Falling and failing

Originally published on September 27 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Cuts in housing benefit are being blamed for a slump in the UK’s position in a European index of housing exclusion.

The UK was the biggest faller (down eight places) in the 2016 index and now ranks 20th out of 28 members of the European Union. The only countries doing worse than us are three in Southern Europe that were worst hit by the Eurozone crisis (Greece, Italy and Portugal) and five in Eastern Europe (Hungary, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia).

That puts us behind not just Scandinavian countries with more generous welfare states but also the rest of Western Europe and even Eastern European nations like Croatia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Poland. The UK has the second biggest economy in the EU behind Germany.

The index drawn up by FEANTSA, the European homelessness federation, and Fondation Abbé Pierre, the French campaign against inadequate housing is made up of the housing cost overburden, mortgage and rent arrears, severe housing deprivation, inability to keep the home adequately warm and overcrowding.

If the overall message [PDF] is that ‘if you’re poor, young or from southern and Eastern Europe, your housing conditions are likely to be much worse than for your older, western counterparts’, then we seem to be the exception that proves the rule.

The data in the 2016 index relates to 2014. The UK finished 12th in the 2015 index (based on 2013 data). FEANTSA says the fall in the UK ranking is ‘principally as a consequence of budget cuts to housing benefit’. Here are the key results:

exclusion

The UK ranked 21st out of 28 on the percentage of the population spending more than 40% of their disposable income on housing (the housing cost overburden). This was despite seeing the third biggest improvement in the housing cost overburden between 2007 and 2014.

These two results could reflect on the one hand improvements in affordability for existing home owners as mortgage rates fell but on the other a worsening situation for renters as rents continued to rise and housing benefit was cut.

That comes through in another result not shown in the main index above: the UK finished in 22nd place on the proportion of the poorest households (below 60% of median income) in housing cost overburden.

The figures are not broken down by UK nation but FEANTSA makes the point that the figures are heavily influenced by what’s happened in England, with Scotland following a different policy on, for example, the bedroom tax.

Note that the UK finished midtable on overcrowding and severe housing deprivation but in the bottom half on mortgage and rent arrears and inability to keep the home adequately warm (on which our position had deteriorated markedly since 2007).

Other results show the UK ranking poorly against the EU average on the added risks of severe housing deprivation for young people (20th) and old people (26th).

A full Overview of Housing Exclusion report will be published in March 2017. Some of the individual results reflect differences in the way the data is collected in different countries but the overall rankings do not leave much room for doubt for the UK.

The government will no doubt be as dismissive of these results as it was of criticism from the United Nations in 2013 and 2014 (although it may wish it had already left the EU). These figures may not be coming from a ‘woman from Brazil’ and they have not yet been dismissed as ‘a misleading Marxist diatribe’ but both comparisons reflect an alarming deterioration in the UK’s ability to adequately house its population since 2010.

And more cuts on the way could make our ranking even worse in the next few years. Despite a pledge last week by work and pensions secretary Damian Green that ‘there will be no new search for cuts in individual welfare benefits’, housing benefit is still set for a big squeeze over the next four years.

Whether you look at the reduction in the benefit cap to £20,000 (£23,000 in London) from next month, the freeze in the local housing allowance until 2020, or cuts in entitlement for under-21s and under-35s, or the steadily unravelling formula for the LHA cap on supported housing, that housing cost overburden will only get heavier.

Whether you judge us against the UN’s ‘right to adequate housing’ or against the performance of our European neighbours, our record shames us as a nation.

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