While there are some welcome anti-poverty measures in the autumn statement, it’s disappointing that the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, misfired in his aim to ‘protect the most vulnerable’ when it comes to struggling renters at risk of homelessness this winter.
First, let’s look at the good stuff.
Help with heating and eating
- The spending measure grabbing headlines is the increase to Universal Credit from next April, in line with September’s rate of inflation (10.1%). This will be a relief for households struggling to put food on the table as inflation soars. This is not an additional support measure from the chancellor, but the usual rate by which benefits increase each year – it was only ever in doubt due to suggestions from the government that it might not happen. But housing benefit for private renters isn’t included in this uprating (see more below).
- Another vital measure is the increase to the household benefit cap in line with inflation, also from next April. This shows the government understands that capped households don’t receive necessary increases to benefits. But, while welcome, this measure simply doesn’t go far enough. We’ve called for the cap to be abolished, or at the very least reviewed. It’s a brutal and unfair austerity policy, which creates a barrier to people getting off the streets and into a settled home or avoiding homelessness when fleeing domestic abuse.
- The additional cost of living payments next year, of up to £900 for households in receipt of most means-tested benefits, is also welcome. But with the energy price cap forecast to rise by £1000 next April, these payments will inevitably go into keeping the lights on for low-income households.
- Finally, the £1bn to extend the Household Support Fund into 2023/24, will help councils provide emergency support to families struggling with the basics – again food, energy bills, and other urgent essentials. But, again, this doesn’t cover rents except in exceptional circumstances.
But, the statement contained few measures to tackle our housing emergency and avert growing homelessness for struggling renters this winter.
No increase to Local Housing Allowance
The crucial missing element was support for private renters. The Treasury has confirmed that Local Housing Allowance, which sets the amount of housing benefit that private renters can receive, will stay frozen again next year. Shockingly, this leaves housing benefit frozen (at levels based on 2018-19 rents) until at least March 2024, when rents have increased at their fastest-ever recorded rate.
We’ve already shown how frozen housing benefit contributes to rising homelessness because families claiming housing benefit can’t afford most rentals on the market. Now, councils are reporting that they’re even running out of temporary accommodation for homeless families in the face of a ‘tidal wave’ of demand. And that this is further exacerbated by frozen Local Housing Allowance, which ‘does not reflect the reality of the housing market, and tips more of our residents closer to homelessness’.
A whopping 7% increase to social rents
The autumn statement confirmed that social renters also face large rent increases next year – of up to 7%. This is very concerning. While some tenants will have this rise covered by housing benefit, others won’t – and will face hardship, eviction and homelessness. During a cost of living crisis, and with a two-year recession on the horizon, tenants shouldn’t bear the responsibility of the government to make sure councils are properly funded. Nor should struggling tenants be responsible for the poor financial management and bad maintenance of some social landlords.
No recognition that social housing is vital infrastructure
Finally, the chancellor neglected to mention that social housing is as vital infrastructure as the ‘good roads, rail, broadband and 5G’ needed for a modern economy and necessary ‘to allow wealth and opportunity to spread’. Investment in a new generation of social housing is needed for both economic growth and to avert the growing demand for health and social care.
We need action now
While the autumn statement is a good start, we now need urgent action to protect struggling renters, who’ll be key voters at the next election. The government must:
- restore local housing allowance
- invest in social housing
- bring forward the Renters’ Reform Bill to protect tenants from Section 21 ‘no-fault’ evictions