Here’s how the government’s welfare policies are sending homelessness soaring

Homelessness in London. Image: Getty.

To truly appreciate England's housing crisis, the number you need to know is 1,264.

That is the number of households that Leeds City Council judged it owed a homelessness duty to between April and June last year, the most recent period for which data is available.

Leeds, you will have noticed, is not London. It is a long way from London. It has built plenty of new flats in its city centre, and has ambitious house-building plans for the future, albeit subject to opposition from Green Belt campaigners.

Data from suggests one-bed apartments renting at around £600 a month. Rooms in shared housing are going for £400 a month. It's not cheap, if money is tight – but it's still not close to London prices.

And yet, 1,264. In three months. That's nearly 15 households a day, judged to be either homeless or at risk of it.

If the housing crisis was just about house-building, this shouldn't be happening.

Labour's approach to tackling the housing crisis is based on mass house-building, with an emphasis on council housing, and periodic flirting with rent control.

The party's house-building proposals for England are appealingly meaty – a million new “genuinely affordable” homes over ten years, most of them for social rent. Under these plans, a Labour government would be building at the rate of 100,000 affordable homes a year by the end of its first five-year term in office – part of a promise to build 250,000 homes a year of all tenures.

That would represent a major uptick in affordable house-building: fewer than 50,000 affordable homes were delivered in 2017-18, and that's going by the current definition of “affordable”, which many critics argue is anything but.

They would not arrive quickly, however. Five years is a long time in a housing crisis. The current social housing waiting list stands at more than a million. If Labour only reaches 100,000 new affordable homes a year by the end of its first term in office, those struggling to pay the rent will be living in precarious circumstances for well over half a decade to come.

England's housing crisis isn't uniform: different regions have different problems. The £95m that American hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin blew on a 20,000 square foot luxury home near Buckingham Palace could buy entire housing estates in other parts of the country.

But the universal truth is that if you cannot make the rent, you're in trouble, be you in London or Leeds, Maidstone or Manchester. Local housing conditions determine how many people need help paying the rent, but so do local economic conditions – where unemployment is higher, more people will need assistance, even if housing is cheap.

This is where the benefit system steps in – or where it used to, at least. Before austerity kicked in, Local Housing Allowance (housing benefit paid to private tenants) was set in line with median local rents – the 50th percentile – and would cover claimants' rent up to that level on a means tested basis.

However, in April 2011 LHA was cut to the 30th percentile of local rents. From that point on, it only covered the rent in roughly the cheapest third of housing in any area, be it prosperous or not. At a stroke, swathes of housing were rendered unaffordable to those on low incomes, as part of an onslaught on the welfare system that was – lest we forget – popular with the public at the time.

It didn't stop there. LHA rates were first raised below the rate of inflation, and then frozen from 2016 onwards. So having been cut to the bottom 30 per cent of local rents, the amount of housing benefit paid to private tenants didn't even keep pace with them.

As a result, more and more properties across the country have been rendered unaffordable to low earners, helping drive up rent arrears and, inevitably, homelessness.

This is the housing crisis that unites every corner of England. LHA no longer covers cheaper rents – those at the 30th percentile – In ninety percent of areas. The situation is of course worst in London, but monthly three-figure rent shortfalls on housing benefit have spread throughout much of southern England and the Eastern region; and fewer than a fifth of local properties are fully covered by benefits throughout much of the Midlands and Yorkshire.

Labour's policy is to end the welfare freeze and increase benefits in line with inflation.

But even this will not be enough. Labour's social house-building programme would take years to come to fruition, with low earners struggling to pay private rents in the meantime. That means years of England's housing crisis rumbling on under Jeremy Corbyn.

There's little chance of the Tories reversing the benefit cuts they enacted. But if Labour is serious about addressing the housing crisis for low earners, it must wind the clock back, boost housing benefits above the rate of inflation, and restore them to median local rents.

This will cost money – but it should be top of John McDonnell's shopping list. Because it will take more than building more houses to fix the housing crisis.


There isn’t a war on the motorist. We should start one

These bloody people. Image: Getty.

When should you use the horn on a car? It’s not, and anyone who has been on a road in the UK in living memory will be surprised to hear this, when you are inconvenienced by traffic flow. Nor is it when you are annoyed that you have been very slightly inconvenienced by another driver refusing to break the law in a manner that is objectively dangerous, but which you perceive to be to your advantage.

According to the Highway Code:

“A horn should only be used when warning someone of any danger due to another vehicle or any other kind of danger.”

Let’s be frank: neither you nor I nor anyone we have ever met has ever heard a horn used in such a manner. Even those of us who live in or near places where horns perpetually ring out due to the entitled sociopathy of most drivers. Especially those of us who live in or near such places.

Several roads I frequently find myself pushing a pram up and down in north London are two way traffic, but allow parking on both sides. This being London that means that, in practice, they’re single track road which cars can enter from both ends.

And this being London that means, in practice, that on multiple occasions every day, men – it is literally always men – glower at each other from behind the steering wheels of needlessly big cars, banging their horns in fury that circumstances have, usually through the fault of neither of them, meant they are facing each other on a de facto single track road and now one of them is going to have to reverse for a metre or so.

This, of course, is an unacceptable surrender as far as the drivers’ ego is concerned, and a stalemate seemingly as protracted as the cold war and certainly nosier usually emerges. Occasionally someone will climb out of their beloved vehicle and shout and their opponent in person, which at least has the advantages of being quieter.

I mentioned all this to a friend recently, who suggested that maybe use of car horns should be formally restricted in certain circumstances.

Ha ha ha. Hah.

The Highway Code goes on to say -

“It is illegal to use a horn on a moving vehicle on a restricted road, a road that has street lights and a 30 mph limit, between the times of 11:30 p.m. and 07:00 a.m.”

Is there any UK legal provision more absolutely and comprehensively ignored by those to whom it applies? It might as well not be there. And you can bet that every single person who flouts it considers themselves law abiding. Rather than the perpetual criminal that they in point of fact are.

In the 25 years since I learned to drive I have used a car horn exactly no times, despite having lived in London for more than 20 of them. This is because I have never had occasion to use it appropriately. Neither has anyone else, of course, they’ve just used it inappropriately. Repeatedly.

So here’s my proposal for massively improving all UK  suburban and urban environments at a stroke: ban horns in all new cars and introduce massive, punitive, crippling, life-destroying fines for people caught using them on their old one.

There has never been a war on motorists, despite the persecution fantasies of the kind of middle aged man who thinks owning a book by Jeremy Clarkson is a substitute for a personality. There should be. Let’s start one. Now.

Phase 2 will be mandatory life sentences for people who don’t understand that a green traffic light doesn’t automatically mean you have right of way just because you’re in a car.

Do write in with your suggestions for Phase 3.