New homelessness legislation is welcome – but we need social housing to make it work

George Osborne's approach should be consigned to the dustbin of history


Last Friday a private member’s bill aimed at reducing homelessness received government support to begin its passage through Parliament.

Any legislation that confronts spiralling homelessness in England should be welcomed. That having been said, the actions proposed under the bill are unlikely, taken in isolation from low house-building in recent years and cuts in benefits, to achieve their intended impact.

While new legal obligations placed on local councils under the bill to support people at risk of homelessness, regardless of whether they are deemed to be in ‘priority need’ as now, are welcome, against the backdrop of housing shortages and ‘welfare reforms’ aimed at the most vulnerable, these obligations won’t have the impact they should.

The bill has received government support as the number of homeless acceptances by local councils has climbed by 44 per cent between 2009/10 and 2015/16 to just under 58,000, Over the same period, the number of families in temporary accommodation stands at almost 72,000, or 39 per cent higher than under the last year of Labour government.

Startling is the escalation in the number of households applying to local councils and accepted but for which no solution has been found. Close to 7,000 homeless households were in this position in 2015/16 – up 83 per cent from 2009/10. Presumably, many of these are sleeping rough or ‘sofa surfing’. Street homelessness will surely continue to grow as scheduled benefit cuts begin to bite.

Despite some progressive noises on housing policy coming out of the May-led government – at least the horrible ‘strivers v. shirkers’ rhetoric has receded – the Autumn Statement on 23rd November will be the test of a change in policy.

According to the diaries of former deputy-prime minister Nick Clegg, social housing was anathema to Cameron and Osborne, who slashed social housing investment and extended the Right-to-Buy.


Yet as the chart shows, house-building of 200,000 homes each year – the target set by Osborne for every year of this Parliament, meaning one million homes by 2020 – has not been achieved since 1980. While this number of new homes was reached regularly during the early 1950s to the late 1970s, this only came about by social housing forming a significant proportion of the total homes provided.

Last year, just 140,000 new homes were provided and it is unlikely that this year’s figure will be appreciably higher. The consequence of this is that the one million target is probably already at least 110,000 behind schedule, requiring that house-building reaches more than 235,000 for each of the next three years.

A lack of recognition by today’s government of the role social housing plays in housing the nation, eradicating homelessness, in boosting local economies as infrastructure investment, and as better value for money than housing benefit spending on higher private rents, will consign Osborne’s target to the dustbin of history.

Kevin Gulliver is Director of Birmingham-based research charity the Human City Institute, writing in a personal capacity. Follow him on Twitter @kevingulliver

See also: Over 120,000 children in the UK will be homeless this Christmas

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