‘Twas the night before Christmas, eight years ago, when Grant Shapps decided to sleep on the streets. He did so, by his own admission, as a publicity stunt – but one designed to raise publicity for the plight of the homeless. As he told a BBC reporter at the time, and recounted in a post for ConservativeHome, “your audience is finally able to hear about this crisis and it wasn’t because I sat behind a desk and wrote yet another report which was never read.”
Politics has changed immensely since then, not least for Shapps himself. Two-and-a-half years after his rough night out, he found a home as housing minister in the Coalition Government, meaning that he could combine publicity with actual policy – the StreetLink app came from his time at the DCLG. Then he was moved on to the Conservative Party chairmanship and the intricacies of a general election campaign. And now, with that campaign won, he is somewhere in the corridors of the Department for International Development.
But what has happened with the nation’s homelessness problem? The statistics aren’t encouraging. There were thought to be 2,744 people sleeping rough on any one night in England last year, which is 55 per cent higher than when comparable figures began in 2010. Yet these sorry cases aren’t the entirety of it. There are households who are regarded as homeless in a broader, statutory sense, and whom local authorities are obliged to help. They numbered 53,410 last year, which is 26 per cent higher than in 2010.
This mass tragedy isn’t something we hear much about, which serves to demonstrate Shapps’ original point. If a politician is discovered to have written embarrassing get-rich-quick pamphlets under an assumed name, Westminster does backflips. If homelessness worsens, as it is, the collective can barely even muster a raised eyebrow.
Perhaps homelessness is too complicated a problem for the evening news broadcasts. There is no single reason behind it, nor any one person to blame. Are the increases of the past several years a result of the economic downswing? Is that why they’re slowing now that growth has returned? Or are they to do with the absence of social housing? Or the presence of immigration? Or personal debt? Or drugs? The answer is necessarily open-ended: all of these and more.
Yet the Government, like all governments, can and should be challenged for its record. A more difficult question for them is whether their cuts are contributing – or will contribute – to the rise in homelessness. The charity Crisis certainly thinks so. A report that they and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation released earlier this year had an entire chapter on the effects of policies such as the benefits cap and the Housing Benefit reforms. It suggested that a) there are effects, and b) they aren’t good.
A loyal minister’s instinct, on reading such a report, might be to slander it as nonsense. He might reach for the words of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, who have said that housing benefit cuts can improve work incentives. But this is a failure of imagination and, worse, of empathy. It’s surely conceivable that, for people living on the margins, even marginal changes in income can mean the difference between a tough existence and a traumatic one. Politics needn’t be split between those who cheer every cut and those who deny that any need to be made.
This is why the Big Society was always more than just an advertising slogan. It was an attempt to occupy the sensible middle-land, where deficit reduction happens whilst its harsher effects are mitigated. And then it failed. The Big Society isn’t dead insofar as David Cameron never gave birth to it: there were hundreds of charities and volunteers helping the homeless before he came to power, and they continue to do so now. But is has perished as one of the Prime Minister’s policy concerns.
Of course, the Conservatives have also done good work for the homeless. There were the various schemes that Shapps supported during his time as housing minister, and others since. There is the Troubled Families programme that, although it has its problems, is a concerted effort to aid those whose lives can, too often, slide towards despair.
Yet we still might ask: where is the fire and the fury? Why are there so few warriors for these dispossessed? That was the phrase that Michael Gove used in his speech to mark the launch of The Good Right in March. It was a very fine speech, full of fine sentiments. Many of its passages – “Inequality remains the great social and political challenge of our time” – read as a kind of urtext for David Cameron’s recent address to the conference hall in Manchester. But I still managed to take issue with it at the time:
“It’s right to raise ladders to a good education, a happy home life, a secure old age. But what about those people who may never reach the lower rungs? For some, a happy marriage isn’t the aspiration, but simply getting their head straight after an abusive relationship. For others, even renting a home would be a dream, let alone buying one. For others still… well, you get the point. There’s a danger that Conservatives could neglect those who are especially dispossessed.”
As it happens, this isn’t a charge that could be levelled against Gove now that he has taken over at the Ministry of Justice. He is fighting on behalf of some of the most dispossessed people in the country: prisoners. Help them, and you can help anyone. Similarly, if you can house the homeless, you can house first-time buyers too.
Shapps summed it up adroitly on that Christmas Eve in 2007. “People think the housing ladder begins with getting your first mortgage,” he said, “but it begins with people sleeping on the streets.” As this majority Conservative Government finds its heart, and as the evenings grow colder, those words are worth remembering.