The cross-party homelessness reduction bill, which is due to come back to the house of commons for report stage and third reading on 27 January, yesterday received funding from the government, who confirmed that they will provide £48m to local government in order to fund the costs of this bill.
Labour is supporting this cross-party bill, as we recognise that urgent action is required to tackle the rising homelessness crisis. Labour’s record on homelessness is one of our proudest achievements in government. From 1997-2010, statutory homelessness fell by almost two-thirds, from over 100,000 households to 40,000, whilst the number of people sleeping rough fell by roughly three-quarters between 1998 and 2009. Since then, we have seen a shocking rise in the number of rough sleepers and homeless households, which is why we have recently committed to end rough sleeping within our first term in office, and are pledging 4,000 new permanent social rented homes reserved for rough sleepers.
The homelessness reduction bill seeks to impose radical new duties on local authorities, in order to bring about a cultural shift in the way they deal with homeless applicants. The bill aims to tackle two areas that homelessness charities have been lobbying the government on; firstly, a greater focus on prevention duties, and secondly, opening up the homelessness process to single homeless people, and not just those in priority need. Crisis, in particular, have led the way on these two issues, and along with Shelter and St. Mungo’s, have done crucial work in highlighting the need for legislative change and in securing the government’s support for this Bill.
Labour has said from the start that while new legislation to tackle the scandal of high and rising homelessness is welcome, it must be fully funded. Yesterday, the minister for homelessness, Marcus Jones, announced in a written statement that the government will provide £48m to local government to meet the new burdens costs associated with the bill over the course of the spending review; £35.4m will be provided to local authorities in 2017-18, £12.1m in 2018-19, whilst in 2019-20 funding for the new duties will cease altogether. This raises serious concerns as it suggests that ministers will not honour the promise made in the house of commons that “the government will fund the additional costs of the bill”.
The sum of £35m offered for the next financial year, when divided between councils, is likely to be less than the estimates made by authorities themselves. Lewisham council alone estimates that the new duties could cost it £2.38m a year, whilst the Association of Housing Advice Services, a non-profit organisation, estimates London’s 32 boroughs will face a combined bill of £161m to implement the new duties.
Moreover, what is particularly worrying is that the funding falls to zero within two years, despite the fact there is no evidence provided by the government that savings will offset costs by this time. The Local Government Association (LGA) has stated that “it is impossible to know how many people will come forward to access the new duties, what the impact of the bill will be on different groups over time, and therefore the funding councils need to deliver duties that reduce homelessness”. It is therefore essential that ministers both provide the calculations on which this claim is based and that they agree to a full review of costs after one to two years, as the LGA has requested.
Finally, the problem that has beset the bill from the start is no nearer resolution; the government’s approach to this bill has been to look at the issues it addresses in a vacuum, rather than within the wider context. The government has thus failed to acknowledge that the largest single cause of homelessness is the arbitrary ending of tenancies by landlords in the private rented sector seeking greater returns for their properties. This is a growing problem, to which Labour proposed two solutions at the last election – imposing a cap on rent increases during tenancies, and making all assured shorthold tenancies a minimum of three years.
However, we are aware that legislation alone will not cure the epidemic of homelessness that has seen rough sleeping double since 2010. What is required is a comprehensive strategy to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping, meaning the government must show a genuine commitment to building more affordable homes, at least 4,000 of these to avert rough sleeping as Labour has advocated. Furthermore, the government must accept that the overall benefit cap, local housing allowance freeze and swathing cuts to local authority budgets are only exacerbating the housing crisis, and thereby significantly contributing to rising homelessness and rough sleeping.
This bill will therefore by welcomed by Labour when it returns to the Commons for third reading and report stage, as we recognise that it is a first step in tackling the homelessness crisis. However, unless the government takes action to resolve the housing crisis and commits to fully funding the new duties in the bill, it will ultimately be no more than a paper provision.
Andy Slaughter is the shadow housing minister and MP for Hammersmith.