What is the bold vision for preventing homelessness now?

Last week, the Government launched it’s ‘bold, radical vision for housing in this country’ via its Housing White Paper. The Prime Minister rightly acknowledges that ‘building the homes we need will take time’, so the ‘Government will continue to help people now by doing more to prevent homelessness and to help households currently priced out of the market’. So what more will be done now to prevent homelessness?  And why isn’t local housing allowance barely given a mention?

There is no doubt that bold, radical action is needed to tackle homelessness. It’s becoming the scourge of this decade.  Rough sleeping is an all-too-familiar manifestation of the impact of seven years of housing cuts. And hidden behind closed doors in every town and city, thousands and thousands of families (60,000 and counting) are raising children in temporary accommodation, with fragile security, and little hope of ever meeting their aspiration of a forever family home.

Following the White Paper’s publication, there was a great deal of debate about whether the measures it contains will fix Britain’s broken housing market – and how quickly.

But in the meantime, Shelter is working with families who are already at the sharp end of the broken housing market. They don’t have time on their side because their children need a decent home right now.

So what’s in the White Paper for them? How will the Government help people now?  What more will be done to prevent homelessness?  The specifics are contained in five paragraphs.

First there is a welcome acknowledgement that homelessness is the result of a failed housing market, rather than simply personal problems or lack of individual resilience.  The White Paper correctly concludes that ‘high and increasing costs in the private rented sector’ are putting struggling households at risk of homelessness.  The end of a private tenancy is by far the biggest cause of homelessness and this is often linked to affordability of rents.

So surely if the cost of private rents is the immediate problem, and genuinely affordable homes will take some time to plan and build, then the quick fix is to make sure that people can afford the market through the adequate provision of local housing allowance.

Disappointingly, the White Paper’s provides no answers on this front.  Housing benefit, the most effective and immediate tool in preventing homelessness when people are struggling with rents, is mentioned once in its 100 pages, and even then in the context of how it draws money away from schools, hospitals and ‘frontline services’.  But tackling homelessness is a frontline service, and the caps and freezes on local housing allowance are driving more low income renters, including thousands of working families, towards homelessness services rather than allowing them to find a home without extra help.  And long stays in temporary accommodation while waiting for an affordable home is creating additional knock-on costs to health and education.

Instead, the White Paper reiterates existing Government policy and funding:

  1. Support for the Homelessness Reduction Bill, which will require local authorities to offer help to keep or find a tenancy to all eligible applicants, backed by very short-term new burdens funding.  This will be combined with better data collection and a network of expert advisors to improve council service standards. We support this approach, but if it’s to tackle homelessness, we need affordable homes for councils to help people into.
  2. DCLG funding to help prevent or relieve homelessness, including the recent £40m programme.  This latter includes £20m over three years to 28 successful individual or groups of authorities to trail-blaze new, innovative approaches to preventing homelessness, with the remaining £20 going to tackle rough sleeping.  This prevention funding will certainly help in some areas – Birmingham, Brighton & Hove, Croydon, Luton and Kingston-upon-Thames were all allocated over £1m – but will it really be enough to help thousands of individual households with rent shortfalls avoid homelessness?
  3. Banning letting agent fees and exploring whether social lettings agencies might help people who struggle to access private tenancies.  The banning of letting fees is a great first step to helping people access the market.  But there are so many more barriers to accessing a private rental, which we’re currently analysing, and one of the biggest is that so many landlords are reluctant to let to claimants of frozen local housing allowance.For decades, we haven’t been building the genuinely affordable housing we need, so increasingly low income renters, and the councils who help them avoid homelessness, have had to resort to the market.

If the Government wants to be bold in preventing homelessness, it must – as a matter of urgency – end the freeze on local housing allowance to make sure that struggling families can access the market.  If the Chancellor is committed to ending homelessness, he must surely address this in next month’s budget.