AS FIGURES showed rough sleeping in England increased for the seventh consecutive year, Jeremy Corbyn promised a Labour government would immediately buy 8,000 homes to tackle the crisis. Official government data shows that on any given night in autumn last year, 4,751 people were recorded sleeping on the streets, a figure that has more than doubled since 2010.
Crisis, the national charity for homeless people, reported that the true number of rough sleepers was far greater after its own research found that more than 8,000 people were currently sleeping rough across England. They also warned that the current figure is predicted to rise to 15,000 by 2026 if action isn’t taken. This is on top of an additional 9,000 homeless people sleeping in tents, cars, trains and buses.
Not all homeless people sleep permanently outdoors. Using official government data and freedom of information returns from local authorities, another homeless charity Shelter estimates that more than 300,000 people are sleeping rough or accommodated in temporary housing, bed and breakfast rooms, or hostels. The latest figures mean that in prosperous Britain, one in every 200 people is without a place to live.
Shelter points out that the single leading cause of recorded homelessness is the ending of a private tenancy, accounting for three in every 10 cases, and often triggered by a combination of spiralling rents and housing benefit cuts. A record number of renters are being evicted from their homes, with more than 100 tenants a day losing the roof over their head according to the Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research.
The problem has been aggravated by the lack of any major home building programme over the last 30 years. Since Right to Buy was introduced by Thatcher in 1980, 2 million properties have moved into the private sector while just 345,000 were built to replace them. The number of people on waiting lists for council housing stands at 1,240,855 in England, and 173,587 in Scotland (24,909 applicants in Edinburgh alone). And these figures have been lowered by increasing the criteria for inclusion.
The burgeoning crisis in housing supply is increasing social and intergenerational inequality. Some 3.3 million 20-24 year olds live with their parents due to exorbitant rents while there are around 1.3 million households in England on local authorities’ housing waiting lists.
It is young people priced out of home ownership – the average home now costs almost eight times average earnings – that partly helped explain the 2017 election upset. Labour outpolled the Tories in every age group below 50. In their election manifesto, Labour pledged to build 100,000 council and housing association homes a year by the end of the current parliamentary term. Labour also promised an inflation cap on rent rises and more secure tenancies.
When pressed during the campaign for details on how much grant a Labour government would give to local councils for house building, the Shadow Housing Minister John Healey said Labour would restore grant funding to the 2009/10 level of £4 billion. However this is inadequate. At a cost of about £60,000 per home, the actual grant needed to build 100,000 council houses per year would need to be at least £6 billion per year.
Labour also needs to confront the contradiction of empty homes alongside homelessness. Despite a desperate need for housing, the government’s own figures show that 200,000 properties have been empty for more than six months. Last year Jeremy Corbyn called for the empty homes of rich people in Kensington to be seized for Grenfell Tower residents who have been made homeless by the fire. This should be Labour policy.
Local councils have powers to take over these empty properties and return them to use as homes through empty dwelling management orders (EDMOs). Very few councils use this power because they rely on private landlords to house those in need of social housing.
If councils don’t act, the labour movement should evoke the spirit of 1946. Throughout the autumn of that year, tens of thousands of people, mostly ex-servicemen and their families, moved into empty military camps, hotel rooms and flats across the country. On Great Squat Sunday, September 8th, about 1,500 people took over empty flats in Kensington, Pimlico and St. John’s Wood.
In December 2016 activists with the Irish Housing Network occupied Apollo House in Dublin following the deaths of homeless people on the streets. It was opened up as emergency accommodation and up to 40 rough sleepers moved in. Apollo House was later vacated after the Irish government promised the residents would be housed in appropriate settings with support: a promise that was later broken.
With socialist policies such as councils taking over private homes, rent caps in the private sector, and a massive council house building programme, Labour has the potential to end the current housing crisis. And homelessness is not just a housing issue. The introduction of a living wage and living benefits for all, along with statutory tenancy sustainment services and social care that meets people’s needs, will need to be introduced to support rough sleepers off the streets and make meaningful choices about their future.