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 home.co.uk 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.

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.