John Healey is Shadow Secretary of State for Housing, and MP for Wentworth and Dearne.
“Homelessness is a tragedy for all of us” Theresa May said just before Christmas. She’s right. And it’s a tragedy that could be avoided, and stopped from getting worse.
The recent rapid rise in homelessness is alarming. In the last six years, the number of people sleeping rough on our streets has more than doubled – up 50 per cent in the last two years alone. The number of homeless households has risen by almost half to nearly 60,000, and this winter over 100,000 children are without a home.
Homelessness is not inevitable, and we know what works because we’ve done it before. The Prime Minister could lead a new national mission to end it, and help give her Government a clearer domestic programme at the same time.
Many remember the mass homelessness of the 1980s and 1990s, with tent cities in central London. But whatever Conservatives think about the housing legacy of the last Labour government, it would be grudging not to recognise that one of our biggest successes was reducing rough sleeping by around three-quarters. We set out a comprehensive intervention plan, ground-breaking legislation, fresh investment, and a target to cut rough sleeping homelessness by two-thirds – delivered a year early.
In doing so we built on the good work of a Conservative Housing Minister, Sir George Young. Homelessness could and should be again a cross-party commitment, with a new national will to solve the growing problem.
In government, we believed – as I’ve heard present Ministers also say – that Britain is too decent and too well off to put up with people sleeping on our streets. But to our national shame, thousands of people this winter are sleeping in doorways and on park benches for want of a place to stay.
Labour is willing to work with Conservative Ministers – just as we did in helping the cross-party homelessness reduction bill safely through the Commons.
But the hard truth for Conservatives is that this homelessness crisis is a direct result of some of their Ministers’ decisions over the last six years. Last year as a country, we built fewer new affordable homes to rent and buy than in any year for 24 years, despite Ministers relaxing the definition of what counts as ‘affordable’ beyond breaking point to include new ‘starter homes selling at up to £450,000 in London or £250,000 outside.
We’ve also seen little help for private renters beyond a future ban on upfront agent’s fees for tenants, and deep cutbacks to funding for homelessness charities of 45 per cent and around £5 billion worth of cuts in housing benefit payments.
Whatever our disagreements about the Government’s policy and fiscal choices over the last seven years, we can surely agree that as a country we must do better in stopping the scourge of rising homelessness.
While we’ve joined the Conservative government in backing the recent Homelessness Reduction Bill, it’s imperative that we also get to grips with the causes of homelessness. You can’t help the homeless if you don’t build the homes, which is why I’d welcome Ministers’ support for Labour’s plan for 4,000 additional housing association homes to be earmarked for rough sleepers to help them move out of hostels and rebuild their lives, with government funding new social rented homes to replace them. Again, this would reinforce a scheme that Sir George first set up just for London in the early 1990s.
Homelessness is one thing on which Conservative and Labour politicians could agree, so as her Ministers finalise their much-delayed housing White Paper, Theresa May should tell them to make this her Government’s first priority in chapter one.