A population the size of Newcastle is homeless. How did the government let this happen?

Boris Johnson said he’d end rough sleeping in London by 2012.

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It’s a figure so intangibly big it feels unreal. But there it is: 320,000 people are homeless in Britain today. Or, as Shelter point out, enough people to populate the city of Newcastle are without secure accommodation in Britain in 2018. 

As shocking and shameful as this is, according to the charity, which revealed the number in its annual homelessness report, this is just the “tip of the iceberg”. The true scale of the problem is likely to be far greater because Shelter collated the report data by combining official rough-sleeping, temporary accommodation and social services figures, and excluded the thousands of “hidden homeless” sofa surfing, camping, sleeping in sheds and cars.

While it may be only a limited snapshot of a much bigger national crisis, the report remains an important measure of the scale and pace of escalation. It reveals that between Q2 2017 and Q1 2018 an additional 13,000 people have become homeless – the vast majority of which are living in temporary accommodation. In London alone that equates to 170,000 people, meaning one in 50 people are without a home. In lower-income boroughs such as Newham, as many as one in 24 people are homeless. Notably, homelessness is no longer such a London-centric issue – it is increasingly rife outside the capital too. In Brighton, one in 67 are homeless, in Birmingham the number is one in 73, and in Manchester it is one in 135.

So how, in 2018, did we find ourselves here? We can’t blame war, natural disaster, or famine – and, with the fifth biggest economy in the world and more than a decade having passed since the financial crisis, nor can we satisfactorily blame “austerity”. The truth is much sadder: neglect.

Shelter’s chief executive, Polly Neate, cites a “perfect storm of spiraling rents, welfare cuts and a total lack of social housing”. This is, of course, a diplomatic way of blaming the government for a series of avoidable housing policy failures. Shelter, along with many organisations, has long warned that a crisis in homelessness would be the inevitable consequence of the calculated decisions taken first by the Coalition government and then, to a lesser extent, by the current Conservative government.

Both governments’ most consistent failures have been not building enough genuinely affordable social housing, while inflating prices and rents and cutting benefits. David Cameron’s decision to scrap funding for social rented housing, and instead subsidise expensive schemes to boost ownership such as Help to Buy drove up house prices beyond the reach of many would-be buyers. This stoked already high demand for private rented accommodation from both ends of the market and fueled rental inflation, squeezing both low income households and local authorities trying to house homeless families.

Instead of social rented housing, Cameron introduced “affordable rent”, a tenure which charged up to 80 per cent of the market rate, effectively turning off the tap on the supply of rental homes lower earners could actually afford. Local authority housing waiting lists spiraled further and low income households have been left with nowhere to go, except the largely unregulated and often unaffordable private sector.

And that’s before the government introduced welfare cuts. Reducing housing benefit for the under 21s has increased the likelihood of young people becoming homeless, while the roll-out of Universal Credit has had the effect of leaving some claimants in arrears before their first payment, pushing them into homelessness. This has caused many private landlords to refuse to let their properties to benefit recipients.

Fast-forward to today. Theresa May’s government has rolled back or watered down many of her predecessors’ changes, and has committed £9bn of funding for councils and housing associations to build ‘affordable’ housing, and also said the government will free up local authorities to borrow more to boost affordable house building. She has promised to ban lettings fees, to consider extending tenancies, and has curbed buy-to-let landlord tax breaks. The Homeless Reduction Act should mean local authorities do more to prevent people falling into homelessness, and the government has made the bold pledge to ‘eliminate’ rough sleeping by 2027.

So, reasons to be positive, then? Perhaps. But some perspective: last year Shelter found that there was a shortfall of 800,000 social rented homes to make up. The current affordable housing funding won’t come close to starting to bridge that gap. Similarly, removing the borrowing caps on local authorities is only expected to deliver 15,000 new homes, according to Savills. The commitment to improving tenant rights in the private rented sector is welcome, but progress has been limited and slow so far - not good enough considering eviction remains the most common cause of homelessness.

As for pledging to eliminate rough sleeping? Well, first of all, the Conservatives may not be around to honour that pledge. But even if they are still in government come 2027, it’s worth consulting recent housing policy history. In 2009 the then London Mayor, Boris Johnson, promised to end rough sleeping in the capital by 2012. We all know how that has worked out.

Nick Duxbury is a former editor of Inside Housing. 

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