“Poverty” isn’t strong enough to describe the misery so many face. We’re back to destitution

Liverpool, 2009. Image: Getty.

The Labour mayor of Liverpool on the return of Victorian poverty.

Destitution. Just think about that word. Over the past decade, we have moved on from talking about social exclusion, or inequality, or even just poverty. Now, such is the impoverishment of whole communities, buckling after a decade of deep public spending cuts, that we are using the language of the Victorian era.

More than 1.5m people experienced ‘destitution’ in the UK at some point during 2017. Not my words, but the description given by a team of academics in a major new report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Destitution in the UK 2018,which provides a benchmark for what the term means in the modern era.

They conclude that destitution refers to experiencing at least two of six indicators in a ghastly basket of measures of extreme poverty. Has someone slept rough for more than a day? Or had fewer than two meals a day for two or more days? Have they been unable to heat their home for five or more days? Or light it? Do they have appropriate clothing and footwear? Basic toiletries? And is their income so low they might lack these basic essentials in the immediate future? 

The problem of destitution is clustered in many post-industrial urban centres. Unsurprisingly, Liverpool comes second after Manchester, with some of the poorer parts of London, the North East and West Midlands also included.

The legacy issues that remain from the 1980s – including ingrained, inter-generational poverty and high unemployment – are hard to resolve, when eight years of swingeing central government spending cuts have reduced the council’s budget by two-thirds, some £444m.

Nevertheless, Liverpool has made it a priority to support people and families who face dire personal circumstances. Our Citizens Support Scheme and other hardship funds provided crisis payments for more than 10,000 last year – and helped more than 3,000 people and families pay for home essentials. 


We have also invested an extra £1mto prevent hardship and homelessness through discretionary housing payments. Last year we made 11,000 such payments, supporting residents who are suffering due to a shortfall in state benefits caused by government welfare reforms.

Our approach has been to deal with crisis situations, in order to stave off calamities. In many cases, we are one of the few councils in the country to provide this range of support, investing £23.2m last year in preventing our poorest citizens sliding into destitution.

This isn’t just because we are committed to social justice – or because I myself grew up in grinding poverty and know exactly how life-limiting it is. No: we have an additional motive for supporting the very poorest citizens in our city.

 If we allow people to sink to the very depths of despair it costs more in the long run to pull them back up again into mainstream society, transferring the pressure onto other frontline services, particularly the NHS. Destitution is cruel and brutal – but it is also an inefficient way to run a society. Our approach sees social justice and economic efficiency working hand in hand.

 But the most galling aspect of the Rowntree report is how bad government policy is conspiring to make the situation worse:

 ‘People were pulled into destitution by a combination of factors: benefit delays, gaps and sanctions; harsh debt recovery practices (mainly by public authorities and utilities companies); financial and other pressures associated with poor health and disability; high costs of housing, fuel and other essentials; and, for some groups – including young people – even lower levels of benefits than for others, and for some migrants, no eligibility at all.’

A large part of the rough sleeping problem we face in Liverpool involves failed asylum seekers who are designated as having no recourse to public funds. They are left to fall through the cracks – which is why I have instructed my officers to ignore this heartless government diktat.  

Remember David Cameron’s boasts about the “big society,” and claims that “We’re all in this together?” The destitute are those failed by his empty rhetoric and the grinding effects of austerity.

Although we don’t have the resources we need to fix all the problems of destitution – mostly driven by factors outside of my control – when we can prevent someone shivering in a doorway, we will, regardless of the rules.

Similarly, we were the first city in the country to bring forward compulsory landlord registration in order to tackle tenant exploitation and drive up standards in the private rented sector. 

All too often, serious-minded reports like this come along and cause consternation for those of us on the political left, but barely skim the surface when it comes to shifting government policy. 

Let this damning report – exposing the reality of destitution in our country, caused by a decade of austerity – be the moment when even the stony-hearted in Whitehall say, “Enough is enough.” 

Joe Anderson is Labour mayor of Liverpool.

 
 
 
 

“Without rent control we can’t hope to solve London’s housing crisis”

You BET! Oh GOD. Image: Getty.

Today, the mayor of London called for new powers to introduce rent controls in London. With ever increasing rents swallowing more of people’s income and driving poverty, the free market has clearly failed to provide affordable homes for Londoners. 

Created in 1988, the modern private rented sector was designed primarily to attract investment, with the balance of power weighted almost entirely in landlords’ favour. As social housing stock has been eroded, with more than 1 million fewer social rented homes today compared to 1980, and as the financialisation of homes has driven up house prices, more and more people are getting trapped private renting. In 1990 just 11 per cent of households in London rented privately, but by 2017 this figure had grown to 27 per cent; it is also home to an increasing number of families and older people. 

When I first moved to London, I spent years spending well over 50 per cent of my income on rent. Even without any dependent to support, after essentials my disposable income was vanishingly small. London has the highest rent to income ratio of any region, and the highest proportion of households spending over a third of their income on rent. High rents limit people’s lives, and in London this has become a major driver of poverty and inequality. In the three years leading up to 2015-16, 960,000 private renters were living in poverty, and over half of children growing up in private rented housing are living in poverty.

So carefully designed rent controls therefore have the potential to reduce poverty and may also contribute over time to the reduction of the housing benefit bill (although any housing bill reductions have to come after an expansion of the system, which has been subject to brutal cuts over the last decade). Rent controls may also support London’s employers, two-thirds of whom are struggling to recruit entry-level staff because of the shortage of affordable homes. 

It’s obvious that London rents are far too high, and now an increasing number of voices are calling for rent controls as part of the solution: 68 per cent of Londoners are in favour, and a growing renters’ movement has emerged. Groups like the London Renters Union have already secured a massive victory in the outlawing of section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions. But without rent control, landlords can still unfairly get rid of tenants by jacking up rents.


At the New Economics Foundation we’ve been working with the Mayor of London and the Greater London Authority to research what kind of rent control would work in London. Rent controls are often polarising in the UK but are commonplace elsewhere. New York controls rents on many properties, and Berlin has just introduced a five year “rental lid”, with the mayor citing a desire to not become “like London” as a motivation for the policy. 

A rent control that helps to solve London’s housing crisis would need to meet several criteria. Since rents have risen three times faster than average wages since 2010, rent control should initially brings rents down. Our research found that a 1 per cent reduction in rents for four years could lead to 20 per cent cheaper rents compared to where they would be otherwise. London also needs a rent control both within and between tenancies because otherwise landlords can just reset rents when tenancies end.

Without rent control we can’t hope to solve London’s housing crisis – but it’s not without risk. Decreases in landlord profits could encourage current landlords to exit the sector and discourage new ones from entering it. And a sharp reduction in the supply of privately rented homes would severely reduce housing options for Londoners, whilst reducing incentives for landlords to maintain and improve their properties.

Rent controls should be introduced in a stepped way to minimise risks for tenants. And we need more information on landlords, rents, and their business models in order to design a rent control which avoids unintended consequences.

Rent controls are also not a silver bullet. They need to be part of a package of solutions to London’s housing affordability crisis, including a large scale increase in social housebuilding and an improvement in housing benefit. However, private renting will be part of London’s housing system for some time to come, and the scale of the affordability crisis in London means that the question of rent controls is no longer “if”, but increasingly “how”. 

Joe Beswick is head of housing & land at the New Economics Foundation.