We have had yet another report come out of Westminster, this time from the Commons select committee. It is on homelessness.
I have not had time to read it in detail but I can see big issues with some of the main recommendations. However, I am really pleased that this issue is being addressed. For too long housing issues have been considered unimportant and have been ignored. It is good to see them being taken seriously at last.
Here are some of the issues which I can see
A shortage of suitable homes
You can’t rent out houses that don’t exist. The recent
The recent House of Lords report made it clear that we have a massive under supply of suitable housing and that insufficient housing is being built to meet the need.
Unless this issue is addressed then everything else is meaningless.
Mind you, building new homes is not the only answer. There is a lot that can be done by putting empty homes into use, and encouraging people to take in lodgers (which could go a long way towards helping young single people find a home).
Increasing the rent a room tax allowance again and getting rid of the bedroom tax would help here.
There is also the fact that the Cameron government seemed to be solely interested in increasing home ownership. However, not everyone wants to own their own their own home and for some people it is not practical or indeed desirable. For example, someone with mental health issues is far better living in a Council house where they can get support. Which leads us on to:
The destruction of social housing
Over the past 20 years and more, Government has encouraged the sale of vast swathes of social housing with few houses being built to replace them. The Housing and Planning Bill is only going to make things worse.
As the House of Lords report made clear, you cannot expect the private sector to take over the function that was performed by social housing.
For a start, private landlords are not interested in renting to ‘difficult’ tenants such as those with mental health problems or on a low income.
They are mostly ordinary people who have invested in property (generally just one or two houses or flats) as property often provides a better return than traditional investments. They cannot be expected to take the place of social housing landlords. For example, see here for a real life example of the problems that they can face.
In particular, they are understandably unwilling to take on all the problems which are associated with tenants on benefit – many of which are actually caused by Councils not the tenants.
The government urgently needs to address this and to start a major social house building program by Councils and housing associations. This is the only way that I can see that the problem will be resolved.
It takes a long time to build houses, and so the sooner they grasp this nettle and start to do something the better.
Insufficient Council help for homelessness
The report complains that Councils are not giving enough support and help to homeless people who are not in priority need.
To that I have two points to make.
1 Councils have big problems of lack of funding and staff.
Their budgets have been slashed viciously over the past few years.
If you have a department which formerly had 8 or 10 staff being slashed to two blokes, one of whom is part time, with the best will in the world, there is not a huge amount they can do. Obviously, they are going to have to prioritise their time and support for people to whom they do not owe a statutory duty is going to suffer.
As articles in the Guardian are showing, Council housing staff are cracking up over too much work. Rather than criticising councils, it would be better if something could be done about this.
2. What exactly are they supposed to do?
If there is insufficient housing for the homeless in their area, there is not a lot they can do about it. They can’t magic up hostels for the homeless.
I am sure that most council workers would love to be able to find places for people to live. But they are not magicians.
Refuges and hostels
The report quite correctly recommends that support be given to these.
I would like to mention here that over the past few years I have been reading news items about support and refuge organisations having to close down due to lack of funding.
Money for this type of organisation should be ring-fenced. Once they close it is very difficult to get them back up and running again.
Two other issues I would like to mention:
Benefit being paid direct to landlords
This is rightly cited as being something which is causing big problems. However, I would just remind landlords that with the direct payment to them comes the possibility of clawback.
In the days when benefit was regularly paid direct to landlords this was often a big issue. For example, if money was being reclaimed from a landlord due to the tenant owing money to the Council due to an overpayment in respect of another property.
Longer fixed terms
The report also says that these should be encouraged. However, I would remind the committee that it is directly against landlords interests to do this as the section 21 eviction procedure is only available after the fixed term has ended.
Until it is easier for landlords to evict anti-social tenants during the fixed term, they are not going to risk giving long tenancies new tenants.
I am really pleased to see this sort of report coming out. The housing situation is dire and long overdue for attention. Reports are a start – but we need more than words.
I hope that the May government will see this and will start to take some meaningful action.