthy economy? Today, I reveal that London boroughs have spent £18m on ‘sweeteners’ to persuade private landlords to rent to homeless families. Scared off by the government’s welfare reforms – which make it harder for housing benefit recipients to pay the rent – and enticed by  a burgeoning market of private renters, landlords are increasingly having to be bribed to let to London’s poorest.

Over the three years, town halls in the capital have spent £17.7m on incentives to private landlords to secure accommodation for homeless families. This is cash over and above the rent and the property management charges. It is essentially money for nothing. In the past year, Enfield Council had spent more than £1m on incentives to persuade the borough’s landlords to continue to rent out their properties to the council. That’s £1m that could be spent on public services, or building new homes.

This expenditure is growing. Responses from 28 London boroughs show in 2012/13, town halls spent a total of £3.6m on incentives to private landlords in order to secure accommodation. By 2014/15, this had risen to £7.3m before the end of the year, with an overall sum of £17.7m over three years.

Council officers I speak to say they have little choice. As the government reformed housing benefit over the last five years, it became increasingly risky to rent to tenants on welfare payments. Housing benefit rates for the private sector do not begin to cover London rent increases. The ending of private tenancies is now the number one cause of homelessness.

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Welfare reform and housing shortages have combined to affect homeless families in other ways. I revealed last month secret figures showing the number of homeless families being placed by councils outside the capital rose by 77% between 2013 and 2014, as London councils struggle to find affordable accommodation. Londoners have been placed as far away as Durham, Oldham and the Isle of Anglesey in Wales. Between April and June 2014, 21 were sent to Birmingham.

Perhaps more worrying is the lack of government literacy on the knock-on effect of its reforms. Last month, the prime minister tried to say rough sleeping had gone down. Actually, it has risen every year since 2010.

Homelessness charities have warned against the Conservatives’ planned additional cuts to benefits. Shelter says ‘taking away the safety net that stands between some young people and homelessness would be a disaster’. London councils say they are already struggling to find even temporary accommodation for families hit by the benefit cap. There are even darker warnings about what £12bn worth of cuts to welfare spending will do to vulnerable people.

Part of the problem has been the government’s failure to link up welfare policy to the country’s homelessness problem. There is little to suggest that ministers quite understand the perverse consequences of their benefit reforms. The £17.7m in ‘sweeteners’ from councils shows that cutting benefits also has a knock-on effect for local taxpayers too.

Cameron’s record so far on homelessness has been shambolic. And if he cracks on implementing his manifesto in full without considering its magnitude for vulnerably housed people, the problem will grow deeper and more entrenched. Last week’s victory for Cameron and the Conservatives well could spell disaster for many people living on the edge.