Last week in Parliament, there was a lot of attention paid to homelessness – and rightly so. Homelessness charity Shelter estimated that 281,000 people in the UK were homeless in 2019, which equates to 1 in every 250 of us. After a decade of austerity, the numbers of rough sleepers in England have more than doubled. This is both tragic and preventable.
Along with Crisis, Shelter and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Ending Homelessness*, I believe there are two main steps that can be taken to reduce homelessness dramatically. The first is to build more social rent properties and the second is to restore the Local Housing Allowance rates to at least the 30th percentile of local market rates.
Firstly, social housing. Social rent is set at around half of local market rent, making it much more affordable than typical rent in the private rented sector and providing vital stability to financially vulnerable families. Despite its importance, the delivery of social housing has plummeted in recent years. Whilst 40,000 social homes were built in 2009/10, Shelter reports that in 2018/19 only 6,287 were built (in Kirklees, it was just 58). Furthermore, including the number of social rent homes sold last year, there was actually a net loss of around 20,000 social properties across the country.
Why is this important? Given that there are other housing schemes such as affordable rent and affordable home ownership, it doesn’t sound like the reduction in one kind of property should be an issue. Yet it is. This is because affordable rent, set at 80% of local market rent, is not actually affordable for most people. Social housing is the only form of housing to offer genuine affordability and stability that families need, which is why it has to be at the centre of any solution to the national housing crisis. To end homelessness, we must provide enough genuinely affordable homes for people on the lowest incomes by building 100 000 social homes a year in England for the next 15 years. Recently, I have been particularly impressed by the Norwich Goldsmith Street social houses, which won the Stirling Prize; social housing can and should be well-designed, of high quality and pleasant to live in.
Secondly, the Local Housing Allowance. LHA is the way that housing benefit is calculated for people who are privately renting. Since 2011, LHA rates have been subject to several cuts and they have been frozen since 2016. Crisis’ 2018 survey of local authorities found that 91% of councils had seen homelessness rates increase in their area since the freeze, with 59% stating that this increase was ‘significant’.
I welcomed the Government’s announcement that they will end the freeze in April 2020. However, the proposals for a 1.7% increase do not go far enough in restoring rates to a sustainable level for renters. Shelter’s research shows that current LHA rates do not cover the cheapest third of rents in the private rental sector in 97% of England. Given that Government policy states the LHA should be covering local rents up to the 30th percentile, a major boost in benefit levels is needed so it can do its job.
This all matters for two reasons. Firstly, I believe access to housing for vulnerable people, such as women fleeing domestic abuse, is not a favour but a right. Secondly, it makes economic sense. Crisis states that restoring the housing benefit to cover the cheapest third of rents will lift 35,000 children out of poverty and bring financial benefits of £2.1 billion over three years from reduced costs from homelessness services and from reducing the use of temporary accommodation.
As Parliamentarians, we have a duty and an opportunity to improve access to housing for those who need it most. That is why I will be working with Homeless Link and various other housing initiatives going forwards to ensure homelessness remains high on the Government’s agenda.
*I would like to thank Crisis and Shelter for the excellent and informative briefings they shared with me ahead of Wednesday’s homelessness debate.