According to John Rentoul, writing in The Independent at the weekend: “Brexit is distracting the centre of Government – No 10, the Cabinet Office and the Treasury – from attending to the pressing problems facing the country.” You can see his point. The demands exerted by negotiating a Brexit deal in Brussels that neither party wants, while fending off a Remainer-dominated parliament in London, is hardly conducive to solving big and worsening domestic problems.
No, Rentoul is wrong. Brexit isn’t a distraction from more pressing matters. However big the crises of housebuilding and in the NHS – and they are as considerable as they are longstanding – Brexit, and the crisis of democracy we face if it is not implemented will be that much bigger. But if we get it right – and it is a mighty big ‘if’ given the concessions already made by the UK negotiators – and those who seek to undermine it fail in their attempts to sabotage the popular will, Brexit has the potential to genuinely transform the agenda across public policy.
Even if it is thwarted as sovereignty and independence are sacrificed in the name of maintaining a relationship with the supranational body we are supposedly trying to leave, the popular sentiment behind Brexit can’t so easily be put back in its box. Whatever happens over the coming weeks and months, it has the potential to be the catalyst for replacing the managerial target-setting that has plagued public services for decades with a culture of political contestation over competing visions of our collective future. Policy-makers, once deprived of the shelter provided to members of the EU from their respective citizenry, will become more exposed – as they should – to the pressure to act that comes from the questioning and debate generated by the public’s critical engagement with those who govern in their name.
None of this is automatic of course. The disengagement of the masses from politics in the UK has been a decades long process with its roots in the failure of past political projects of left and right. Also, the technocracy, restraint and risk-aversion that played a part in voters rejection of the elites at home and abroad and their reawakening as political subjects, continues to dominate public life. And it continues to stifle progress in building lots more houses and ensuring fewer beds are blocked, as surely as it inhibits those negotiating our exit from the EU or failing to plan for our post-Brexit future. The stasis that was with us before the summer of 2016 is still there if less seemingly immovable. It is only by truly involving the people in the policy process – an old mantra amongst policy wonks curiously absent of recent – that we can finally shift it.
First published in Huffington Post
Until recently, homelessness would only come to public attention in the run-up to Christmas. But things are changing. Homelessness is now being openly discussed by politicians ‘after years in the policy wilderness’, says Patrick Butler at the Guardian. Politicians ‘seem almost to be trying to outdo each other’ with their schemes to tackle it, he says.
The Conservative government has pledged to halve rough sleeping by the end of this parliament, and to eliminate it by 2027. The Homelessness Reduction Act comes into force in April. It will impose new duties on local authorities – including to prevent and relieve homelessness for all ‘eligible applicants’, not just those deemed to be in priority need or ‘unintentionally homeless’. Housing First pilots have been announced to provide accommodation and wraparound support for the long-term homeless.
And yet the Rough Sleeping and Homelessness Reduction Taskforce, unveiled as part of last year’s autumn budget, has yet to meet. And some local authorities still stand accused of treating the homeless with contempt. Windsor council’s determination to clear the streets of homeless people before Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding in May caused controversy. The rise of ‘hostile architecture’ – with anti-homeless sprinklers, strategically placed bike racks and metal bars on park benches all making life even more uncomfortable for rough sleepers – has also, rightly, been met with hostility.
Then there was the recent death of a Portuguese man, a former model who had hit hard times and who was struggling with alcohol and mental-health problems. He had overstayed at one hostel and was awaiting admittance to another, but then he died while sleeping in the freezing cold outside Westminster Tube station – virtually on parliament’s doorstep. MPs took to social media. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn tweeted that the ‘powerful can’t carry on walking by on the other side’; it is time we ‘took up the moral challenge and properly housed everyone’, he said.
Westminster is Britain’s main hotspot for rough sleeping (217 were counted on one night last autumn). The official figures suggest street homelessness has doubled since 2010; 4,751 people were sleeping rough in England in 2017. But this is widely understood to be an underestimate, relying as it does on local-authority counts and, more often, estimates. Nor does it include similar rises in the numbers of people living in temporary accommodation, or, more controversially, the ‘hidden homeless’. A recent ComRes survey found that 41 per cent of 16- to 25-year-olds admit to ‘sofa surfing’.
The failure to build enough housing, or enough affordable housing, is often cited as a major contributor to the problem of homelessness. In January, Corbyn announced that a Labour government would immediately, upon being elected, buy every homeless person in the UK a house, even if that meant seizing properties left empty by developers. And yet, for all its grandstanding, the political class has consistently undershot the building of the 250,000 new homes a year – at least – that Britain needs.
House-building in the UK peaked at 183,600 in 2007. It reached a low of 75,350 in 2009 and is now averaging around 150,000 a year. This has lead to a backlog of unmet needs, unfit housing stock, and ever-rising prices and rents – key contributors to today’s unprecedented levels of homelessness. The new legislation will help, but it is only by building the government’s target of 300,000 houses a year now, and not, as planned, by the mid-2020s, that we can begin to ensure that nobody need fear losing their home.
Many argue that it is central government’s programme of austerity, including cuts to local services and to benefits, especially for 16- to 18-year-olds, who are no longer eligible for housing benefit, that has created the current problem. There is certainly a need to address the problems associated with changes to the welfare system, albeit without further fostering a culture of extended adolescence among the young. But blaming the Tories is too easy. The crisis of affordability, of rising housing costs and stagnating incomes, is a longstanding one. It is this that motors the evictions that are the leading cause of homelessness. To solve this problem, we need less grandstanding and more serious investment in infrastructure.
First published in spiked
As a society we have accommodated to homelessness. The homeless appear in the national consciousness once a year at Xmas. We associate the problem with cardboard boxes and the acts of kindly strangers, rather than seeing it as something that might be solved by better social policy. Not that I want to knock charitable feeling on the part of the public. Gloucester City Council has been running a much criticised poster campaign that urges people not to give rough sleepers any money because many of them are not really homeless. I don’t know about you but nothing makes me want to buy a rough sleeper a can of Special Brew more than being told not to by officialdom.
There was outrage this month when Council Leader Simon Dudley asked the police to clear Windsor – prior to the eagerly anticipated Royal Wedding – of ‘an epidemic of rough sleeping and vagrancy’ to ‘protect residents and tourists’. He suggested they use 19th Century vagrancy law and its latter day equivalent the ASBO (Anti-Social Behaviour Order) to do the job. Russell Brand launched an online petition to ‘Show love to Harry and Meghan AND help the homeless’ by setting up a shelter in neighbouring Slough. It quickly attracted thousands of signatures, and Cllr Dudley is now facing a vote of no confidence.
But there is nothing unusual about the authorities harassing of the street homeless. Under pressure from campaign groups like the excellent Manifesto Club, local authorities and others using powers such as ASBOs (Anti Social Behaviour Orders) and PSPOs (Public Space Protection Orders) have now been told by the Home Office that they must not ‘target specific groups or the most vulnerable in our communities’. I’m of the view that the homeless should be a public nuisance, that’s how we know we’ve got a problem.
But what is the problem? There is a rarely acknowledged conflation of homelessnesses. It tends to be exaggerated by campaigners to include ‘sofa surfing’ young people and the ‘hidden homeless’ living, albeit not ideally, in overcrowded homes. Equally it is underestimated by government – so that the official homeless count includes only families who are granted public housing after being assessed to be ‘unintentionally homeless’ by local authorities. When Theresa May, not unreasonably, made this distinctions there was outrage.
Responding to Rosena Allin-Khan, Labour MP for Tooting, who claimed 2,500 children in her constitutency would ‘wake up homeless on Christmas day’, the prime minster rightly pointed out that this doesn’t mean that the streets of that South London district would be filled with homeless children. The constant reference to homeless children (Shelter claims a class-worth of children in every London school is homeless) is also cynically emotive. We need to deal in facts. These children are part of homeless households, not fending for themselves.
We need clarity if we are to find the solutions we need to end, or at least reduce, homelessness. But the figures, particularly for rough sleeping, are notoriously dodgy. According to Shelter about 9,000 people in England are sleeping rough on the streets, and another 9,000 on buses and in tents and cars. 78,000 households are living in temporary accommodation and there are around 300,000 homeless people across Britain. But if you look at the figures produced by local authorities (via headcounts and estimates), there were 4,134 people living on the streets in 2016, i.e. less than half the Shelter figure though still double that recorded in 2010. But whatever the correct figures are, behind the homelessness problem is longstanding multiple policy failure. From housing and welfare policy to mental health services things are going badly wrong and have been for some considerable time.
It is estimated that we need to build at least 250,000 homes a year (in the post-war period we were averaging 300,000). And yet we undershoot this by some margin year-on-year – house building in the UK peaked at 183,600 in 2007, reached a low of 75,350 in 2009 and is now averaging around 150,000 i.e. half of what the country needs. This is leading to a backlog of unmet demand, unfit housing stock and ever rising prices and rents. We don’t need to build affordable housing. We need to build so much housing that it becomes affordable.
But homelessness is not just a bricks and mortar problem. Mental health patients can find themselves homeless if they are discharged without the support they need. The number of homeless households categorised as a priority because of mental illness has gone up from 3,200 in 2010 to 5,470 in 2017. Homeless Link claims that 44% of homeless people have a diagnosed mental health problem. But, and this should cause us to doubt the robustness of mental health figures too, it also claims that 23% – nearly a quarter! – of the general population also have a mental health problem. So we have exaggeration here too.
According to Shelter eviction is the biggest single cause of homelessness at the moment. Welfare reform, the withdrawal of housing support, benefits freezes and benefits cuts are all widely understood to be having a considerable impact on people’s ability to afford to pay their rent. But it is also estimated that 70,000 young people (18-24 year olds) across Britain have claimed to be homeless in the past year. They are part of the ‘hidden homelessness’ problem, it is argued, made worse by their no longer being eligible for housing benefit. Here I have a problem: both with the suggestion that so many young people really have nowhere to go, and with the idea that the state should step in.
There has been a stark failure to build the housing we need. That must be tackled with some urgency until we are building well in excess of a quarter of a million homes a year. We also need to ensure that care and support is targeted at those who most need it; and that our sprawling, complex and clunky welfare system is up to the job of helping people when they need it without nannying young people into an extended state of adolescence.
If we are to address the problems that underlie the recent rises in homelessness, we need to be able to have frank debates about the welfare system and attitudes to the young, while recognising the complexity of the problem and the multitude of individual circumstances that can lead to the experience of homelessness, and without this becoming an excuse for inaction or a lack of ambition. Trying to address the growing issue of homelessness is difficult but it needn’t be intractable.
This is the text of my contribution to Rough Justice: A Public Discussion organised by Liverpool Salon with the Museum of Homelessness, at Tate Liverpool on 23 January as part of State of the Nation: Exchanges on Homelessness.