Relegation zone

Originally published on March 21 on my blog for Inside Housing.

No wonder Sajid Javid wants to go to Finland: a report out today confirms it as the only country in the European Union where homelessness is falling. The remarkable performance compared to the other 27 EU members is attributed to 20 years of implementing housing policies based on Housing First.

That will only add to the attractions of the approach highlighted in a recent report by the Centre for Social Justice that apparently made the communities secretary so keen to go to Helsinki.

But as his boss gets ready to trigger Article 50, something else in today’s report may also give him pause for thought: the UK has fallen badly behind other EU nations in its performance on housing and homelessness.

Housing Exclusion 2017 is produced by the European homelessness federation FEANTSA and French housing campaign Fondation Abbé Pierre. It’s the full version of a shorter report I blogged about last year.

Thanks mainly to cuts in housing benefit, the UK has seen by far the biggest deterioration of any nation since 2016 and fell eight places to 20th out of 28 in Europe.

That put us ahead only of the Southern European countries worst affected by austerity and the poorest Eastern European nations, and behind Poland, Croatia and the Czech Republic.

The UK is singled out for its housing cost overburden rate (the proportion of households spending more than 40% of their disposable income). This affected 12% of UK households overall and 42% of poorer households, and there was a sharp increase between 2012 and 2014.

While we still do better on housing conditions than the European average, unfit housing indicators such as damp homes worsened between 2009 and 2014.

In language that Mr Javid and Gavin Barwell might find familiar from their recent White Paper, FEANTSA says “the British housing market is broken, becoming out of reach for poor and middle-class people”.

The UK is at the poor end of a worrying picture across Europe. While most other EU members are ahead of us, the general picture is one in which:

“People living below the poverty threshold are being put under severe strain by the housing market. They are being increasingly marginalised by a private rental market that feeds off a systematic lack of affordable housing; their financial security and well-being are being endangered by housing expenditure that is taking up an increasingly large proportion of their budget.

“The most vulnerable sections of the population are being ignored and left with nowhere to turn. A large number of young people are being abandoned, families are being destabilised, and migrants are being stigmatised.”

Homelessness has risen to record levels across most of Europe and in most major cities.

Finland’s success in reducing homelessness is no accident: as FEANTSA sees it, the Finns have spent 20 years implementing programmes to prioritise affordable and appropriate housing to combat social exclusion.

Policies based on Housing First helped homelessness drop from 20,000 people at the end of the 1980s to less than 7,000 single people by 2015. It sounds like most of those would not even count as homeless in an English context because they are living temporarily with friends or relatives.

While conditions in Finland are not perfect (it came third overall in the EU rankings) it is also one of the few countries in Europe where the cost of housing has not risen faster than incomes over the past 15 years and it has a low housing cost overburden rate compared with elsewhere.

Back with the report as a whole, some of the results will reflect differences in the ways different countries collect data and define things like homelessness but the message for the UK seems pretty clear.

The report singles out the UK, Denmark and the Netherlands for creating a “dangerous dynamic” with budget cuts to social welfare and housing allowances for young people over the past 10 years.

That dynamic is about to get even stronger here. The government has ruled out any more cuts in benefits last year, but those already in the pipeline include the end of housing support for 18 to 21-year-olds on Universal Credit from next month and the start of the shared accommodation rate for under-35s in social housing is on the horizon.

Those and other measures like the benefits freeze will pose big challenges for all the nations of the UK, though Scotland and Wales have already made great strides on homelessness.

England’s Homelessness Reduction Bill is currently sailing through its parliamentary stages and represents a step in the right direction. But making it work will require good will and co-operation all round, resources to support it and a supply of homes at the same time as the cuts in benefits are increasing the pressure.

And while FEANTSA and Fondation Abbé Pierre call for action on housing at a European level, the UK is about to go it alone. Let’s hope we don’t stop learning from what’s being achieved elsewhere and from a record on housing that looks shameful by comparison with our neighbours.

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