‘Housing week’ off to an uncertain start

For once this is a silly season that has some substance. If you can tear yourself away from the sun lounger or the latest pronouncement by the Etonian Katie Hopkins, mid-August sees a trio of government announcements that are crucial for housing and homelessness.

Last week featured another big benefits u-turn: confirmation that housing benefit will continue for supported accommodation removes a cloud that has been hanging over projects including homeless hostels and women’s refuges.

Monday saw the launch of the strategy that the government says will enable it to meet its target of halving rough sleeping in England by 2022 and ending it by 2027.

And what is billed as ‘housing week’ is set to continue on Tuesday with the launch of the social housing green paper – originally promised in the Spring, then before the parliamentary recess last month, but now appearing while most MPs are on holiday.

The timing does at least ensure some media attention, including an uncertain performance by James Brokenshire in the TV and radio studios on Monday morning.

After a lively appearance on Good Morning Britain, the housing secretary struggled on the Today programme when asked whether government policies are to blame for the relentless rise in rough sleeping and floundered when asked how much of the promised ‘£100 million plan’ is new money. (Somewhere between none and not much was the eventual answer).

The strategy itself is the product of consultation with homelessness organisations via the Rough Sleeping Advisory Panel and Rough Sleeping and Homelessness Reduction Taskforce.

It includes lots of worthy aims (‘in everything we do, we will be led by evidence of what works’), some unlikely ones (‘all government departments working seamlessly together’) and some good ideas (among them reviewing the Vagrancy Act)

And Brokenshire’s introduction concludes with a lofty aspiration:

‘Ultimately, the real test of its success will be on the ground; in not just putting a roof over people’s heads but helping them find and make a place really feel like home. These people, some of the most vulnerable in our society, deserve our full support. This strategy will see that they get it.’

But at the heart of it is the eternal debate about behavioural and structural explanations of homelessness, deprivation and poverty.

The strategy has countless references to ‘complex needs’ and ways of tackling individual behaviour to change ‘homelessness pathways’.

But it is on much less certain ground when it confronts structural issues including the impact of eight years of the government’s own policies.

Needless to say, there is no mention of austerity – or of the fact that the rough sleeping levels that the government wants to cut by half in the next five years have doubled in the last five.

There are two mentions of ‘supporting people’ but neither is a reference to the support programme for vulnerable people that has more or less ceased to exist in England.

True, the ring fence on funding was removed by the last Labour government but it is the Conservative cuts to local government budgets that followed that have seen councils cut the programme and vital schemes have closed down across the country.

That means that whatever improvements are made at a national level, the system will still be coping with the collapse of local provision.

On welfare reform, universal credit gets only two mentions despite mounting evidence of the hardship it is already causing.

The u-turn on housing benefit for supported housing gets five mentions and justifiably so: the original plan would have directly threatened accommodation for homeless people including hostels and refuges that have come to rely on housing benefit since Supporting People was cut.

The strategy also mentions the previous rethink on housing benefit for 18-21 year olds and concessions on housing costs under universal credit and (inevitably) Discretionary Housing Payments.

It also admits that those ‘highly complex needs’ can make it difficult for some people who sleep rough ‘to navigate the welfare system’ and that ‘we will continue to keep this sensitive issue under review’.

However, there is no hint of a rethink on another crucial welfare issue: the freeze of Local Housing Allowance rates that is due to last until 2020.

Given that this guarantees that the allowance will cover a smaller and smaller proportion of private tenants’ rents, it leads inevitably to rent arrears, landlord reluctance to let to tenants on benefit and big problems for tenants who need a home.

The government’s own statistics show that the end of a private tenancy is the fastest rising cause of homelessness and yet the strategy offers no prospect of any change until 2020 at the earliest.

After that the prospects look a bit more promising: the government has ‘begun work to look at affordability in the private rented sector, with a view to developing policy options for post-2020 when the current Local Housing Allowance freeze ends’.

MHCLG will work with the Department for Work and Pensions to ‘consider long-term options around housing benefit’ – but there is no commitment to restoring the link between rents and benefits or any hint that housing benefit could be retained for more than just supported accommodation. Note too that reference to the ‘current’ freeze.

The strategy does acknowledge that ‘we need to look beyond rough sleeping to ensure that the entire system is working to prevent all forms of homelessness’,

And as an example of the government’s wider work it quotes ‘recently announced measures to ensure the private rented sector delivers secure, safe and affordable homes’ including ‘proposals for longer, more secure tenancies’.

However, it remains to be seen whether these proposals will turn into reality: legislation on longer tenancies is only one option in a consultation paper that also proposes financial incentives and education.

Social housing gets three mentions of its own alongside the inevitable boast about how many ‘affordable’ homes the government is providing.

The good news is that the strategy says that the green paper (expected on Tuesday) will set out ‘the vital role social housing plays in this country and our plans to build the social housing that is needed to help people get on in life’.

Here’s hoping – but will they just be warm words? Watch this space.


One Comment on “‘Housing week’ off to an uncertain start”

  1. speyejoe2 says:

    Lots of vague, wishy-washy and flowery language and a claimed iterative strategy so changes at will and whim. And all administered by local authorities so when the proverbial hits fan guess who gets the blame!
    Finally a document of this length on homelessness the day before a new green paper… guarantees little scrutiny of this strategy by the housing sector. Hmm!!

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