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.

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.