Rough sleeping has doubled since 2010, predicted to increase by a further 76%

The stock response from government, local and national, when challenged about a current or impending problem, is to say how much money it is spending to resolve the matter.

This is true about the rough sleeping crisis. The number of people sleeping rough has doubled since 2010, according to a report in the Financial Times in January. And today (10th August 2017), the national charity, Crisis, has forecast that rough sleeping will rise by a further 76% by 2026. (This forecast is based on research conducted on behalf of Crisis by Heriot-Watt University).

A Department for Communities and Local Government spokesman said: “Alongside investing £550 million to 2020 to address the issue, we’re implementing the Homelessness Reduction Act, which will require councils to provide early support to people at risk of becoming homeless. There’s more to do and ministers will set out plans shortly.”

It is easy for someone to quote eye-watering sums but given the track record since 2010 we need something that will inspire confidence. The doubling in rough sleeping numbers is a direct result of government policies. I look forward to the government’s plans being published. The plans need to be more than worthy statements of intent.

The government’s plans need to be SMART. They need to set out specific measures that will be implemented, what difference these measures will make, and when the positive impact will be seen. A vague date like 2026 is no good. Most of the Ministers around today will not even be a footnote in history by 2026.

I would suggest, amongst other things, the following:

  • The appointment of a Minister for Rough Sleeping who will remain in her/his post until the next general election so they can be judged on their record
  • Properly fund local authorities to meet their homelessness duties
  • Reverse the drop in investment for affordable homes, specifically homes that will be made available to homeless households and individuals
  • Reverse the cuts to housing benefit
  • Reintroduce direct housing benefit payments to landlords to build confidence especially in the private rented sector
  • Put funding for homelessness services on a proper footing,

It should shame us all, not least those in power, that rough sleeping numbers have doubled since 2010. Today’s report from Crisis should shame government into urgent action.

Rent the empty homes of the rich and super rich in Kensington and Chelsea to people in housing need

Across the country, the number of homes left empty for six months or more is falling, down by a third between 20116 and 2016 across England and down by half in London over the same period.

The one area bucking this trend is Kensington and Chelsea, the Borough that includes Grenfell Tower.

Powers have existed since 2013 to allow councils to charge a premium of 50% on council tax for properties that have been left vacant for two years or more. According to the Guardian, a Band H property in Kensington and Chelsea, the surcharge would be £1,000 in 2017/18.

But for the rich and super rich of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, to give it its proper name, £1,000 is small change when it comes to the increasing value of their asset (note: not home). In the ten years to October 2016, according to Land Registry data, the value of homes in the Borough has increased on average by £5,000 per month! What difference is £1,000 per year?

This is just another sign of how rotten the housing market has become in the country, and how rotten the ‘Royal Borough’ is.

I have two suggestions:

Why not give local councils the powers to acquisition properties left empty for more than 12 months for a minimum ten years so that they can be let to households in housing need, including those displaced by the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower.

Of course compensate the owners. I would suggest that the rents and compensation be capped at Local Housing Allowance levels (see footnote). The government is using that as the measure to cap specialist supported housing. Why use LHA. According to the DWP it is a suitable measure because “The one advantage of (LHA rates) is that they are already there, so it doesn’t cost government anything to set it up” (see my post Is this the most depressing, mind-boggling, ridiculous justification ever from government?).

The other suggestion I have is to strip the Rotten Borough of Kensington and Chelsea of its ‘Royal Borough’ status. Will that achieve anything? Absolutely not, but would make a lot of us feel a little bit better.

(Footnote: LHA was originally introduced to cap the amount of housing benefit that would be paid to welfare benefit claimants who rented in the private rented sector. The figure was supposed to equate to the 30th centile of rents for properties in a locality but it has been frozen for a number of years and now equates to the bottom 5 to 10 centile).

More evidence of the disaster zone that is known as Universal Credit

“Universal Credit is designed to mirror the way many people in work are paid, and we have budgeting advice and benefit advances available for anyone who needs extra help”, so says the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

A report published this week by Citizens Advice has found that 57% of claimants are having to borrow money to get by while waiting for the first payment, and that 39% by having to wait for longer than the six weeks it should take before the first payment is made.

It seems as though what is being mirrored is the struggle that many ordinary people have to make ends meet and that universal credit has created a culture where borrowing is necessary to get by.

I have written, time and time again, about the failures of universal credit and how it is being implemented.

When Ian Duncan Smith was the Secretary of State at the Department for Work and Pensions he repeatedly said that universal credit would be delivered “on time and within budget”. I think he should apologise and until he does, nobody should take seriously anything he says.

Universal credit has been an unmitigated disaster. The Citizens Advice report says that some claimants are having to call the helpline more than 10 times to sort out the mess of their claims and it is not uncommon for people to have to wait more than 30 minutes to get through on the phone.

Gillian Guy, the chief executive of Citizens Advice, said: “Universal credit is already failing too many people, pushing them into debt and leaving them without the means to make ends meet. The government needs to pause plans to accelerate the roll-out of full-service universal credit this autumn and devote the time and resource needed to tackle the key problems which mean the system is not working.”

I am reluctant to quote anyone from the DWP because, frankly, I am tired of it providing assurances that all the complete travesty of reality, but in the interest of balance (!), I will.

The DWP said the study did not reflect the experiences of the 500,000 people claiming universal credit. “The vast majority of claimants have told us they are satisfied with universal credit. We are rolling out universal credit in a gradual, safe and secure way, and in the rare cases where issues arise, we work closely with local authorities and landlords to support people when they need it.”

You decide who to believe, Citizens Advice or the DWP which has consistently failed to provide the full facts, tried to suppress reports, and whose Minister assured us that universal credit would be delivered “on time and within budget”.

Citizens Advice has called on the government to remove the seven-day waiting period at the start of a claim, introduce an online system for booking appointments, and make the helpline free of charge before the large scale roll-out of universal credit.

Someone close to government recently asked why people constantly mention food banks. Is it any wonder when the system provided to help those in the most financially desperate situation are not getting the service or financial support they need and are having to turn to food banks to feed themselves and their families?

Queen’s Speech: please end the cruel programme of welfare reform

The Department for Work and Pensions was due to roll out digital-only universal credit to the area covered by the North Kensington jobcentre from Monday, but following the Grenfell Tower blaze, this has not gone ahead.

Universal credit mergers six separate benefits into one monthly payment, but the implementation has been little short of a disaster. Payment have been delayed, resulting in claimants experiencing extreme hardship, building up rendt arrears and forcing them to rely on food banks.

I can understand that government officials wished to avoid further criticism for their response to the fire should there be any disruption in payments to the survivors and others impacted by it.

One question must be, after years of planning and piloting, why should there be any disruption in payments, in north Kensington or anywhere.

Of course nothing should happen to deepen the distress and trauma experienced by the survivors of the fire, but surely the government shouldn’t be rolling out a benefits reform that leads to the poorest people in the country being left without money and having to rely on food banks.

Perhaps in today’s Queen’s Speech, a government that is now moving forward with ‘humility’, will acknowledge that its cruel and chaotic programme of welfare reforms are causing unnecessary hardship and will end them.

Private rented housing is “out of reach” for under 35s, says the Chartered Institute of Housing

The Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) recently carried out research into the gap between rents in the private rented sector and what Local Housing Allowance (LHA) will pay.

LHA is based on the 30th centile of the range rents charged in the private rented sector. Except it isn’t. That was how it was supposed to be (having previously been reduced from there 50th centile). In fact, the level of payment has been frozen for three years and will be frozen until 2019/20. LHA no longer reflects in any way the reality of rents in a locality.

In Brighton and Hove the rates are £82.66 for a room in a shared house, £153.02 for a one bed flat, £192.48 for a two bed property. The average one bed flat in Brighton and Hove is now £971 per month compared to LHA of £612.08 for the same period.

In Eastbourne the rates are £67.00, £116.53 and £151.50, and in Hastings £69.77, £92.06 and £120.29. (There are higher rates for 3 and 4 properties).

It is worse for you if you are under 35 where you are restricted to claiming LHA for just a room in a shared house.

And if you think it is bad for under 35s, it is EVEN worse for those under 21 for whom the rate is zero (unless you are ‘lucky’ enough to qualify for one of several exemptions – merely being a rough sleeper is not enough).

So what has the CIH found? It has found that the gap between LHA and rents has widened to the point where private rented housing is “out of reach” for under 35s.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote how the senior civil servant responsible for housing policy at the Department for Work and Pensions, Darrell Smith, said that the government is now going to use LHA rates to set new, lower rents for specialist supported housing. Why? Because it is such a good barometer for the market? No. He said: “The one advantage of (LHA rates) is that they are already there, so it doesn’t cost the government anything to set it up. I know”, he continued, “that isn’t a great answer but that’s all I have got”.

Denying 18-21 year olds the right to claim housing benefit is bad, bad news, and bad, bad policy

At the very time when rough sleeping numbers are rising nationally, the government has announced plans to end the automatic right of 18-21 year olds to claim housing benefit.

In a week with so much else happening (Brexit vote in the House of Lords, Theresa May in Scotland, Northern Ireland elections, Trump) someone must have thought it was the ideal time to bury bad news. This is bad, bad news and bad, bad policy.

If there is one measure that will lead to an increase in rough sleeping amongst young people, it is denying them the automatic right to claim support for their housing costs.

img_4847Of course there will be exceptions made for certain categories of young people allowing them to claim (such as if parents are abroad and the young person can not ‘go home’).

A spokesperson from the Department for Work and Pensions said: “We want to make sure that 18- to 21-year-olds do not slip straight into a life on benefits, which is why we are helping young people get the training, skills and experience they need to move into a job and build a career.”

Desperate times for young people will see them return to unsafe family situations, turn to crime and prostitution, and end up sleeping rough.

What about the finances – we always hear we have to tackle the deficit. 2015 research from Heriot Watt University calculated that once exceptions and costs incurred on other public services were taken into account, the policy could save just £3.3 million a year.

If just 140 young people end up on the streets, the additional cost to other services (ambulance service, NHS, housing departments, police, etc.) then this measure will actually be a drain on public finances!

It makes no sense in economic terms. It makes no sense in human terms. It is the wrong policy and goes totally against recent positive moves by government, now least through the Homelessness Bill, to tackle homelessness.

Has Theresa May fallen for unnecessary scaremongering or are specialist support services really at risk?

I have written regularly (most recently on Friday) about George Osborne’s announcement in the Autum Statement that all rents in social housing were to be capped at Local Housing Allowance levels. Many of us warned about the dire consequences, particularly in specialist supported housing projects including women’s refuges. This prompted a DWP spokesman to say: “This is unnecessary scaremongering, which does nothing to help those it purports to represent. The truth is that nothing will change until 2018.”

Theresa_MayOn Wednesday Theresa May responded to a question from Jeremy Corbyn about the threat these measures would have on women’s refuges, the Prime Minister replied: “The right honourable gentleman raises a very important issue on the issue of domestic violence. We are doing all we can to stop these terrible crimes taking place and to provide support to the victims and survivors of these crimes. That’s why we are working on exempting refuges from the cap.”

It is clear that Mrs May has accepted the evidence that, in the case of women’s refuges, two out of three would close if the LHA cap is implemented. The same warning must apply also to the rest of specialist supported housing services.

Was the DWP spokesman correct and will he denounce Mrs May for her unnecessary scaremongering …?