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Pinocchio hits the airwaves

On the day that the Lords’ debate on the Welfare Reform Bill reaches the total benefit cap, which has huge implications for housing and homelessness, Red Brick favourite Iain Duncan Smith has hit the airwaves big time.  Unfortunately interviewed mainly by people who don’t know their arsenal from their elbow, his extraordinary statements are largely unchallenged.
As readers will be aware, Pinocchio was prone to fabricating stories and creating tall tales, but his nose grew longer and longer as he did so.  After his interview on the Today programme, I’ll be surprised if Mr Duncan Smith managed to get out of the studio without serious rhinoplasty.
His first major claim was that the total benefit cap will lead to ‘no increase in child poverty’, despite all the evidence to the contrary.  It seemed that the main reason he could claim this was that the Department of Work and Pensions had not even modeled the change in poverty because ‘you can’t directly apportion poverty to this measure’ and they don’t believe it will increase because they ‘will work with families to find a way out’.  Evan Davies has plainly never heard a whackier claim for a product since Dragons Den.
The second claim was that the poor deluded Bishops – he really doesn’t think much of Bishops – were wrong to say that families would be losing child benefit (they argue that CB is not a means tested welfare benefit therefore should be excluded from the cap).  Ludicrously, he said this is because the total benefit cap applies to all benefits therefore you can’t actually say that they will be losing CB when they reach the cap.
Thirdly, IDS said there will be no increase in homelessness ‘as the public understand it’ – whatever that means.  He accused opponents – again including the unfortunate Bishops – of ‘bandying about’ a definition of homelessness that included counting anyone as homeless whose children shared a room.  Personally I have never heard anyone say such a thing.  Nobody he said would be made homeless without a home to go to but nor would the Government ‘trap people… in homes they can’t afford to go to work from’.
It would seem to me that the definition of homelessness that should be used is the one set out by the Government itself in considerable pieces of legislation.  By their own definition, and in the admission of one Eric Pickles, welfare reform will increase homelessness by at least 40,000 and that excludes people who will fall outside the definition of priority groups.
There are vital amendments down today, including the exclusion from the total benefit cap of child benefit and the exclusion of homeless households in temporary accommodation being promoted by Labour front bench spokesperson Lord Bill McKenzie.
I hope Labour Peers will turn up in force to stand up for the tens of thousands of children who will be driven into poverty and the tens of thousands who will be made homeless by these measures, whatever Pinocchio claims.
Update 24 January: The Lords passsed the amendment moved by the Bishop of Rippon to exclude Child Benefit from the total benefit cap.  The Government has said they will seek to reverse their Lords defeats when the Bill returns to the Commons.  The amendment to exclude homeless households in temporary accommodation was defeated.  Many good points were made in the Lords debate and all of the speeches can be found here.

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No room at the Inn

Homelessness always has a special resonance at Christmas. Yesterday Crisis opened its doors for the 40th year running and will provide 20 different services, including food, accommodation and health checks to over 3,000 people. Crisis’s Leslie Morphy believes the importance of the Xmas service they provide is to help people start the journey out of homelessness: ‘The most important aspect of our Crisis at Christmas work is to help our guests begin to take steps out of homelessness: giving health MOTs, housing and job advice, and encouraging them to come to Crisis Skylight where we can offer year round support.’
Whilst people sleeping rough is the most visible sign of homelessness, countless others do not have a safe or secure home. On Tuesday Shelter revealed that nearly 70,000 children will experience Xmas in temporary accommodation, including hostels, bed and breakfasts and refuges across the country. Shelter’s Kay Boycott says: ‘We cannot underestimate the damage homelessness has on children’s lives. They often miss out on vital schooling because they are shunted from place to place and many become ill by the poor conditions they are forced to live in.’
Over at Pickles Towers, the Government talks the talk about tackling homelessness whilst making things far worse. The homelessness safety net has been reduced, money for affordable housing has been slashed, changes to housing benefit will make many tenants – private and social – much more vulnerable to homelessness, Supporting People work on homelessness has also been slashed. Grant Shapps grabs headlines cynically by announcing a bit of money here and there which doesn’t compensate for what has been taken away. Shapps has the nerve to say that homelessness is lower than in 18 of the last 20 years without acknowledging that it had been going down consistently for many years and has now started going up again. He is an expert at the use and abuse of statistics but even he can’t deny the serious change in direction caused by their policies.
As always Steve Bell sums everything up with his image on the theme of ‘No room at the Inn’ and the ‘Big Society Poor House’.
We wish our readers a very happy holiday and an excellent New Year. We hope you have enjoyed Red Brick’s first full year and found something of interest to read and comment on.
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'Rents will fall and no-one will be made homeless'. So what happened, IDS?

Government Ministers have consistently argued that the changes in local housing allowance would lead to reduced rents in the private rented sector and would not lead to more homelessness.
Labour MP Karen Buck spoke at the launch of the NHF’s Home Truths report this morning, and writes exclusively for Red Brick below.
Guest post by Karen Buck MP, Labour MP for Westminster North
A year ago, Iain Duncan Smith said in the House of Commons debate on Housing Benefit:
“The purpose of these (HB) changes is to give a real impetus to getting the rents down to make affordable housing more available in some areas…… Through the emergency Budget and spending review, we proposed a set of housing benefit reforms designed to bring back under control a system that has been out of control. I accept that the responsibility of Government is always to get the balance right as we protect, incentivise, and ensure fairness in the system. Critically, for housing, that means getting the rents down….. There should be no need, with the discretionary allowance, for people to be made homeless. That is just the nonsense with which Labour Members want to scare everybody.”
One year on, we now know that the mean rent increase in London was around 12%.
We are facing an unprecedented crisis of supply and affordability. This has not all occurred since May 2010 – and some of the present problems have roots in the decision to
switch subsidy from ‘bricks and mortar’ to personal subsidy three decades ago. Still, recent developments have intensified the problem acutely.
Over the last year, homelessness has risen sharply, reversing a fairly steady medium term decline. The recent pattern by which homelessness/temporary accommodation has been diverted via the prevention and relief of homelessness strategy is faltering, because families are reluctant to abandon future security as the PRS becomes increasingly unaffordable. (Meanwhile, there are over 100,000 households to whom local council accepted homelessness duties but then diverted them into the private sector who will be
at risk of re-presenting as rents rise and benefits fall).
The central issue remains one of the supply of affordable homes, especially for rent, but whilst we are seeing the final wave of new supply coming through as a result of the Labour government’s investment, the future looks less hopeful because of the Orwellian ‘affordable rent’ model and housing benefit cuts.
‘Affordable rents’ as the means of filling the grant gap mean not just places like Westminster become unaffordable – an ‘affordable rent’ set at 65% of market rents would require a household income of £65k to cover the cost without benefit – but so do poorer
places like Haringey and Newham. In Haringey, a rent set at 80% of local market rents would require a household income of £31k for a 1 bed flat, and in Newham a 2 bed flat would require a household income of £27k. This at a time when the median income for social housing tenants is £12k.
The Household Benefit Cap and Housing Benefit cuts, meanwhile, are estimated in a recent report by London Councils to leave 133,000 households unable to pay their current rents.
Even if this proves to be an over-estimate, staggering numbers of households face a dramatic shortfall in their income and are at risk of upheaval and homelessness as private rents continue to soar. Boroughs with lower housing costs can anticipate a sharp increase in numbers of incomers, many with high service and support needs.
It is worth noting that unemployment, the freeze in real wages and rising housing costs have already contributed to a rise in the number of private sector Housing Benefit
claimants, especially in the suburbs- the London Borough of Redbridge, which includes part of the constituency of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, saw a 65% increase in Local Housing Allowance claims in a little over a year, the largest increase in the country. Some of the areas facing the biggest cost pressures are not the Knightsbridge’s and Mayfair’s of popular myth, but places like Hillingdon and Croydon, whilst Newham will be amongst the places worst hit by the overall Benefit Cap.
Supply may be the solution over the medium and longer term, but in the very short term we need DCLG and DWP to sort out their differences and develop an integrated approach
to housing need and homelessness before they escalate.

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Spinning like a top

Spinning like a top, Housing Minister Grant Shapps is such a busy media bee at the moment that I’m tempted to think that there may be a Ministerial reshuffle in the
air.  Following his Twitter feed is a bit like being on a guided tour of the country’s radio stations with the occasional TV spot thrown in.
But this week he made an attack on the media that caught my interest because he is such a
media-savvy kind of guy.  Speaking at a Conference of the excellent Homeless Link, he made a big thing about the media’s lack of interest in homelessness.  Referring to his announcement of £42m funding for additional hostel beds, according to the Guardian he said “It’s almost impossible to get the outside world to take any notice of homelessness at all. You won’t have seen this information in a single national newspaper this morning and if I have a criticism of homelessness in this country, it’s not about all of you, it’s about them lot out there who just don’t seem to care about it…….I suspect even if I did press release it, no-one outside this room would give a damn.
Taking up his theme, The Guardian conducted an on-line poll (still open if you want to join in) which so far has 84% of voters saying yes – the media fails to represent the issues around homelessness and rough sleeping – against only 16% saying no – the media carries stories about homelessness and housing need.
As I’m in training to become a curmudgeon, my response was to disagree with the question – the issue is more about the quality than the quantity of coverage.
There are lots of stories about street homelessness, especially in the run-in to Xmas,
but the imagery is invariably the same, cardboard cities and shop doorways in the Strand feature highly.  It is good that both Shapps and the otherwise inept mayor Johnson have shown an interest in and made commitments about street homelessness.  However, we will have to wait and see if they actually deliver, and a cynic might argue that it is the very visibility of street homelessness in some parts of London, and the imminent arrival of the world’s media for the Olympics, that have pushed it up the agenda.
But even on this aspect of homelessness, poor media scrutiny means that there is no
contextualisation of Shapp’s announcement and no analysis of how his new sum of money for hostels compares with the large amounts already lost to the homelessness sector due to cuts in Supporting People programmes and cuts in local support for homelessness projects.
Most homelessness is not very visible and the reasons for it are complex.  Many homeless people have difficult back-stories but the underlying reason for homelessness is not social pathology: it is the housing shortage and the lack of access to affordable homes and, where necessary, support.  Increasingly – and the blame here falls on some people within the industry and not just the Government or the media – homelessness is described as just one feature of welfare dependency, the failure of individuals within the system rather than the failure of the system itself.  Worse, homeless applicants are characterised as ne’er-do-wells looking to exploit soft liberal rules, the undeserving poor that should be contrasted with the deserving poor who ‘do the right thing’ by working and sitting on housing waiting lists.
These simplistic characterisations are invariably wrong but they form this Government’s central narrative to justify welfare and housing reform.  The assertion that allocating social housing to homeless people has somehow created housing estates where there are dangerous concentrations of poverty, dysfunctionality and criminality has allowed the Government to get away with making large holes in the homelessness safety net.  Homelessness is rising rapidly, and I suspect the reason is not a sudden increase in fecklessness.
So I agree with Grant Shapps about the poor quality of media coverage.  They love their scapegoats and their attacks on the feckless.  But when he uses phrases like they just don’t seem to care about it and they don’t give a damn, he should try looking in a mirror.

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Worrying trends in homelessness

All the conditions were there and it was only a matter of time before the homelessness figures start to grow again.
All of the critical indicators of homelessness have now turned upwards after many years of decline.
The number of households accepted by local authorities between April and June 2011 was 11,820, a rise of 17% from 10,100 in the same quarter last year.  This is a very significant change in trend.
The rise in acceptances feeds through slowly into the number of households in temporary accommodation, but even this figure has started to rise again – up in the last quarter after 26 successive quarters of reduction, during which it fell from a peak of over 100,000 to less than 50,000.  In London, 35,620 households were in temporary accommodation at the  end of June 2011, just under three quarters of the total for England.
For those of us who lived through the bed and breakfast crisis of the 1980s, it is extremely worrying to see the numbers increasing significantly again.  From a low of 1,880 at the end of 2009 it is now back up to 3,120.  The number of families with children in B&B, which troughed at 400 at the end of 2009, is now back up to 1,210, a rise of over 60% on the year.  The consistent success in bringing this figure down, from a peak this century of
14,000 in 2002 (of which nearly 7,000 were families with children) has been brought to a halt.  One reason is that the use of private sector leased accommodation is declining.
With regard to the reasons for homelessness, the increase between 2009/10 and 2010/11 of 4,140 in the number of households accepted (40,020 to 44,160) is largely explained by two factors: relatives and friends (other than parents) being no longer able or willing to provide accommodation, which increased by 960 (5,000 – 5,960) and the ending of an assured shorthold tenancy, which increased by 2,050 (4,580 – 6,630).  Given the increasing reliance on private rented accommodation, the latter increase is a sign of things to come.
The apparent success in tackling homelessness since 2004 has not always been what it seems.  There were huge changes in policy and approach which put much more emphasis on managing demand.  This was a mixture of excellent practice – in the development of housing options services and homelessness prevention work – and the less excellent practice of diversion – securing private rented accommodation for households before they even registered as homeless, thereby keeping them out of the statistics.
Of the 164,000 households where action was successful in preventing homelessness in 2010/11, more than 82,000 were assisted in obtaining alternative accommodation, predominantly private lets.  This was the precursor of the current government’s policy to allow councils to discharge their homelessness duty by securing private rented accommodation against the wishes of the applicant.  Despite the best efforts of councils, many suspect that the policy of placing homeless households into private lets will lead a revolving door of insecurity and repeat homelessness.
Detailed homelessness statistics (live tables) are available here.

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Seabeck slates Tory housing segregation

A longer than normal post bringing edited extracts from the speech of Alison Seabeck MP, shadow Housing and Planning Minister on the housing parts of the Localism Bill, during the Bill’s second reading in the House of Commons.  You can read the full speech on the Labour Housing Group website or indeed the entire debate here  
Alison Seabeck said:
The Opposition cannot let these proposals go unchallenged. We will press for votes on our amendments flexible tenancies and security of tenure.
The Government’s proposals on housing and homelessness are deeply damaging, and none more so than the proposal to end security of tenure in social housing. That will create two classes of tenant in social housing. There will be great uncertainty, because there will be different lengths of tenure and different levels of rent, with little rational relationship between the two. There will be a divide between those who have been fortunate enough to get security of tenure in their social housing, and those who have been made to wait for too long and will be granted a tenancy for as little as two years. Tenants whose financial circumstances improve above an arbitrary level will potentially be told to pack up and move on.
As a result of the complexity of the system that is being brought forward, which will be a bureaucratic nightmare, a household in a three-bedroom house could pay less rent and have greater security than a household next door in a two-bedroom flat.
However, the message from the Government to all families in social housing is, “Get a better job and you will lose your home. Invite your partner to move in with you and start a family, and you will put your home at risk.” At a time when we want people to do their best to get on in life, and to build something better for themselves and their families, this is the wrong policy. Labour will stand up for people who strive and who put the hours in to better their lot. What will happen to people who fall foul of the new Tory rules and are told to leave their council or housing association home simply because they have worked hard if they subsequently lose their job or fall ill and are unable to work? What will their entitlement be then? They will go to the back of the queue and start all over again. Where is the incentive to work and where is the fairness?
To solve the housing crisis, the Government need to build more homes. Their policy seems to be aimed at trying to solve the shortage of social housing by allowing everyone a year or two in a social home before moving them on. Ministers seem to have failed to realise that to house people we need not to give them shorter tenancies but to build homes.
What will be the consequences of that policy of limiting social housing so that it is not available to those who work hard to build something for themselves, or to those who invest in their homes and communities? What will happen when we reduce estates to being areas that people pass through at their most vulnerable point and transitional communities of the most deprived? We will go back almost to the state of social housing in the first half of the last century, when access to it was limited by law to the “working classes”. That term was only ever defined once in legislation, in paragraph (12)(e) of the schedule to the Housing of the Working Classes Act 1903, as those “whose income in any case does not exceed an average of thirty shillings a week”.
In today’s money, that would be an annual income of just over £7,000. Mean as the Government are, I do not expect them to set a threshold as low as that, which would make them comparable with Tory Governments of the late 19th and early 20th century. However, the message that their change will send is the same now as it was then: that social housing is for the poor. It is to segregate people from other sections of society that are seen as doing better.
It has been more than 62 years since the House decided to accept that segregating social housing off for just one deprived section of society was entirely wrong. In that debate, Aneuring Bevan said—it is as true now as it was then—that it was
“entirely undesirable that on modern housing estates only one type of citizen should live…that from one sort of township should come one income group and from another sort of township another income group…if we are to enable citizens to lead a full life, if they are each to be aware of the problems of their neighbours, then they should be all drawn from the different sections of the community”.
Sixty years on, the idea that this country is stronger when its communities are more diverse, and that its society is more cohesive when it comprises of a broad and mixed swathe of people, is no longer supported by the Conservative party. Nor is it supported by the Liberal party, whose MPs did not oppose the measures in this Bill in Committee despite trying to raise their concerns by tabling amendments. They consistently withdrew those amendments without a vote. Just where is their fabled voice in government and their backbone? We still believe in mixed communities in social housing, underpinned by security of tenure, which the Bill targets so directly.
The framework published by the Department is quite clear that tenancies will be secure only for tenants who have a secure tenancy before 31 March 2012. Therefore, tenants with a secure tenancy will lose their security if their family grows and they need to move to a larger home, or if a person wishes to downsize to a smaller home and the only properties available for re-let are offered on a flexible tenancy.
The Bill is a retrograde step. Homeless applicants found to be in priority need and unintentionally homeless will no longer be able to draw on the security and stability of a social home with security of tenure. Instead, they will be placed directly into the private rented sector and if they refuse an offer, for whatever reason, the local authority will no longer have a duty to house them. They would then have almost nowhere to turn for help. It does not take much to realise the circumstances in which an offer might be unacceptable to an applicant. The accommodation might be too expensive, too far away from their child’s school or too close to an abusive ex-partner. It might also be damp, mouldy or unsafe—the list goes on. Key among all this is the insecurity that a private rented sector offer can sometimes bring. There was a very good article in Inside Housing this week, following a survey that clearly showed that a homeless person placed in the private rented sector was likely to face eviction very early, and to be turned around and around in a circle of homelessness.
The third biggest cause of statutory homelessness last year was the loss of an assured shorthold tenancy. As I said earlier, stability is vital in order to prevent what people have referred to as the revolving door of homelessness. With tenancies in the private rented sector being less stable and of a shorter duration, the risk of recurring homelessness is greater, so the need for stronger statutory protection increases.
If the Government are insistent that they wish to place homeless applicants directly into the private rented sector, it is only right for them to acknowledge the need to strengthen protections for the very predictable outcome of their choices. Evidence shows that homeless people housed in the private rented sector are more likely to be evicted.
Let me finish by saying that it is not just this Bill’s provisions that give cause for alarm, as changes to housing benefit will increase homelessness and rough sleeping. We have already seen homelessness increase by some 15% since this Government came into office. The Government’s consultation on statutory duties on local authorities has seen Tory councils like Hammermsith and Fulham viewing it as an opportunity to scale back their duties to homeless people, while Westminster council has been busy trying to ban soup kitchens.
Our new clauses and amendments are designed to defend mixed communities, to extend protections and advice to homeless people, to stand up for security and stability for low-income families and to prevent the segregation of those sections of our society that this Bill will surely deliver.

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Heroes fit for homes

Ex-service personnel have always featured highly amongst the homeless.  For many years the armed forces seemed particularly bad at helping people re-settle after their discharge.  There was no single cause for homelessness: sometimes physical disability made people less able to work and more vulnerable, sometimes mental stresses and post-trauma conditions made life back in civilian life more difficult to bear.  Sometimes people had become institutionalised or distanced from their families and an inability to re-settle led to problems with alcohol or drugs.  Some faced discrimination. 
For decades small charities campaigned to get a fair housing deal for homeless ex-service men and women but it was an uphill struggle.  The 1977 homelessness legislation provided one route to a decent home for some: if vulnerability through disability could be demonstrated then a social rented home would be found.  But this was not enough: research by Crisis in the mid 1990s found that around one-quarter of the single homeless population had spent time in the armed forces
Since then, increased awareness and better services, both within the armed forces and in local government and the voluntary sector, have had a demonstrable impact on the problem, with Crisis estimating that ex-service people are now around 6% of the single homeless population.  And in a very important step, the Labour Government changed the priority need categories in the homelessness legislation to give clear rights to vulnerable former members of the armed forces.
Striking his most Churchillian pose, Housing Minister Grant Shapps seeks to make the most of today’s announcement by Defence Minister Liam Fox about the improving the ‘military covenant’.   Shapps’ statement is littered with pomposity but little practical action: ‘These brave men and women… heroes … we will not stand idly by… our duty as a nation… we must hear their call’.  There is nothing wrong with the government giving ex-service people priority (in some as yet undefined way) for the FirstBuy scheme, shared equaity schemes, self-build projects and the like.  But it will hardly crack the problem.
In his little list, Shapps included ‘fairer treatment for military personnel applying to live in social housing’.  On the surface, fair enough, given their incomes and housing histories, the route into social housing is likely to be more important than the others in ensuring ex-armed forces personnel obtain an affordable secure decent home.
Call me an old cynic, but isn’t this the same Grant Shapps who has ended the production of social  housing at target rents in the future?  Who has brought about the slashing of ‘supporting people’ budgets – used to support homeless ex-service personnel amongst others – in many areas of the country?  Who has promoted legislation that will remove the right of vulnerable ex-service personnel to be rehoused in a social rented home?  Like everyone else, in future homeless ex-service personnel are likely to be offered a letting in the higher-cost, insecure private rented sector.
It pays to be careful when you see a Tory waving the flag.  In all likelihood they will be up to no good.

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The tide of destruction

TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber has been busy recently, what with the huge march and rally for the alternative on Saturday.
So it was good to see him taking time today to comment on the government’s decision to bring forward to January 2012 the new rule that single adults up to the age of 34 will be eligible only for the single room rate of local housing allowance. 
Brendan focused on the risk of homelessness.  He said: ‘This reform runs the risk of increasing homelessness among young people as many will have their benefit entitlement significantly reduced.  There is almost no chance that all of these people will be able to find alternative accommodation at affordable rents.  With unemployment still rising and the housing crisis deepening, the government seems intent on piling on the financial pain for young adults.’
The government has been happy to keep the debate about housing benefit/local housing allowance changes focused on the largest families receiving the highest amounts of benefit in the highest value areas, especially in central London.  But the changes will hit hard at all kinds of tenants all over the country, as the tables produced by the Valuation Office Agency (VOA) show clearly, and they will hit single young people between the ages of 25 and 34 severely.  You can see figures for your local area here. 
The tables show for each area (Broad Rental Market Area in the jargon) what the difference is between the current 1 bed rate and the single room rate and also how the rates will be affected by the switch from being assessed on the 50th percentile – ie the median rent in an area – and the new rule that they will be based on the 30th percentile.
So a single person aged between 25 and 34 would currently be eligible for the 1 bed rate at up to the 50th percentile rent; in future (ie over the next year) they would be entitled to the single room rent at the 30th percentile.  The figures will change as market rents change, but on current calculations a single person age 25-34 living on Tyneside would be entitled to a 1 bed rate of £97 a week and after the changes would only be entitled to a single room rate of £58 a week.  In southern Greater Manchester the drop will be from £103 to £56.  In Leicester from £91 to £56.  In north west London from £178 to £80.
In theory the 30th percentile rule means that 30% of properties in an area will be ‘affordable’ for claimants.  In practice the cheapest 30% are already occupied and people having to leave their existing accommodation will have to compete for vacancies as they arise.  Not only is this likely to force rents at the lower end up (not down as the government ridiculously claims) but there will be a flood of 25-34 year olds seeking to move and it is extremely unlikely, as Brendan comments, that there will be enough accommodation to go round.  The risk of homelessness is great, and even if there is a scramble amongst landlords to convert larger houses into shared accommodation there will then be knock-on effect on families. 
As Brendan said at the rally at the weekend, ‘We’ve come together not just to oppose the cuts, but to call for a new approach to rebuilding our economy rooted in social justice, in place of this tide of economic destruction.’  Quite.

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Rough sleeping is the tip of the iceberg

In a recent post we covered the story of Westminster Council’s plans to introduce a new bye-law for the Victoria area of the city to ban street sleeping and soup runs.

Here, Nicky Gavron AM, Labour’s Spokesperson for Housing and Planning on the London Assembly, says that this ban is just one of many policies that will impact on homelessness.

Nicky Gavron AM
Nicky Gavron AM

Former Deputy Mayor of London. London Assembly Member. Deputy Chair of the Planning Committee & GLA Labour Spokesperson for Planning.

The council made infamous by Shirley Porter is at it again, forcing people it considers undesirable out of the borough. In the eighties it was low income Labour-voting families; this time it’s some of society’s most vulnerable.

Westminster City Council’s pursuit of a byelaw to make it an offence to sleep rough and give away food in the most salubrious parts of the borough has been well documented.

Cllr Daniel Astaire, the council’s Cabinet Member for Society, Families and Adult Services audaciously told the Daily Mirror:

Soup runs have no place in the 21st century. It is undignified that people are being fed on the streets. They actually encourage people to sleep rough with all the dangers that entails. Our priority is to get people off the streets altogether. We have a range of services that can help do that.

But what Westminster councillors have not mentioned is that they are actively seeking to close the very hostels and services that help people off the streets and into a life of normality. One of these is the 100-plus bed Victoria Hostel in Castle Lane.

Westminster – like all borough councils – is given a budget to provide services for people in acute housing need, including rough sleepers. Most boroughs have had this budget cut, but Westminster has actually been given an increase – presumably in recognition of the need. And instead of using this extra money to carry out its legal and moral duty to help rough sleepers, it is slashing services and is prepared to waste police time and court resources by criminalising those who need help.

It’s difficult not to think that this is anything other than a cynical manoeuvre to turn Westminster into one big gated-community, and to seal it and its more well heeled residents off from a problem that’s getting worse across the city.

The combination of a stalling economy, rising unemployment, housing and benefit reforms will all conspire to push many more people into homelessness and increase levels of rough sleeping.

No assessment has been made by the government of the costs and impact of their housing and welfare reforms. The government’s total cap on benefits, which will hammer the budgets of families on low incomes, combined with their plan to raise social housing rents to 80 per cent of market rates will put intolerable stress on housing services in London.

Add to this the housing benefit reforms and the plan to make it easier for councils to discharge their homelessness duty, and the increase in rough sleeping seems inevitable.

Most damaging of all will be raising the age threshold for the Single Room Rate from 25 to 35. As one charity leader told me, rough sleepers will struggle to find normal shared housing. Forcing people to live together is a policy that has failed in the past and will fail again.

The Government must act now to stop rough sleeping getting worse. If it wants to convince us that these reforms are not ideologically driven, it must get tough with councils like Westminster by refusing this byelaw and reintroducing ring-fencing for those budgets that protect vulnerable people.

Without this, there is little the Mayor’s London Delivery Board on rough sleeping will be able to do to hold back the tide.

Most crucial of all, the government must rethink its housing and benefit reforms. As they stand they will lead to social segregation on an unprecedented scale – and rough sleeping is just the tip of the iceberg.

You can follow Nicky Gavron on Twitter at twitter.com/nickygavron.  This article also appeared in Inside Housing magazine.

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Localism Bill holes homelessness safety net

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Steve Hilditch</span></strong>
Steve Hilditch

Editor and Founder of Red Brick. Former Head of Policy for Shelter. Select Committee Advisor for Housing and Homelessness. Drafted the first London Mayor’s Housing Strategy under Ken Livingstone.

Most people will never get to know about the work that many MPs put in, in quality and in quantity.  But anyone following the Committee stage of the Localism Bill would be impressed by the hard graft put in by the key members of the Labour opposition, their analysis of the issues and their knowledge of the subjects under discussion. 

The Bill covers such a wide range of topics and working out the ramifications of over 200 specific clauses and more than 20 schedules is a herculean task.  As of 10 March there had been 24 sittings of the Bill Committee, and the leading Labour members have attended just about all of them, making dozens of amendments and speeches.    

I have been following the debate on the homelessness sections of the Bill – see my previous post for more background here.  The government’s policy of allowing councils to discharge their homelessness duty by obtaining a private rented sector letting for the applicant drives a coach and horses through the homelessness safety net, legislation that is arguably one of the legs of the welfare state.  The whole debate can be read here

On 10 March Nick Raynsford made a powerful speech on this section of the Bill – unfortunately to no avail.  It traces the history of the homelessness legislation, how the Tories have always opposed it, and how the Lib Dems have always supported it – until now.  Raynsford was of course heavily involved in achieving the passage of the original homelessness legislation in 1977.  Here are a few highlights from what he said.

“Homeless people are not different from other people. There are some who have special problems, but the vast majority of homeless people are those who have fallen on difficult times. They may have lost their home through a variety of different circumstances, and they are exposed to all the horrors of not having a home. Above all, they need help and support to get back on their feet and to move back into the mainstream and normal life.

“That is what brought me into working in housing in the late 1960s. I was of the generation that saw “Cathy Come Home” and was horrified by the revelation in that powerful programme of just how badly we as a society treated homeless people in the 1960s. It was a revelation. I was not aware that old workhouses were still being used as accommodation, or that families were routinely split up and husbands were not allowed to go into accommodation for homeless families—only the women and children could go in, and the husbands were split away. There was no proper safeguard for homeless families or people. That led me not only to work in the voluntary housing sector, but to campaign in the 1970s for a law that would give hope and security to homeless people and help the process that I have just described.

“That process involved helping homeless people through the difficulty and back into the mainstream of society, rather than allowing them to be stigmatised, marginalised and punished, as was the case before the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977. That Act was very important, and I helped Stephen Ross, the Liberal MP for the Isle of Wight, who bravely undertook to promote that as a private Member’s Bill in 1976, a time when he could have easily adopted other causes that might have been more popular in his constituency. I know from talking to him at the time that he was determined to do something hugely important for society, not just take on something that would be popular and help him to win a marginal seat in the ensuing general election, so I pay huge tribute to him. He did so with the support of the then Labour Government, which had a wafer-thin majority, so Liberal support was important. The two parties worked together, and that legislation was the product of Labour and Liberals working together to give rights to homeless people.

“I am sorry to say that the Conservative party at the time opposed that legislation. It voted against it and fought it literally clause by clause through this House. However, it got onto the statute book and made a difference. It changed attitudes towards the homeless, and it ensured that provision for homeless people was brought into the mainstream of housing provision, rather than being something on the margins that separated them from the rest of society. That continued throughout the 1980s, until in 1996 a Conservative Government sought to weaken the safeguards for homeless people. In Opposition, we in the Labour party fought that unsuccessfully, supported by the Liberal party—I think they were the Liberal Democrats by then—who were absolutely at one with us in defending the 1977 Act against the Tory Government’s attempt to weaken it. I welcomed that support.

“In 2000-01, when I was Minister for Housing and Planning, I had the privilege of introducing the Homes Bill, which reinstated the principal safeguards of the 1977 Act which had been weakened by the 1996 legislation, and also introduced the concept of local authorities developing homelessness prevention strategies. That Bill did not reach the statute books immediately—it fell because of the 2001 general election—but it was re-introduced by my successor immediately after that election, when I had moved to another responsibility, and made it on to the statute book. That was passed by a Labour Government with the support of the Liberal Democrats. In fact, I well remember the right hon. Member for Bath (Mr Foster), who led the Opposition for the Liberal Democrats in the Committee that discussed the Homes Bill in the run-up to the 2001 general election. He was pressing us to go further, rather than saying we should weaken in any way our commitment to homeless people.

“This is what really saddens me about what is happening now, because we are seeing here a coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats weakening a piece of legislation that should be a proud monument to parties working together to advance the prospects of disadvantaged people and help those in difficult circumstances to get  back on their feet. I am delighted that the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay has—to a degree—maintained the honourable tradition of his party in seeking to safeguard the position of homeless people. I hope when on Report he will continue to do so with a commitment to voting for his views, rather than simply articulating them.

“I say to this Committee, and to all Members of this House, that this is a retrograde step. This is weakening the safeguards for homeless people…. it will expose more people to a position where they are subject to a dependence on benefits; where the work incentives are to very large degree taken away by punitive rates of taxation because of the withdrawal of benefits; and where they do not have the security to be able to rebuild their lives because they live in insecure lettings where they cannot be certain they can stay from one year to the next and continue to occupy it as their home, providing they pay the rent and meet the tenancy obligations. This is a sad, retrograde step, and I believe that the House will ultimately regret it and will come to realise that if it passes the clause, and the Bill, it will have made a serious mistake.”

Localism Bill Clause 124 3 March 2011