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How do we reset the housing market?

England’s housing system has failed. We need to press the reset button on housing – let’s start with planning.

Rampant house price inflation. Hundreds of thousands of people trapped in unsafe buildings. Tens of thousands of families made homeless during a global pandemic. Our housing system is broken.

You would think given the state of things, that fundamental reform of housing would be top of the political agenda and an obvious vote winner. Yet this isn’t the case and we’ve seen no substantive policy action in decades, with the supply of new homes per year now well below the housebuilding highs of the  1960s and 1970s. Despite being badly needed, the popularity of the ‘not in my backyard’ mantra has made housing reform politically untenable, with devastating consequences.

This problem is most obvious at the local level. While many voters are often sympathetic to the problems of housing affordability and homelessness, they too often oppose the construction of new homes, including affordable homes. Building more homes would help tackle such problems by directly increasing the supply of affordable homes and expanding the number of housing options available to people more generally.

England’s housing crisis is a product of multiple local housing crises. In many of the areas where opposition to new homes is strongest, affordability problems are often the worst. Of course, the ramifications of this crisis are not felt equally. It is often the younger and less well-off residents who are eventually priced out of their own communities.

Building more and better homes is not a panacea. But we must acknowledge it is part of the solution. As Geoff Meen, one of the UK’s foremost housing experts has pointed out, it’s ‘perfectly possible for there to be both an absolute shortage of homes and a distribution problem’. In essence, we are not building enough homes in England, and we do not have the right policies to create more sustainable credit conditions or ensure fair access to housing for people on all incomes.

Once we acknowledge that building more homes is part of the solution, then the next question we must answer is ‘how do we build more’? Part of the answer lies in the way we deliver homes through England’s planning system. While the government’s proposed reforms aren’t flawless, they do present a vision. Significant questions about what these reforms could mean for the delivery of affordable housing persist and they certainly don’t go far enough in tackling high land values.

The answer to these weaknesses is better reforms, not no reforms. We must imagine a better alternative to our current planning system if we are to tackle the root causes of the housing crisis.

To show their credibility on housing issues, political parties must better sell a vision for a planning system that delivers the homes we need and in doing so, stops people from being priced out of their communities. That requires putting aside the short-term gains of winning immediate votes by objecting to local development and instead explaining why we need to build more homes in this country. Making the case for more homes nationally while opposing them in their backyard reduces the credibility of any national message politicians might have on housing.

The widespread opposition to the government’s planning reforms suggest that they were dead on arrival. That is not a reason to abandon attempts to address the housing crisis. At the moment, our planning system reinforces England’s broken housing market because land that obtains planning permission increases exponentially in value. This makes it increasingly difficult to build homes at affordable prices. Despite this, suitable policy solutions such as the introduction of zoning policy find few advocates and instead, the dysfunctional status quo persists.

We need to build a new consensus on housing. It is time to move beyond the short-term gains and quick wins that come from opposing new homes. Instead, politicians must present a bold and radical vision for how they will address England’s housing crisis. Now is the time for radical and ambitious vision that would improve the supply of high-quality and affordable homes, while also tackling the unfair distribution of homes.  The myriad of problems facing the housing market – from the building safety crisis to rampant unaffordability – will only get worse without action to deliver better quality and more affordable homes.

The longer the housing crisis goes unfixed, the more damage it does. Progressives must not fall into the trap of opposition for opposition’s sake. Instead, they should articulate a clear vision that that explains why the housing market is broken, why we need radical action to fix things and how a fairer society can be created if we get things right. 

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Jonathan Webb</span></strong>
Jonathan Webb

Jonathan Webb is a Senior Research Fellow at IPPR North. He tweets @jrkwebb.

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It is time to end the national scandal of veterans without homes

In the UK today, there are around 320,000 people without a home.

Homelessness comes in many different forms; some people are sleeping rough on the streets while others may be staying on friends’ sofas or staying in a hostel long-term.

Of those without a home, 6000 are men and women who served this country as a member of our armed forces, only to find themselves experiencing some form of homelessness.

The reasons for this are complex, often stemming in a difficulty in adapting to civilian life after years spent with a strict regimented lifestyle.

We know that veterans are disproportionately likely to be impacted by a wide range of challenging and often intersecting issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, drug and/or alcohol misuse, depression and other mental health problems.

These, coupled a difficulty in entering the civilian jobs market are major factors that go some way to explaining veteran homelessness.

Even before the pandemic struck, many veterans were slipping through the net or finding themselves without any form of support. They are often unable to be supported by mainstream homelessness charities not equipped to meet their needs, thus turn to often cash-strapped local councils.

We often think of our armed forces as protecting us from external threats, keeping us safe and secure from those who wish to harm us or our way of life.

Yet as if we needed reminding any more, the Coronavirus pandemic has shown that our armed forces keep us safe in so many more ways than we can even imagine.

It was the armed forces that were deployed to test people at the start of the crisis, who ensured that vital supply chains kept running and who are helping to secure the effective roll-out of the vaccine.

At Community’s biennial delegate conference in 2019, members of the union came together to decide our priorities for the year ahead. Delegates took the decision that ending veteran homelessness should be a priority campaign for us going forward.

We wanted to support those who have given so much to us as a country. We ran, walked and cycled to raise money for a local charity to help end veteran homelessness and between us we raised over £6,000.

We created a bespoke learning and training offer for veterans to improve their employability, and we successfully managed to change Labour Party policy. Our members up and down the country have been collecting warm winter clothes, toiletries and other necessities to support veterans.

We will never be able to thank the servicemen and women who have served us at home and overseas fully. However, the very least we can do is ensure that they have a roof over their head and a bed to sleep in at night.

One way we can all work to end veteran homelessness is to encourage more organisations to sign up to the Armed Forces Covenant. The Covenant is a promise by the employers to ensure that those who serve or who have served in the armed forces, and their families, have equal opportunities including at work, and when applying for jobs.

The government have a key role to play too and they must not miss the opportunity presented by the Armed Forces Bill. They should use the Bill to set measurable, national standards and empower local authorities to deliver including by providing ring fenced funding to councils for specialised mental health and substance misuse support services.

Every government and every political party talk a big game when it comes to supporting our armed forces. Now is the time to deliver, and the time to end this national scandal once and for all.

Melantha Chittenden
Melantha Chittenden

Melantha Chittenden is Head of Communications and Media at Community trade union and leads on the unions priority campaign on ending veteran homelessness. 

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Ending rough sleeping needs more than a sticking plaster

In December, I gave evidence to the MHCLG select committee about the impact of Covid-19 on rough sleeping.  My message to them was we desperately need investment in front line housing advice and long-term funding for genuinely affordable housing to really tackle the complex causes of rough sleeping. The pandemic has shown is what is politically possible, but short-term sticking plasters really need to become longer term solutions – and now is the time to make that case to the Government.

At the start of the lockdown councils were told by the government to do ‘whatever it takes’ to support our communities. One of the actions we took was to quickly house rough sleepers. Prior to the pandemic hitting rough sleeping had been steadily increasing after a decade of austerity, having been all but eliminated under the last Labour government.

The ‘Everyone In’ initiative made local authorities responsible for housing rough sleepers and those at risk of rough sleeping. This was regardless of priority need, local connection or recourse to public funds. 

We stepped up to the challenge in Tower Hamlets, the borough I represent. Around 260 individuals either rough sleeping on the streets, or at imminent risk of rough sleeping, were given emergency accommodation. 49 of this group had No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF). We placed entrenched rough sleepers into newly procured commercial hotels and emergency B&B accommodation. Statistics are one thing but each number represents a life transformed and having a roof over your head unlocks access to so many other services and life chances.

Now we face a situation of uncertainty about future funding to support this cohort of people. While the Government has called for councils to come up with a plan on how to move rough sleepers on to the next stage of accommodation, we have again stepped up, but we need funding to back us all the way.

The Next Steps Accommodation Programme, a £400m national fund, offers some help but the costs we face are substantial. Housing benefit claims won’t cover the cost of the support for a group with complex needs.  Ongoing announcements about additional funding streams create pressure on already under resourced teams to write ‘bids’ and applications for resources for projects that are so clearly needed. This relationship between local and national Government is breaking and needs urgently fixing.

Now we are in a further lockdown, with high levels of Covid cases and temperatures plummeting, we need the Government to make suitable provision. On a practical level normal provision such as hubs will not work as self-contained units are still required. If the Government does not get this right it will lead to an increase in infections. A decade of austerity has shown that if you simply turn off the funding taps in one area it leads to further pressures on other public services with longer term impacts on other services like the NHS.

It’s taken a time of crisis for the Government to step in and give councils the funding they need to tackle rough sleeping and they desperately need to address the long-term undersupply of genuinely affordable housing. If something good can come out of the pandemic, it’s eradicating rough sleeping. The Government has a real chance to not undo the progress we have made.

<strong><span class="uppercase"><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Rachel Blake</span></span></strong>
Rachel Blake

Rachel is the Deputy Mayor for the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. She was elected to represent the Labour Party for Bow East Ward in May 2014 and appointed to Cabinet in July 2015.

Rachel has held Cabinet Member roles for Regeneration, Planning, and Air Quality. Rachel is now the Cabinet Member for Adults, Health and Well-being.

She has previously been called in as an expert witness to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee on its inquiry into the long-term delivery of social and affordable rented housing.

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Beyond Short-Termism: How to Fix the Covid-19 Renters Crisis

Resolution Foundation report demonstrates the inadequacy of the Government’s response to the renters crisis – it must go beyond its own short-termism, writes Jack Shaw.

In March the Government said that this pandemic was an opportunity to end rough sleeping for good. New research by the Resolution Foundation has made it clear that that won’t be the case unless the Government is willing to put protecting renters and tackling homelessness at the top of its domestic agenda – and it can only do so by legislating. 

At the end of October the Resolution Foundation published its report Coping with Housing Costs, Six Months On, based on a survey in September of 6,000 working-age adults across the country. This follows the same survey carried out in May, and provides a unique opportunity to view the pandemic through the lens of housing.  The findings are stark, if not all too familiar.

The basic tenet is that the safety net put in place at the beginning of the pandemic for private and social renters, as well as homeowners with mortgages, falls short of the support required to keep people from losing their homes. 

Comparisons between tenures show that, across multiple indices, renters are hit harder. Compared to homeowners with mortgages, renters – social and private – are more likely to have lost their job or been furloughed; be in arrears; cut back on other items, dip into savings or borrow to cover housing costs; be in receipt of Housing Benefit and Universal Credit; and be less certain about where they’re going to live in 12 months’ time.

Over time the need for homeowners with mortgages to draw on mortgage holidays has fallen, while their job certainty appears to have increased – only three per cent of people with mortgages reported job losses, compared with eight per cent in the private rented sector and seven per cent in the social rented sector respectively. 

It does not appear that the need for housing support for renters has receded as much as we had hoped over the same period. Fewer renters reported being on furlough in September compared to May – perhaps because some have returned to work – but more reported losing their job.

Likewise, the number of renters seeking – and being refused – rent reductions has remained relatively stable at around one in 20. The picture is nuanced, but there are several conclusions that can be drawn.  

First, the blow to households with mortgages has been softer during this pandemic. Second, not only have renters been hit harder, but they have also recovered more slowly. Third, the interventions put in place by the Government aren’t sufficient. At best, they delay homelessness, not prevent it. True, renters have benefitted from a ban on evictions, and an uplift in Local Housing Allowance (LHA) rates and Universal Credit (UC), but none of these are long-lasting.

The LHA rate rise itself follows a capricious rate freeze by the Government in 2016, which decoupled it from inflation. What that means is as inflation rises, LHA rates do not rise with it. This gives renters access to fewer and fewer properties, which has undoubtedly undermined the resilience of private renters who benefit from LHA during this pandemic. 

The uplift essentially returns LHA rates to pre-2016 levels, although in another blow the Spending Review has since revealed that LHA rates will be frozen in cash terms from next year – so rates will once again fall back below 30th percentile over time, pushing renters back to square one just as they’re running out of cash. The ban on evictions has already ended, and the UC uplift is due to end in April.

As the Government battles on every front – COVID, saving the economy, protecting public health, Brexit, a credible Opposition – I suspect the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions’ latest words in Parliament are more than a Freudian slip: they were by design.

On 30 November, when asked whether she would make the Universal Credit uplift permanent, Dr Thérèse Coffey pointed out to Parliament that “we can also make the effort to encourage people to go for vacancies.” With the number of vacancies down 35% this time last year notwithstanding, such nonsense in the face of evidence-based interventions that will support renters to hold onto their tenancy is the epitome of absurdity.

But do not take my word for it. Modelling by the Joseph Rowntree highlighted that up to 16 million people across several million households are at risk of losing the equivalent to £1,040 overnight if the UC uplift ends in April, a kick in the teeth for the lowest income families just as they’re recovering from the pandemic. Research from Shelter earlier this year also revealed that 322,000 renters were in arrears despite keeping up with their rent before the pandemic began. With landlords handing out notices of repossession, we are only months away from understanding the full impact inadequate support has had on renters.

So, where does that leave us? Above all, it leaves us angry – or at least it should do. As to where it leads us: to the Government’s front door. The safety net is holding – just – in the face of the pandemic. While it cannot be the solution for renters forever, for now it’s making a global pandemic more bearable.

Though the Government cannot even get short-termism right, it already needs to look long-term too, and that starts with taking control over the domestic agenda and legislating as it has promised. Ministers need to get on with the job and abolish Section 21 of the 1988 Housing Act – so called ‘no fault’ evictions which allow landlords to evict tenants without good reason – over 18 months since the promise was made.

The Government also needs to bring forward the Renters Reform Bill, which no doubt should have precedence over some of the smaller items on the legislative agenda, such as the licensing of jet skis last month. If, as the Bill says, its aim is to improve the “security for tenants in the rental sector, delivering greater protection for tenants and empowering them to hold their landlord to account”, then surely the best time is now, before that security all but evaporates?

The cost of renting has long outstripped people’s ability to pay rent. The Government should strengthen and lengthen interventions to support those most in need, but it should also abandon its short-termism and support existing interventions with legislation that looks toward the long-term. A failure to do so will force more renters out of secure, permanent accommodation, and into temporary bed and breakfasts.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Jack Shaw</span></strong>
Jack Shaw

Jack is a Senior Policy Researcher for a Labour MP, has previously worked for the Local Government Association, and is a member of the London Labour Housing Group Executive Committee.

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Real Charity Starts with Homes for the Homeless

When is it appropriate for a charity to campaign for an unremarkable recent building to be listed, preventing more homes for the homeless?

On 10th September, Camden Council registered an application by HTA Design LLP, a firm of architects, planners and designers, for the Council’s own housing department to replace the hostel at 2 Chester Road near Archway with 50 new homes for homeless people and families.

Two months later the 20th Century Society, a registered charity, announced that it was supporting an application to Historic England for the Grade II listing of the existing hostel, built in 1979. A listing would prevent those new social homes being built.

Should this really be a listed building?
Source: Google Maps

The current hostel has little or no historic or architectural value, as London YIMBY, PricedOut and YIMBY Alliance explained in our joint submission to Historic England. It falls far below the thresholds to become a listed building.

The process to decide whether an historic building should be designated for listing is set out in the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990. Applications to add, remove or amend an entry are made to Historic England, which then investigates the merits. To merit Grade II listed status under the Act, a building must have sufficient architectural or historic interest, but it falls far short on either of those measures.

A distinct lack of influential quality
Source: Google Maps

In 2012 English Heritage undertook a review of buildings of architectural merit and significance. 2 Chester Road did not meet the test to be included in its Heritage at Risk review then, and nothing has significantly changed since then to change that conclusion. 

The building is not a good example of the work of its architect, Sydney Cook, and the work of his Camden Borough Architect’s Department, for example in the buildings on Winscombe Street, with a characteristic way of responding to the form of surrounding terraced houses. The Chester Road hostel does the opposite.

Another dead frontage
Source: Google Maps

The building has dead walls and frontage around much of its perimeter, losing the historic double-sided street frontage and making the surrounding streets less friendly and welcoming. When the Dartmouth Park Conservation Area was appraised, the site received so little local support that the local conservation area assessment doesn’t mention the building at all. In a sea of green on the map of buildings that make a positive contribution to the conservation area, 2 Chester Road is just a blank space.

Site not considered to be a positive contribution to the area
Dartmouth Conservation Area | Green = Positive Contribution | Red = Site Location

The 20th Century Society’s response is that they would like the existing building preserved and re-used. ‘If a larger building is thought necessary’ to provide housing for homeless people, they say, ‘we would like to see 2 Chester Road converted to an alternative, socially beneficial use.’

But the problem is that – despite some people’s hand-waving assertions to the contrary – Camden has no other site for the 50 homes it wants to build for homeless families, nor the money to buy another site.  Charities have a duty to promote the public interest. That means trustees must be able to explain how the charity benefits the public by carrying out its purposes. It is hard to see how listing that 1970s building would ‘benefit the public’.

There is a general policy issue here because many charities, at one point or another, advocate positions that result in blocking more housing of one kind or another on various grounds. The 20th Century Society’s charitable purposes in its constitution include the objective ‘to save from needless destruction or disfigurement, buildings or groups of buildings, interiors and artefacts designed or constructed after 1914.’ (Emphasis added.)

That objective has no quality threshold. On its face, all post-1914 buildings are to be saved, however unimportant, ugly, unsustainable or unpopular. Are we to save a group of 1995 wheelie bins? They would technically qualify as a ‘group of … artefacts’. But there is one limit: the Society’s goal is only to defend against ‘needless’ damage.

No-one has suggested any specific alternative location or funding source for these homes in the real world. The only suggestions have been ‘somewhere else’. Presumably that does not mean the nearby Highgate Cemetery? Or perhaps Hampstead Heath? There is no green belt in Camden. Even if there were, someone would likely object to building on it, given the existence of an alternative site.

And if being homeless doesn’t qualify as ‘need’ , it’s hard to see what does. So building more homes for the homeless by replacing a building that does not meet the statutory tests for protection, when there is no realistic alternative site, is exactly the sort of thing charities should be campaigning for, when you consider the broader public interest test that charitable trustees are required to meet.

Some misleading environmental claims have also been made to try to block these new homes: claims that because the existing building has embodied carbon, we must not replace it.

You don’t get to just point to something you personally happen to like and shout ‘embodied carbon’ to stop it being changed. Real climate scientists look at what’s called the ‘counterfactual’. If we don’t build more with gentle density in places with good public transport where people can walk or cycle, people will end up building and living in remote but bigger houses with even more embodied carbon. That will be far away from densities where public transport is viable and so they will rely on model after model of car to get around, each with embodied carbon of its own.

The Royal Town Planning Institute helpfully spelled out the importance of walkable density – friendly streets where people can and do like to walk to meet their local needs – for reducing carbon emissions in its 2018 report.

Partly because of exactly this sort of misconceived objection to new homes, most of the homes we built in this country over the last few decades have been houses far from public transport, with people stuck in car dependent sprawl – when the slopes of prices and rents prove that many of those people would much rather live somewhere with better public transport.

So blocking these new homes where people can live sustainably, without needing a car, is profoundly damaging to the environment. By all means let’s get to standards that require full net zero demolition and construction as quickly as possible. But we won’t reduce carbon emissions in the meantime by pushing new homes out to areas of car-dependent sprawl. That would be the ultimate result of listing 2 Chester Road.

The most environmentally friendly thing is to reuse the materials and the embedded carbon of existing buildings to build better places and more and better homes near to public transport, with popular gentle density that will help the environment, make better bus services economic, and help to support local shops and high streets. To claim otherwise is just greenwash.

Listing the Chester Road hostel would harm some of the most disadvantaged groups in society. It would result in increased inequality, more homelessness, and further environmental damage. Charities should not be campaigning for that.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">John Myers</span></strong>
John Myers

John Myers is co-founder of London YIMBY and YIMBY Alliance, which campaign to end the housing crisis with the support of local people.

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We can’t end homelessness without sweeping legal reform

The four nations of the UK have some of the most generous legal entitlements for people facing homelessness. The legacy of Cathy Come Home is the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act of 1977. Since then more than four million households have been helped into alternative housing because they qualify for this almost unique addition to a western welfare state.

Over the years, this settlement has been changed and expanded. Devolved government in Scotland and Wales has charged progress with the former abolishing the idea of non-priority homelessness between 2003 and 2012, and the latter legislating for homelessness prevention in 2014. The landmark Homelessness Reduction Act (2017) introduced prevention formally into law in a similar way in England.

This seemingly progressive settlement hides a multitude of sins. Under the surface it is largely a battleground between homeless ‘applicants’, and local councils who are charged with using the legalistic framework as a rationing tool for scarce housing stock and social support.

Should you find yourself homeless in 21st century Britain here is your challenge:

Are you someone with the right immigration status? Living and working in the UK for years, paying taxes for decades even, is not a guarantee, especially if the state tells you that you have ‘no recourse to public funds’.

Are you at fault for your own homelessness? This bizarre concept of ‘intentionality’ exists to stop the mythical scrounging masses from claiming falsely, but if for example you have rent arears, as thousands do through no fault of their own, then bad luck.

Are you from the local council area you are applying to? Do you have uninterrupted proof over a period of years? If not, you’re out.

Are you in one of the stated ‘priority need’ groups? This one has been seen off in Scotland, but everywhere else you have to have dependent children or qualify under one of the other limited descriptions. If your situation isn’t on the list, then your last shot at this one is appealing to the council to deem you in some way ‘vulnerable’.

Let’s say you haven’t fallen foul of one or more of these – and here is the real kicker – what if the council has nowhere to offer you anyway?!

The system is quixotic. Cash and housing strapped councils are spending their time fighting off legal challenges that their decisions were unlawful. People are sent hundreds of miles to live in squalor because local social housing has been converted or sold, or because the private rental market is too expensive. Private consultants scurry about the system, offering new innovations in gatekeeping it from applicants to grateful housing officers.

The pandemic has brought this murky system into the light. When Louise Casey sent her now famous ‘Everyone In’ email to English councils at the end of March, she basically told them to forget the last 43 years of litigious argument. The instruction on a Wednesday evening to get everyone off the street by the weekend was an instruction to do the right thing and ignore the rules. And in Scotland and Wales, the pandemic responses went even further, with councils given more generous funding settlements and directives from ministers about the public health emergency.

These efforts have been the exception that proves an important rule – that if you offer legal routes out of homelessness for some, you make it inevitable for others.  

For a few weeks the numbers on the street went dramatically down, and gave the public a glimpse of a future without rough sleeping. Politicians have seen that decisive intervention can have dramatic and positive results. And as an unnamed Conservative politician said in the Times last week: ‘My worry is that we’ve shown it is possible to get everyone off the streets during the Covid crisis so if homelessness goes up now people will know it’s as a consequence of government’s actions.’

So, what now? How should we build on the extraordinary efforts of the last six months? And how do we apply the short-term successes of reductions in rough sleeping to the wider homelessness response?

Our first principle should be to move from incomplete legal entitlements, to a universal model of guarantee that anyone facing homelessness is helped to avoid or quickly resolve it. The current model is cruel in its legally sanctioned denial of help to thousands every year. But it also labels people. You are ‘the homeless’, you should be grateful for what you get, and if you get nothing, soon the labels keep coming: single homeless, entrenched, complex, service-resistant, etc.

Let’s abolish the legal tests that create and sustain homelessness.

Second, the Everyone In initiative was a fleeting glimpse of assertive state action on homelessness in England. Louise Casey has come and now gone again, officially moving on in late July, leaving the UK government rudderless once again. Devolving the problem to the myriad responses of each local council is fundamentally flawed and we know all too well what that leads to – with every measure of homelessness in England going up in the last ‘decade of disaster’, under the cloak of decentralised but declining resources.

Governments in Scotland and Wales have recently begun an overhaul of their homelessness systems. This rediscovery of assertiveness and vision is desperately needed in England too, and a blueprint is written in the Crisis plan for ending homelessness. There are solutions ready and waiting, from scaling up Housing First, to the case for social housing at scale, PRS reform, etc. And the good news is that financially these reforms easily pay for themselves over a 10-year period.

The current government target of ending rough sleeping by the end of the parliament is the first of its kind. Rough sleeping is of course the most damaging for of homelessness. But in order to reach this goal, we need a consensus across all political parties on wider basis.

Since 1977 the legal system has designed in homelessness. This must be reversed, and replaced with a universal guarantee of housing support, and then backed by an assertive government strategy to make homelessness in all its guises a thing of the past.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Matthew Downie</span></strong>
Matthew Downie

Director of Policy and External Affairs, Crisis. Matt, who joined Crisis in 2014, played a leading role in the introduction of the Homelessness Reduction Act – one of the biggest reforms to homelessness legislation in England in a generation – as well as the publication of ‘Everybody In: How to end homelessness in Great Britain’, a landmark body of work showing how homelessness can be ended for good. He was awarded an MBE for his services to tackling homelessness in June 2019.

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Time is running out for renters

At the eleventh hour, late on a Friday afternoon, the Government finally decided to stop ploughing ahead with reopening eviction cases in the courts on 24 August.

This news came as a relief to the many thousands of renters struggling to pay their rent due to the economic shock of Covid-19. However, a stay on evictions keep renters safe for now but it is just a sticking plaster. It is time the Government dealt with root cause and took action to end the rent debt crisis.

Even before the pandemic hit, two million households in the private rented sector were struggling to pay their rent – paying a staggering 40% of their income to private landlords on average. 

Already stretched thin and with no savings to fall back on, private renters now find themselves without work or at risk of losing their job. 

Having to rely on the welfare system, many for the first time, renters wait anxiously for money to arrive and are devasted when the housing allowance, even with the recent Government increase, nowhere near covers the rent they owe.

New research by Generation Rent found that just 12% of those who applied for benefits after lockdown have been able to cover their rent – meaning hundreds and thousands of renters have been forced to rely solely on their landlord’s goodwill.

With unemployment rising, the furlough scheme coming to an end, and an endless wait for an inadequate benefit payment, thousands of renters are at serious risk of losing their homes.

Renters like Elizabeth, Tim, Roy, Laura and Chrissie:

Elizabeth: ‘Our three-year contract is up. We informed our landlady we weren’t able to pay full due to cuts in our salaries due to Covid19. The landlady agreed – then the landlady gave us Section 21 eviction notice.’

Tim: ‘Covid 19 has meant that income has dried up. My landlord wouldn’t or hasn’t taken the three month mortgage payment holiday. I am 3+ months behind with my rent and frightened about receiving a Section 8 eviction notice from my landlord.’

Roy: ‘My landlord has been texting me once a month since this (pandemic) started telling me I’m going to be “out on my ear” if I don’t pay, trying to increase the rent while my income has halved and my savings are dwindling, I’m terrified for my children’s future.’

Laura: ‘I’ve been furloughed and the money hasn’t been coming in until the middle of the month so I’ve been unable to pay the rent on time. I haven’t slept I’ve been ill anxiety and depression levels have gone up.’

Chrissie: ‘We explained that we hadn’t been able to work for 3 months and we’ve rented for just under 30 years. The landlords agent said ‘well you know what to do, give the keys back if you can’t pay’. We’re not eligible for benefits as we own a retirement property abroad. We are both over 60.’

These stories break my heart. Sadly, Elizabeth, Tim, Roy, Laura and Chrissie are not alone. Their stories are just a snapshot of the renter experience Generation Rent hears every day.

Many have lived in their properties for years. They have children at local schools but now find themselves priced out of the area they call home. Some are behind with rent and others haven’t even been given a reason; their landlord has simply issued a ‘no fault’ eviction notice and asked them to leave.

Our research, carried out just a few weeks ago, has shown 1 in 5 private renters who has struggled to pay rent during the pandemic has already been told to move out, been given a rent increase or been threatened with eviction. Nearly half of struggling tenants were found to be already searching for a new home, with 59 per cent unable to find one they can afford or a landlord who will accept them – meaning homelessness will be the only option for renters as they find themselves with nowhere else to go.

Time is running out for renters.

In March, Robert Jenrick promised to keep renters hit by Covid-29 in their homes. He has to deliver on this promise. He has to put in place a permanent solution to alleviate the coronavirus rent debt crisis being faced by hundreds of thousands of renters. 

With Parliament back from the summer recess, Generation Rent are more determined than ever to help renters saddled with rent debt. 

That’s why we’re campaigning for an end to the rent debt crisis through lifting the benefit cap and increasing benefits to cover average rents, no rent increases until March 2021, and make grants available to cover the rent of the most financially vulnerable through our Coronavirus Home Retention Scheme.

We want to see an end to coronavirus evictions through emergency legislation to prevent ‘no fault’ evictions and evictions for rent arrears. This will ensure renters who have been hit by the pandemic do not lose their homes through no fault of their own.

And we want to see a permanent end to Section 21. Evictions for no reason were a leading cause of homelessness before the pandemic. Section 21 eviction notices are in frequent use and the pandemic has highlighted that the law is not fit for purpose. The Government has pledged to end ‘no fault’ evictions, and now is the time for it to honour this pledge. 

Without a permanent solution to the rent debt crisis and evictions due to Covid-19 thousands of renters are at serious risk of losing their homes when the ban ends.

Generation Rent will be doing all it can to stop private renters tipping over the edge into homelessness.  Homelessness destroys lives. Help us end the rent debt crisis – sign up at GenerationRent.org

<span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color"><strong>Alicia Kennedy</strong></span>
Alicia Kennedy

A leader in strategic planning and campaign organisation, Alicia has had a 25-year career operating at the highest level of national politics.

She worked with Prime Ministers, Cabinet members, hundreds of MPs, and thousands of Councillors and volunteers to deliver successful local and national election campaigns for the Labour Party. She was made a life peer in 2012 and is non-aligned.

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Keeping Everyone In

Chesterfield; many of you will know Chesterfield as home to the Crooked Spire and gateway to the Peak District National Park. Some will know it has a proud history of engineering based on the North Derbyshire Coalfield. Eric Varley and Tony Benn represented the town in Parliament in the latter part of the 20th century. Toby Perkins has been the MP for Chesterfield since 2010. In December 2019 the constituency became a little dot of red in a sea of blue just south of Sheffield.

When I became the first woman Leader of Chesterfield Borough Council in 2017 the issue crying out for my attention was the rise in rough sleeping. Whilst the number of rough sleepers was insignificant when compared with London and nearby cities their needs were as complex and the associated anti-social behaviour created a continuous stream of complaints from residents, town centre businesses and visitors.  Photos of sleeping bags and other paraphernalia next to the town’s coach station adorned the local press on a weekly basis.

The cause of this was a range of factors coming together. Some of the most common were drug or alcohol dependency, mental health issues or benefit changes, particularly the recent introduction of Universal Credit. We also knew that Chesterfield was attracting rough sleepers who saw it as a safer option than being in some of the surrounding cities. The generosity of local people, giving food, clothing and other items, combined with the lower risk of violence towards them, meant that some rough sleepers specifically came to Chesterfield.

In the same way that there was no one cause, equally there was no one easy solution. One thing clear to me was that, as the new Council Leader, I needed to act. One homeless rough sleeper was one too many.  A collaborative approach was needed.  So, I approached Hardyal Dhindsa, Derbyshire’s Labour Police and Crime Commissioner, who I knew was tackling a similar problem in Derby. Together with Toby Perkins we set up the Chesterfield Town Centre Summit.  This summit, chaired by Hardyal, brought together all the public bodies (e.g. police, Chesterfield Borough and Derbyshire County councils, NHS, Probation…), the voluntary and faith sectors and the business community to tackle all the issues.

The group’s work is focused on three linked areas: Enforcement, Treatment and Support & Campaigning, for instance against government welfare reforms and for strengthening legislation against “legal highs” among other issues which had undoubtedly impacted on the situation on the streets.  By working together, the various agencies avoided duplication and identified any areas where support was not currently provided so that both could be addressed.

Our greatest success was the establishment of a Winter Night Shelter co-ordinated by Derby City Mission. Whilst tragic cases of homeless people dying on the streets were being reported daily, every night through the coldest months we were able to offer hot meals, sleeping bags, health checks and conversation. The shelter was hosted by a different church on a fixed rota, so it was not too onerous a commitment for one church’s congregation and volunteers. 

Chesterfield Borough Council, alongside two neighbouring districts, supported this work through its funding of voluntary agencies. We built a strong working relationship with local homelessness charity, Pathways, and others who support the hard-to-reach homeless.

Within Chesterfield council itself, our Homelessness Prevention Team works to provide accommodation for anyone who needs it and is a key player in the North Derbyshire Homelessness Forum, which brings together a range of agencies who are working to prevent homelessness and support people who are rough sleeping.

Little did we know when we closed the doors on our second successful year of the shelter’s operation at the beginning of March this year that the collaborative multi-agency working model developed out of the Town Centre Summit and the North Derbyshire Homelessness Forum would serve us so well during the COVID 19 Pandemic in responding to the government’s demand to bring “Everyone In”.

Led by Chesterfield Borough Council’s Homeless team manager, Derbyshire’s councils have brought in 80 people so far (as at beginning of June 2020), with the majority having been placed in hotel accommodation.

Some of those placed have already been found longer term accommodation, and a recovery plan has already been written to deliver intensive support to individuals experiencing overlapping and challenging issues such as offending, drug and alcohol misuse and poor mental health.

Those placed have been given three hot meals a day and it is hoped that, for some, this stability will give them a chance to seek a more permanent change, especially as support to everyone will continue.

We are now at a crossroads because the hotel accommodation, although effective, cannot be retained beyond the end of June 2020.

Chesterfield Borough Council has therefore led on the development of Derbyshire councils’ “Keeping Everyone In” recovery plan, which has now been submitted to the Government. The plan will ensure that we have the resources to re-house as many people as we can on a permanent basis, whilst continuing to offer the necessary essential support.

The rapid collective response right at the start of the pandemic and our transition now to recovery was only possible due to initiatives such as the Town Centre Summit and the long-standing Derbyshire Homelessness Forum. 

I would also argue that this type of response is only possible when there is clear, decisive political leadership such as that demonstrated by Derbyshire Police and Crime Commissioner Hardyal Dhindsa, Toby Perkins MP and myself.

Labour leading the way and making a difference to people’s lives. 

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Councillor Tricia Gilby</span></strong>
Councillor Tricia Gilby

Tricia Gilby is the first woman Leader of Chesterfield Borough Council and a Labour Councillor for Brimington South.

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The current crisis presents us with an opportunity to end homelessness for good

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the scale of rough sleeping across the UK, particularly in London, and the crisis continues to create more street homelessness. But it also creates an opportunity to end it.

The government’s letter to local authorities on 26th March telling them that they needed to tackle rough sleeping by getting “Everyone In” by the end of the week was, at best, not backed up with adequate resources. At worst, it betrayed a real lack of understanding of how entrenched homelessness is in London and how many people with only precarious housing have been pushed into street homelessness as a result of the current crisis.

Rough sleeping didn’t start with Covid-19. On the government’s own figures, street homelessness in England spiralled from 1768 people in Autumn 2010 to 4677 people in Autumn 2018.  The cap on local housing allowance that meant some areas had quite literally no private rented homes available to those claiming housing benefit didn’t help. Plus, many rough sleepers have been denied the help they need up to now because they were No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) due to their immigration status.

Even in the current lockdown, homeless outreach teams in London are still reporting new arrivals to the street. The reasons are numerous and complex, but it exposes how many people in the capital live in unstable accommodation. The Magpie Project has reported an increase in mothers and children who were previously “sofa-surfing” becoming homeless. Moving between different sets of friends on different nights is not easy under the current lockdown, neither is staying in a dormitory room in a backpackers’ hostel. Those with NRPF status or fleeing domestic abuse are often reluctant to seek help and may choose to remain hidden.

Huge efforts have been made by the GLA and local authorities to get everyone into safe accommodation. The immense talent and energy of the voluntary, community and grassroots sector has been invaluable. In their recent submission to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee’s Inquiry into the Impact of Covid-19 on homelessness and the private rented sector, the Museum of Homelessness comment that “The explosion of mutual aid groups has shown there is significant public appetite to help the most vulnerable and the Government should take note of this. The crisis has brought the deep inequalities in the UK to broader public attention.” In Islington, a covid-19 homelessness taskforce works out of a council community centre preparing and distributing food to the borough’s homeless residents currently in temporary accommodation.

But little has been said up to now about medium or long term plans to help people into secure accommodation when the current crisis ends. The immediate need is to ensure that everyone currently placed in emergency accommodation has an ongoing offer of support including permanent housing options. The long-term strategy also needs to recognise that there is a continuing flow of people being made street homeless by the current crisis and all recently set up emergency options need to stay open.

On 2nd May we heard about a new government taskforce to work with councils “to ensure rough sleepers can move into long-term, safe accommodation once the immediate crisis is over…” But now it has also emerged that government funding for the “Everyone In” policy is to end. What measures will this new taskforce put in place and will it actually address the two key issues – a lack of stable long term funding for local authorities and a lack of genuinely affordable homes?

A national Housing First programme would make for an effective long-term strategy.  Born in New York in the 1990s and rolled out nationwide in Finland, Housing First offers an unconditional home to vulnerable rough sleepers together with a package of wrap-around support. Amsterdam’s Housing First service reported in 2013 that 97% of the high needs homeless people who were using it were still in their homes after 12 months. Copenhagen’s programme had a 94% success rate. Canada’s At Home/Chez Soi project found that over two years Housing First participants “achieved significantly greater housing stability, quality of life, and community functioning…” than those on more traditional housing and treatment pathways. It’s also something that we’ve piloted in Islington with five of our own council homes. But for Housing First to work, we first need enough genuinely affordable homes.

What’s more, the government’s flagship First Homes policy suggests that homes for sale discounted by up to £100k will be built through s106 planning agreements, a mechanism that is normally used in London to ensure that social housing is built. Any policy that requires planning agreements to include discounted homes for sale will mean fewer new homes for social rent, and, ultimately, lead to more homelessness.

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people.” Could a national Housing First programme combined with a national building programme of genuinely affordable homes become the 2020 incarnation of this dream? The work done so far presents the opportunity to end homelessness for good, we shouldn’t waste it.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Diarmaid Ward</span></strong>
Diarmaid Ward

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour Councillor and Executive Member for Housing and Development at the London Borough of Islington. He has previously written for CityMetric, CapX and Inside Housing.

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Tenants don’t count says Shapps

Last week the Metro carried a sensible article about the rise in the number of people being forced out of their homes by mortgage lenders or landlords.  16,600 properties were repossessed in the third quarter of 2011, a rise of 20%.
The article clearly pointed out, in the second paragraph, that ‘nearly half of the repossessions were carried out on behalf of mortgage lenders, while 5,140 tenants were evicted for social landlords and another 1,627 on behalf of private landlords.’  They quoted an expert claiming that the numbers would continue to rise as unemployment continued to bite.
So far no surprise, but the article provoked a little tantrum from our housing minister.  It was ‘Inaccurate and misleading’ he said.  And why?  Well, it was because the article was ‘lumping together statistics of homeowners, social tenants and private tenants’.  He then went on to say that the number of home owner repossessions was expected to be below the initial forecast made by the Council of Mortgage Lenders (good) and he set out the help the Government is offering to mortgage holders.
Now the original article was not about tenure but about people losing their homes, whatever their tenure and whatever their circumstances.  Each of those is a tragedy and, as the article said, it will get worse before it gets better.  From a human point of view, the loss of your home under forced circumstances has huge implications for any individual or family.  But there isn’t a hierarchy that says that repossession of a home owner is somehow more important than that of a social or a private tenant.  The whole feel of Shapps’ response is that the latter two don’t matter much, but look how much we care about home owners.  After all, the tenants probably deserved it.
So my advice to the Metro, well done on the article and carry on ‘lumping together’ people who are victims of the recession .  Counting people is always more important.  And getting up Grant’s nose proves that this time you got it right.