There can be no doubt that the flooding of your home is a dreadful and traumatic event and that Government should be doing far more to improve flood defences and to mitigate the impact of climate change on our homes.
But the most surprising statistic to come out of the floods since Xmas is that the number of homes flooded was less than 6,000 and that media attention escalated when it affected residents in the Thames Valley. There has been a feeling of outrage in some parts of the north where much larger numbers of homes were flooded last year but without the same amount of attention being paid to them by the media and Ministers. No-one said to them that ‘money is no object’.
But there is a more astonishing comparison that can be made: with the number of families made homeless each and every year for reasons that are not as visually photogenic as the floods. You can’t normally see the homeless from a helicopter. The latest figures, showing yet more increases, created scarcely a ripple on the media and there were no statements of intent by David Cameron to spend more money on affordable homes.
Under the Coalition, homelessness is again rising rapidly after many years of falling. In the first full year of the Labour Government, the inheritance from John Major meant that 104,000 families were accepted as homeless by councils in England. It took Labour six years to bring it under control, by which time the figure had risen to 135,000 (2003/04). Each year after that the number of acceptances fell, down to 40,000 in Labour’s last year (2009/10). Since the General Election it has started to rise again, to 44,000 in 2010/11, 50,000 in 2011/12 and 54,000 in 2012/13. (NB figures rounded – they count households who are deemed to be unintentionally homeless and in ‘priority need’, mainly households containing children or a member who is ‘vulnerable’ due to mental or physical ill-health or age).
The detailed homelessness statistics are remarkably consistent year by year (eg which regions are most affected, the reasons for homelessness, the size of households, and so on). But there is one significant recent trend that is noteworthy. Homelessness that is attributed to the ‘end of assured shorthold tenancy’, which was 15% of cases when Labour came into office and fell to 11% in 2009/10, is now on a steep upward curve, rising to 22% in 2012/13 and 25% for calendar year 2013. This is now the biggest single reason for homelessness. It illustrates the ‘revolving door’ of Government homelessness policy: the duty to homeless households is increasingly discharged by placing them in private rented accommodation, but the loss of a private let is the biggest single reason for homelessness.
One of the most controversial aspects of homelessness is the use of temporary accommodation for long periods prior to a housing solution being found. Labour’s slow, but eventually effective, response to rising homelessness is again illustrated by these figures. The number of households in temporary accommodation stood at 47,000 when Labour came into power, but rose to over 101,000 in 2005. Following the implementation of a series of policies designed to meet a Government target to halve the number in TA, the figure began to fall, reducing each year to reach 50,000 when Labour left office (and thereby meeting the target). Since then the trend has been reversed and the number in TA has been rising again, standing just short of 57,000 at the end of 2013.
Households in temporary accommodation contain an astonishing number of 81,000 children. Everything that has ever been written about TA shows that it is bad for children. They become dislocated from school and child care, from friends and family, and from the place they identified as ‘home’. Educational attainment and socialisation suffer and behavioural problems become more common.
Of the households in TA, 7% are in bed and breakfast hotels. 500 households, containing 1,550 children have been resident in B&B beyond the statutory limit of 6 weeks. The contribution of private sector leasing (primarily where the property is managed by a housing association) is waning, and the number of households placed directly into private accommodation on a temporary accommodation basis has grown – doubling from 6,200 at the 2010 Election to 13,500 at the end of 2013. This is a hugely expensive option in terms of housing benefit costs.
Some authorities have great difficulty in procuring temporary accommodation within their own district – which everyone recognises is the best option for families and individuals if they are to retain contact with their network of family, friends, schools, health services and other public services. Receiving authorities also often face additional costs of providing services to these families. Nearly 6,000 households were placed in TA in another district at the time of the General Election, this has now doubled to just short of 12,000.
The problems associated with homelessness and temporary accommodation are at their most acute in London – three quarters of the households in TA are from London – but they are certainly not restricted to the capital.
The geographical concentration of temporary accommodation use is illustrated in a helpful map contained within the official statistics (Live Table 775). The incidence is very low in most parts of the country but there are hot spots around the country and a major concentration in London.
High and rising levels of homelessness are an extreme symptom of wider levels of inequality in British society and our growing failure to meet basic human needs. Someone once said that the way we treat our most vulnerable people is the basic test of our civilisation. Quite.