A Labour councillor writes...
When it comes to housing, the Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto is scant on detail. But buried deep within there is a clear pledge to “end the blight of rough sleeping by the end of the next Parliament by expanding successful pilots and programmes such as the Rough Sleeping Initiative and Housing First, and working to bring together local services to meet the health and housing needs of people sleeping on the streets”. What’s more, there is a plan to fund all this by “bringing in a stamp duty surcharge on non-UK resident buyers.”
This gives the government 1,535 days to end street homelessness. It is without doubt a worthy ambition. But it’s one that does not acknowledge that government policy over the past decade has caused the number of people bedding down on the streets each night to rocket: in England it spiralled from 1,768 people in Autumn 2010 to 4,677 people in Autumn 2018, according to the government’s own figures.
A benefits system that’s becoming impossible to navigate, particularly the cap on local housing allowance that means some areas have quite literally no privately rented homes available to those claiming housing benefit, is causing street homelessness. The fact that so many are denied the help they need because of the callous No Recourse to Public Funds policy also plays its part.
Amidst all this turmoil, local authorities have tried their best. In Islington we have appointed an in-house Rough Sleeping Coordinator who oversees all of our work, and our outreach team do joint shifts with a range of brilliant partner groups in the borough, including those specialising in help with substance abuse, medical support, and assisting with the specific issues that female rough sleepers face. We were also proud to support local groups in setting up the Hornsey Road Solidarity Homeless Shelter. Local businesses from Hornsey Road Traders Association also provided some money for the initiative.
We also piloted a Housing First programme with five of our own council homes. Born in New York in the 1990s and rolled out nationally in Finland, Housing First offers an unconditional home to vulnerable rough sleepers together with a package of wrap around support. Most recently, we are proud to be part of the new homeless shelter now operating at the former Holloway Prison Visitors’ Centre.
But none of this is easy at a time when councils like Islington are dealing with a 70 per cent cut in their core government funding over a decade. So let’s assume just for a moment that in the forthcoming Autumn budget and in budget days to come, that the tap is turned on so that all local authorities have ample funds to spend on homeless outreach and particularly on Housing First programmes. With Housing First the clue is in the name – in order to work it requires a supply of housing. Put simply, the government’s plan does not acknowledge the primary reason for homelessness: a lack of genuinely affordable homes.
To solve that, we need to build lots more genuinely affordable homes for social rent. Government spending on building new homes actually fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP. The grant that councils can obtain to build new homes generally doesn’t cover any more than a third of the build costs. There is just one mention of council housing in the Conservative manifesto, and it refers to a pledge to maintain the right to buy policy, which continues to decimate the number of council homes available. There is no lack of political will in local authorities to build council homes – but the government needs to stop stacking the system against us.
Without a change in government attitude and policy towards council and social housing, homelessness will continue to rise. But even more concerning is that the government actually seems intent on building even fewer social rent homes. The new flagship First Homes policy suggests that homes for sale discounted by up to £100k will be built through s106 planning agreements. In Islington we have some of the toughest planning policies in the country, requiring all developments of over ten homes to be 50 per cent genuinely affordable, including 35 per cent homes for social rent.
It’s a policy that we are not afraid to enforce and on the Parkhurst Road case, where a developer tried to argue that they couldn’t comply because they had paid too much for their site, we took it all the way to the High Court and won. A postscript to the judgment sets out that future guidance from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) should make clear that developers shouldn’t seek to mitigate high purchase prices by reducing social housing numbers.
So any forthcoming legislation that requires planning agreements to focus on discounted homes for sale will mean that fewer homes for social rent are built and, ultimately, lead to more homelessness.
On the available evidence, it would appear that the promise to end rough sleeping is doomed to failure without a fundamental change in the direction of government policy. I am happy to be proved wrong in the next 1,535 days. But it’s time to get a move on.
Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.