After five years of failure on housing, the Budget was a huge let-down. Under Conservative Ministers, housebuilding fell to its lowest peacetime level since the 1920s in the last Parliament, while home-ownership has also dropped sharply, housing benefit has risen and private rents have soared.
Particularly concerning is that since George Osborne became Chancellor, the number of people sleeping rough on our streets has doubled. It’s up 30 per cent in the last year alone.
So it’s welcome that in today’s Budget there was at least some recognition of this with some extra money to tackle rough sleeping.
But the hard truth ducked is that homelessness is a much deeper and wider problem than rough sleeping. Even headline “statutory homelessness” statistics are also only the tip of the iceberg, as they only capture those people who fall into a small number of so-called “priority need” groups like pregnant women and young people leaving care. This is why Labour has argued, alongside charities and academics, that a much better measure also includes “prevention and relief” cases where councils step in to stop families becoming homeless.
And at the weekend I released new figures showing this more comprehensive measure reveals that homelessness rose to 275,000 families last year, up 75,000 from 2010, and at the present rate of increase is set to hit almost 400,000 by 2020.
The homeless figures hide personal stories of hurt and hopelessness; thousands of people whose ordinary lives have fallen apart as a result of illness, debt, family break-up, addiction or redundancy. This spiralling scale of homelessness shames us all when Britain is one of the richest countries in the world. It is a test of our basic humanity.
But today’s Budget announcements are a bid to supress the symptoms of homelessness, not deal with the causes.
And the rapid rise over the last five years can be traced directly to decisions taken by George Osborne in previous Budgets which have led to big cuts in housing support, including cuts to housing benefit support worth over £5bn since 2010, cuts to “supporting people” funding for homelessness services by 45 per cent, soaring private rents and the loss of affordable homes – with over 100,000 fewer council homes than in 2010.
It is these wider housing policy failures and the lack of a long-term housing plan for the country that are driving the upward spiral of homelessness.
Meanwhile, the most important announcement needed from the Chancellor today – on the future of supported housing – was absent. George Osborne’s crude cut to housing benefit has put at risk thousands of specialist supported homes for homeless people and other vulnerable groups. But instead of exempting supported homes from this cut, as Labour has been calling on him to do, he simply confirmed that the change would be delayed by a year and in doing so made clear that he intends to go ahead with the cut.
Even if the Chancellor’s new funding is paid in full it will only recover £1 in every £5 he cut from housing support with crude across-the-board housing benefit changes in his Spending Review just four months ago. These cuts will close hundreds of homelessness hostels across the country and none of the much-needed new housing for homeless people will be commissioned until he confirms such specialist housing will be fully exempt for the future.
John Healey MP is shadow Secretary of State for Housing and Planning