The new Homelessness Act fails to tackle the real cause of the housing crisis

The Act has noble aims. But it is a sticking plaster for a problem of the Tories' making.

The Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 comes into force today. It is the government’s attempt to tackle the homelessness crisis. And while it has good intentions – it covers up some awkward facts. 

Many of the reforms the Act enshrines in law are welcome – if somewhat late – and aim to eradicate homeless within a decade. And many are similar to those enacted by governments past.

What the Act does

The Act seeks to reduce homelessness, which has increased by 48% over the last eight years, by extending the ‘threatened with homelessness’ period from 28 to 56 days, enabling more time for statutory authorities and homelessness charities to intervene.

It also places a duty on local councils to prevent homelessness – even as many councils have reduced homelessness services in the face of overall local government spending cuts.

Before the Bank Holiday weekend, the government also announced a new £30m fund to tackle rough sleeping, which has soared by 168% since 2010. This will aid the many initiatives already on the ground and introduced by devolved combined authorities in London, the West Midlands and in Greater Manchester.

Other public services, such as health, education and social services, will need to notify their local councils if they identify a homeless households or someone at risk of becoming homeless.

And local councils will have a duty to provide advisory services on homelessness and preventing homelessness, which many already provided pre-2010, before the burden of reducing the structural deficit was disproportionately loaded onto local government by then Chancellor George Osborne.

The catch

Despite some limited new funding linked to the Act, is difficult to see how under-funded local councils will be able to make meaningful in-roads into the problem: nearly 80,000 families are in temporary accommodation – a 50% upswing since the Tories came to power – and more than 1.2m households on local waiting lists.

 

Indeed, the Act represents an implicit admission by the government of the consequences of cuts to local government funding, and perhaps more importantly, to social housing, over the last eight years.

Even as it is welcomed by homeless charities like Shelter and Crisis, the Act is an acknowledgement of housing policy failure in the sixth richest economy in the world.

This failure is most acutely illustrated by the acceleration in the decline of social housing since 2010, with new house-building by social landlords concentrating on the government’s priority of ‘affordable rent’ – which has rents set £35 per week higher than social housing on average.

There is no recognition by the Tories that the Act is a sticking plaster, nor that the major causes of homelessness are the government’s own welfare reforms, growing affordability problems, and insecurity in the private rented sector, which has grown from 13% to 20% of total housing in the last decade.

The growth in so-called ‘affordable’ and private renting is one of the reasons the housing benefit has ballooned while social house-building has all but disappeared.

Clearly, Theresa May’s government is of the more ‘caring’ variety than that led by David Cameron. In this sense, it mimics the change in emphasis between the Thatcher and Major governments in 1990.

However, the Act does not a housing strategy make. Such a strategy to meet the growing and evolving housing needs of Britain remains beyond the Tories – unless they own up to the mistakes made in the last eight years.

 

Kevin Gulliver is Director of Birmingham-based research charity the Human City Institute, is former Chair of the Centre for Community Research, and part of the SHOUT save social housing campaign, but writes in a personal capacity. 

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