In the last week, the government has made, what it purported to be, three major announcements about housing policy.
Let’s not be in any doubt about the timing. There is no reason why these announcements couldn’t have been made a month ago. They have been made now, in the peak mid-August holiday period, to avoid parliamentary and professional scrutiny. And, when we see the content, we can understand why.
The first announcement was, effectively, a ‘no change’ decision about funding for supported housing.
Supported housing is mainly for the elderly, people with mental, physical and learning disabilities who require personal care, support or supervision. It includes sheltered housing, group homes, hostels, refuges, and supported living complexes. About 270,000 people live in supported homes.
In 2011, the coalition government made proposals to fundamentally change housing benefit (as it introduced universal credit). This was followed, in 2015, by a bizarre decision to force rent cuts on social landlords – with the effect of cutting the number of new social homes for rent that would be built – and, in 2016, by the imposition of local housing allowance caps.
After a consultation in late 2016, which produced nearly 600 major responses by February 2017, Theresa May announced another set of policy changes for sheltered and supported housing in October 2017. This included a proposal that funding for short-term and transitional supported housing – typically homeless hostels, refuges for those at risk of domestic violence and those receiving support for drug/alcohol abuse – would be through a ring-fenced grant administered by local authorities.
Everyone with any knowledge about this specialist housing sector said this would be an absolute disaster. In response to the fierce criticism, the government announced another consultation which ended in January this year. It has then taken another seven months for the government to announce that it has climbed down and that housing benefit will continue to fund short-term housing.
It’s a welcome announcement, if only because it was the only logical decision. But, a listening government wouldn’t have got itself in to this mess in the first place and created a year of unnecessary turmoil. As it’s a no-change announcement, there is no new money involved.
The second announcement was by Secretary of State James Brokenshire about ‘a new £100 million programme to eradicate rough sleeping within a decade’.
Only under determined questioning did Mr Brokenshire admit that there was no new money involved at all. £50m was already part of the rough sleeping budget and £50m had been taken from elsewhere in the housing budget.
The incoming Labour government in 1997 inherited a high and rising level of rough sleeping. In 1999, Louise Casey was made Head of a national Rough Sleepers’ Unit, backed with resources which then resulted in year-on-year reductions in the number of rough sleepers. But the incoming coalition government in 2010 abandoned those policies, with the inevitable result of a near tripling of the number of people sleeping on the streets.
It’s an absolute scandal that it has taken the government so long to acknowledge the disastrous impact of its policies on individuals, families and on communities. There was no need to wait until August to do something. And the attempt to portray the announcement as an extra £100 million to tackle rough sleeping, when it is nothing of the sort, was just disgraceful.
The final announcement was the long-promised Green Paper on Social Housing.
Last September, the then Secretary of State Sajid Javid announced “a wide-ranging, top-to-bottom review of the issues facing” the social housing sector. He said it would “be the most substantial report of its kind for a generation”.
Let me tell you that it is nothing of the kind. It’s hardly worthy of the epithet Green – it’s Pale Pistachio at best. It’s full of warm words, but is most optimistically described as “tinkering at the edges.”
I will write more comprehensively about the Green Paper in due course. Suffice it to say that on the single most important issue for individuals and families throughout England – how many new affordable homes are going to be built – the Housing Minister has confirmed that, last year, just 5,900 social rented homes were built, the lowest number since records began and that, next year, just 6,000 will be built, when everyone agrees we need to be building 80,000 a year.
There are more than one million people on housing waiting lists…and the government is not committing a single extra pound towards building the new affordable homes for rent that are required.
It is not surprising that I have been unable to find a single organisation or informed commentator who has given the Green Paper a warm welcome. I leave you to choose between ‘underwhelming’ and ‘pitiful’. It simply fails to rise to the challenge and so the housing crisis continues.