A new report by the Public Accounts Committee makes clear the immense human cost of government policyby Meg Hillier / January 4, 2018 / Leave a comment
Back in 1994 when B&Bs were routinely used as temporary accommodation for homeless people I thought it could not get any worse. But in 2018 the reality of homelessness is even more disgraceful.
The cross-party Public Accounts Committee, of which I am chair, has been examining the government’s approach to housing and homelessness. Our recent “Homeless Households” report highlights the folly of policies which do nothing to solve homelessness, ramp up human misery—and still end up costing more money. The government’s approach to tackling this crisis quite simply makes no sense.
The rise in rents in the south east and the introduction of the benefit cap means that it is practically impossible for many families to afford a suitable home. There are now over 9,000 people estimated to be sleeping rough. But the focus of the committee’s work has been the human cost for those who have no home but are not so visible.
Any frontline social or charity worker in London—or any other expensive part of the country—will know a family living in another family’s sitting room. They will know the family that rides the night bus to stay warm while waiting for temporary accommodation and, increasingly, the family for whom the one room in a mixed hostel is home for a year or two.
Homelessness charity Crisis estimates there are 160,000 households living in acute homelessness—just under a quarter of a million people in total. This includes people in emergency accommodation and those who are “sofa surfing.” Since 2010 the number of households in temporary accommodation has increased by a staggering 60 per cent—and 120,000 children now call this accommodation home.
That has an unacceptable human cost, and is also expensive, with many families living in high cost, nightly rate hostel rooms as councils struggle to find any home where rent can be covered by housing benefit. These families, which once would have moved on to permanent homes after a short period, are now languishing in overcrowded and unsuitable accommodation for up to three years. It is the fate of these families that our Committee’s report highlights.
“Since 2010 the number of households in temporary accommodation has increased by a staggering 60 per cent”
The government’s efforts to row back on spending has only shunted costs to other parts of the system. Local authorities now spend £1.1 billion tackling homelessness each year. Welfare reforms have seen more households in private tenancies become homeless. Since 2010, the ending of these tenancies accounts for 74 per cent of the growth in households who qualify for temporary accommodation.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) suggests that people choose to live in expensive areas, and that perhaps this contributes to homelessness. But the benefit cap bears no relation to real rent levels, and this view takes no account of the reality of life—the cost, both human and financial, of upheaval and uncertainty. The need to be close to work or school. These things seem not to be of concern to the DWP.
The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) is a mouse in Whitehall. In a government system which still measures success by size of budget it struggles in its role as housing champion. And so much of what it needs to deliver is carried out by local authorities whose budgets have been slashed.
When officials appeared in front of the Public Accounts Committee before Christmas, they clung to the Homelessness Reduction Act as a solution. This will come into force in April 2018, and will require local authorities to intervene earlier to prevent more people from becoming homeless. But legislation will not make up for a lack of supply of housing—and a complete lack of understanding about what is affordable.
And nowhere is the government properly taking into account of the knock-on costs to the taxpayer of policy failure. DCLG has adopted a light touch approach and focussed on street homelessness. But it is the rise of hidden homelessness that alarmed the committee most of all. We were shocked to see so little understanding of the nature, extent and impact of this. And this is not knee-jerk Labour opposition—our committee includes members of four political parties and our report was unanimous.
The government needs to get a grip. This is a crisis that has too high a human cost to be ignored, as well as serious fiscal implications. Stable homes provide firm foundations that allow people to work and secure an education—and so when that stability is taken a way, society as a whole loses out.
Those people living on someone’s sofa are losing out today, but unless we see real action this crisis will create yet more problems in future. 2018 is the year we need government action.