Are Pickles and Shapps misleading the public on homelessness?

Jenny Pennington, research assistant at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), examines Eric Pickles and Grant Shapps's claims on homelessness.

Slumming in: Housing minister Grant Shapps experiences homelessness for one night

Jenny Pennington is a research assistant at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)

Communities secretary Eric Pickles and housing minister Grant Shapps acted swiftly this week to deny claims in a leaked departmental memo that the government’s benefit reforms risk making 40,000 families homeless.

Closer examination, however, shows Mr Shapps has done so through conflating and confusing two separate ways of understanding homelessness as a means of obfuscation.

Homelessness has been a genuine concern of the housing minister since picking up his shadow brief.

Following the announcement of the benefit cap policy – which limits the amount of benefits paid to an out-of-work household to the median family income, currently around £26,000 a year – he said:

“People like me – who set up a homelessness foundation, worked with all the homeless charities, authored probably six of seven homelessness papers – don’t make changes without thinking through the impact of them on the homeless.

“It is ludicrous to suggest that we would ever do things that would end with people living on our streets.”

Mr Shapps dismissed Sunday’s memo for the same reasons.

When the memo was written, he told The Guardian, the government was unsure it would be able to meet its house building targets. They are now sure they will. Families will not be made homeless, he argued, as there will be enough homes.

He went on to confidently tell the BBC:

“I see no reason for this to lead to homelessness… This won’t lead to more people on the streets.”

But being “on the streets” is only one reality of homelessness.

Indeed, the 40,000 figure mentioned in the Department for Communities and Local Government memo referred to the number of families accepted as homeless by their local councils. These families, made homeless when they are forced out of their homes when benefit changes make them unaffordable, will not end up on the streets, since the council has a duty to find them alternative housing.

In arguing that enough homes will lead to an end to homelessness, Mr Shapps’s comments appear to simply conflate homelessness with rough sleeping, relying on the confusion of what is often misunderstood and downplaying the real crises faced by these vulnerable families.

If warnings from organisations such as London Councils are realised, this could include children being uprooted from schools, and families being housed far away from their communities, support and prospective jobs, making recovering from a difficult situation even harder.

Mr Shapps announced a funding boost for the homelessness sector on Thursday of £20 million to support the roll out of an innovative project that aims to engage people found sleeping on the streets to ensure they are able to be moved into appropriate accommodation. But while this announcement is welcome, it is unlikely to deliver additional support to the families made homeless by the benefit cap.

More significantly for them was a report issued on the very same day by the Local Government Ombudsman warning of the likely impact of funding cuts on the crucial engagement support homeless families rely on. The report warned overstretched councils are failing to deal properly with homelessness applications, delaying decisions or refusing to provide suitable accommodation to those in need.

Mr Shapps is perhaps correct in asserting the memo does not claim benefit changes will lead to more people on the streets. This does not, however, make the problem of homeless families any less critical.

Without a full and frank discussion around the risks of families being made homeless, and effective funding of essential services to help them access the housing support they are owed and need, this may well become a reality.

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  • Dave Citizen

    It’s about time a UK government acted to ensure the housing stock the country has gets used in the interests of our communities. I live in an area where there are literally hundreds of ’empty’ homes – many of them being the best houses in the area.

    The owners of these properties come for a few weeks of the year, for holidays or whatever. In some roads there are more ‘second’ homes than first, leaving the community vacant during the less popular months of the year.

    Meanwhile, some full-time working families have no chance whatsoever of buying their own house, instead having to rent from people who hold property as investments.

    If there ain’t enough for all families to have a somewhat decent home then we clearly don’t have enough to allow houses to be kept empty as investments or second, third, fourth etc. houses.

    At the very least, taking a house out of full use for luxury purposes should come with a heavy tax to help mitigate the impact on others in the community that are left without.

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  • Robert

    here here…. I live in an area of beaches and villages and in my area it’s no joke to say during the winter some villages are totally empty but for six weeks of the year they are full, and people do not pay tax on an empty house. which is wrong, or lower taxes.

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  • Leon Wolfson

    Absolutely, Dave.

    And I’d say we have to go further in areas with high housing demand. Not to mention rent boards, and compulsory work orders on sub-standard properties, of which there are a terrifying number.

  • George McLean

    And, once again, can I call for a land value tax that will apply to all land including that on which a second, third, etc home is built.

  • Leon Wolfson

    A plain LVT will simply inflate rental values, George. Worse, it will discourage social enterprises, etc, since they would have to pay LVT on top of low/peppercorn rents.

  • Dave Citizen

    If we 1st agree a basic housing principle – along lines that it’s a bad thing to have one person owning houses for occasional luxury use in communities where plenty of hard working people can’t afford to buy a half decent house – then I’m sure workable policies are findable.

    I know that Finland operates a progressive tax system with incremental increases as ownership of land / property moves up a luxury escalator – own home low tax, second home higher tax, third home higher still etc. Sounds reasonable to me. But if it doesn’t achieve the goal of bringing homes and land into much fuller use, move to other steps.

    Come on Cameron, give it go. You know your rich mates will thank you in the long run!!!???

  • Dave Citizen

    Leon – on the private rented sector, I quite agree that rent/ minimum standards boards of some sort are required. Not only could they ensure that rich profiteers are squeezed out of a most basic area of need but would also make our workforce more employable and our economy more competitive by bringing down the minimum pay that people can work for (and/or remove the need for so much top-up benefits!). Raising standards might also help with keeping us fit and healthy when we are at work.

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  • Mr. Sensible

    so in other words ministers are using a different definition ofhomelessness than their civil servants?

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  • Leon Wolfson

    Dave – Yes. Although it’s not on landlords alone. Energy companies need to be forced not to massively overcharge on top-up meters, which a lot of the poorest are ripped off on, and to hold accounts in joint names of several tenants…right now, one person has to hold it, even though legally all the tenants are jointly liable for the bills…

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  • Clare Fernyhough

    ‘These families, made homeless when they are forced out of their homes when benefit changes make them unaffordable, will not end up on the streets, since the council has a duty to find them alternative housing.’

    What is the point of forcing them to move out if councils have to then rehouse them costing them more in the process? It just doesn’t make sense.

    This is not exclusive to London, but applies to the whole of the UK. There are also 8 million social housing tenants, two thirds of whom claim some level of housing benefit (including pensioners and the working poor). The government is forcing housing associations and councils to raise rents exponentially until 2025 whilst cutting housing benefits, which will result in tenants having to move out in the very near future. The majority of these rents are set at very reasonable levels; the London situation has distorted the argument with regard to housing benefit cost.

    The remainder of the working tenants paying full rent will need to earn at least average wage levels to afford the much higher proposed rents; those earning minimum wage don’t have a chance and there must be a considerable amount of them living in social housing. But where are they supposed to move to? Most find it hard to afford current social housing rents and cannot afford to rent in the private sector.

    Government documentation says that social housing tenants claiming benefits will be forced to move into the private housing sector and claim Local Housing Allowance, but the revised levels mean they bear no relation to actual rents in the area. For example, here is Staffordshire, the ‘single room allowance’ is £44 per week: there are no rooms in the area priced at this level. Also, the majority of landlords in this area will not accept benefit recipients.

    Unless these people can find accommodation with their relations or friends then they will be homeless; even if they could this will lead to overcrowding issues and put enormous pressure on family relationships. We are not just talking 40,000 people here then, but possibly millions of people who have nowhere else to go, who already had homes, but who are now forced back to the council to house them: but they cannot afford to rent anything they are offered anyway!!

    What about the next generation of the working poor, vulnerable, disabled, pensioners and the unemployed? Where are they supposed to live? Does Shcapps think that they will magically disappear or not exist?

    Within 10 years no person claiming housing benefit or working for minimum wage will be able to afford to rent social housing. Let us be clear about this therefore: it means the end of social housing, and year by year, the slow withdrawal of housing subsidies for the poor until the benefits become worthless. We could face a humanitarian crisis on our own doorstep.

  • Leon Wolfson

    And within five years, nobody claiming housing benefit will be able to live anywhere with jobs.

    They know this. The answer has to be they don’t care.

  • Clare Fernyhough

    Leon – precisely. They are being priced out of the very areas where they possibly could find work, and to say that they should commute is ignorant: people earning minimum wage couldn’t possibly afford to.

    People keep banging on about ‘they should live within their means’ or ‘they should move to cheaper properties’, but they just don’t seem to get it: social housing in most areas IS the cheapest housing they could afford!

    They may well not care, but when the consequences start to sink in across the UK, there will be many hundreds of thousands of people who will refuse to move. I’m lucky to live on a small semi rural estate, but some other local estates are really ‘rough’; I’d like to see them try to move the occupants out there! It could lead to massive social unrest, but perhaps that’s what needs to happen in order for the government to start take notice.

  • Leon Wolfson

    Maybe – But they can spin as civil disorder, discrediting other forms of civil disorder, and play to the press on it as well.

    What I want to hear, really, is an alternate plan from Labour on this. And I don’t think a realistic plan can escape (and I’m focused on housing benefit, not social housing, please realise) rent boards.

    As I’ve said before, even much of America – with it’s terror of socalism – has no problem with and uses rent boards. It’s perfectly compatible with the middle ground, as are taxes on unused properties.

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