During the last Parliament, it was all Sweden, Sweden, Sweden. This was mostly thanks to Michael Gove importing some of their school reforms, but it also helped that they had a centre-right government implementing tax cuts for the low paid. Let’s learn from the Swedish example, a thousand voices said. And we did.
In the early months of the current Parliament, this rampant Swedophilia has died down. Free schools are not as novel – and therefore, for the mass of pundits, not as exciting – as they once were. That centre-right government has been displaced by one from the left. Time and politics have moved on.
Where can the restless minds of Westminster go to now for policy ideas? My travel recommendation is another Nordic country, just a little bit further to the east. It’s only a single border crossing away from Sweden. A land of forests and lakes. The locals call it Suomi, although we know it as Finland.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about Britain’s homelessness problem. Finland has a homelessness problem too. Among their population of roughly 5.5 million people, 8,316 counted as homeless at the end of last year. 2,443 of these were classed as “long-term homeless,” which means that their homelessness has lasted (or threatened to last) for over year, or that they have been made repeatedly homeless in the past three years. These are not happy numbers.
Yet there is joy in the trends. Whereas Britain’s homelessness problem has worsened in recent years, Finland’s has actually improved. The overall total is about 5.5 per cent lower than it was in 2008. The number of long-term homeless has declined by about a third. And all this despite the ghastly effects of the crash, after which the Finnish economy shrank by 8.3 per cent in one year. It was still technically shrinking, if only by fractions, last year.
So far, the measures of homelessness that I’ve cited are broad ones; they include such determinants as people staying temporarily with their relatives. If we consider just the severest form of the problem – rough sleeping – Finland’s achievements are even more remarkable. In the thirty years to 2008, the number of people sleeping on the streets fell from around 4,000 to around 1,000. At the end of last year it was 362.
This raises Finland to a unique, exalted position in Europe. As a recent EU-wide study put it, “The number of people experiencing homelessness has increased in all countries under review, with the notable exception of Finland.”
But how have they managed it? The same study continues: “The sustained political ambition to end homelessness and the effective policies in place explain most of the decrease in Finland.” Ah, there it is! Press a highlighter to that phrase “sustained political ambition”. Underline it too.
The policies of successive Finnish governments had already reduced the number of homeless people by 10,000 when, in 2008, Matti Vanhanen’s administration decided to go all out. They introduced a programme, called PAAVO I, for halving long-term homelessness by 2011. This was followed by PAAVO II, natch, which aimed to eradicate it by this year. Sustained political ambition. It’s just like those academics said.
The PAAVO programmes were founded on an idea of stunning simplicity: that homeless people need homes. Instead of the usual approach, whereby the homeless have to work through their problems (substance abuse, mental health issues, etc.) before they can go anywhere near permanent accommodation, Finland decided to start with the accommodation and only then get to work on the other problems. The official name for it is Housing First.
And so millions of euros were provided by the government – but also via the socially enterprising Finnish Slot Machine Association – for either building new housing, converting it from homelessness shelters, or freeing up existing stock. According to the most comprehensive report on the subject, some 2,500 dwellings have been produced this way since 2008.
The homeless folk who move into these dwellings do so under tenancy agreements. I’m not sure whether it’s written into these agreements, or doesn’t need to be, but one condition is that they meet with the professionals who are there to help. Dozens of people are on hand, from carers to job advisers, to ensure that Housing First starts but doesn’t end with housing. Finland has created an immense network for thwarting homelessness and its causes.
Of course, policies don’t always travel well. British importers might quibble and point out that PAAVO II hasn’t actually met it goal of ending long-term homelessness this year. They may add that housing programmes aren’t so easy over here. But, even if we accept these caveats, there is still something in the Finnish example. It shows that proper, concerted state action can get stuff done. This fact oughtn’t be obscured by ideology from either side of our politics.
Not too long ago, it seemed as though Britain’s legislators had some of that sustained political ambition of their own. The Rough Sleepers Initiative of 1990-99 was followed by New Labour’s Homelessness Action Programme, and more. The problem was reducing. But then the financial crisis swept in and the ambition was swept aside. There have been some initiatives since, but precious little strategy and even less concern. As I asked in my original post, “where is the fire and fury?”
Finland has it. Britain could do with some. There are other things that might interest us in that country, including their education system, but let’s start with their homelessness policies. After all, housing first.