Why the surge in rough sleeping should trouble the Tories

The rise in homelessness enhances the sense among voters that the country has taken a wrong turn. 


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No one who lives in a major British city will have failed to sense that rough sleeping is rising. And new figures published today by the government grimly confirm this is the case. Rough sleeping in England has increased for the seventh consecutive year to 4,751, a rise of 15 per cent on the previous year (2016) and the highest level since current records began. 

The total does not include people in hostels or shelters or formal temporary accommodation (who are defined as homeless) but the true number may be even higher (the charity Crisis puts it at 8,000). London, where rough sleeping rose by 18 per cent, accounts for nearly a quarter of the total but the biggest rise (39 per cent) was in the north west.

It is no coincidence that the rise in rough sleeping began in 2010 with the imposition of austerity by the Conservatives. 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. Rough sleeping has risen by no less than 169 per cent since the Tories entered power. Under the last Labour government, by contrast, it fell by three quarters. 

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 (up 14 per cent in new figures) overburdened schools and hospitals, unrepaired roads, uncollected bins and closed libraries and children’s centres. Unless the Conservatives can repair what David Cameron once called "Broken Britain", they risk again being exiled from power. 

George Eaton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.