No one who lives in a major British city will have failed to sense that rough sleeping is rising. And the official figures confirm this intuition: rough sleeping has increased by 169 per cent to 4,751 – a record level – since the Conservatives entered power in 2010. Under the last Labour government, by contrast, it fell by three-quarters.
The total does not include people in hostels or shelters or formal temporary accommodation (who are defined as homeless), and the true number may be even higher (the charity Crisis puts it at 8,000).
It is no coincidence that the rise in rough sleeping began with the Tories’ imposition of austerity. The fall in investment for affordable homes, the arbitrary benefit cap (£23,000 in London and £20,000 in the rest of the country), the reduced funding for homelessness services, and the rise in private rents have dramatically worsened the problem.
Not before time, then, the government has announced a strategy to reduce rough sleeping and to end it entirely by 2027. But the reality is less than impressive than the rhetoric. Of the £100m announced by Communities Secretary James Brokenshire, half was already assigned to rough sleeping, while the remaining £50m has been transferred from other budgets. In short, contrary to what Brokenshire’s parliamentary private secretary Chris Philp claimed last night on The Westminster Hour, there is no “new money”.
The government’s announcement is, then, almost the definition of too little, too late. Labour’s shadow housing secretary John Healey, who has promised to make 8,000 homes available for people with a history of rough sleeping, said: “The funding announced will barely register compared to the reckless Conservative cuts to affordable housing, social security benefits and homelessness services that have caused this crisis.”
The rise in rough sleeping is, of course, a moral disgrace. But it is also a political problem for the Conservatives (who have pledged to halve rough sleeping by 2022 and eradicate it by 2027). The sight of rough sleepers enhances the sense among voters that the country has taken a wrong turn; that we live in an era of private affluence and public squalor. It was such emotions that lay behind Labour’s landslide victory in 1997 after 18 years of Conservative rule. For too long, voters sensed, the government had neglected the public realm.
Austerity’s social costs are visible to all in rough sleeping, rising crime, overburdened schools and hospitals, unrepaired roads, uncollected bins and closed libraries and children’s centres (as the New Statesman has charted in its Crumbling Britain series). Unless the Conservatives can repair what David Cameron once called “Broken Britain”, they risk again being exiled from power.