Local government must be set free to tackle homelessness
Cllr Michelle Lowe, deputy leader and cabinet member for housing & health at Sevenoaks District Council, argues that if Westminster is really serious about tackling homelessness it needs to set local government free to develop solutions.
The House of Commons’ Communities & Local Government (CLG) select committee recently published its Homelessness Report that it intends to follow up with the Homelessness Reduction Private Members’ Bill (PMB).
It is refreshing to see MPs so concerned about the issue of homelessness that they spent many hours on their inquiry, published their report and plan to link their findings to a PMB. As a local government cabinet member for housing, it is also encouraging to see Westminster focus on a different aspect of housing policy to starter homes and housebuilding at any cost.
Although the report applauded local authorities that do take their homelessness duties seriously, treat the most vulnerable as human beings and find housing solutions for them – the report was quite tough on local authorities in general.
Housing policy, linked strongly to planning policy, whether national or local is extremely complex and must be looked at holistically. Any change to achieve a different objective will have consequences and those consequences must be understood so that they can be mitigated.
Getting Britain Building again
In order to encourage economic growth and stem the fall in home ownership (an ambition of most people) the government invested a lot of time and effort in trying to get ‘Britain Building’ again, and developing schemes to help increase home ownership. But this was done without examining housing and planning policy together and holistically, and by then mitigating the consequences.
In order to get Britain Building again the planning process was overhauled. Some local authorities have no local plans in place and as a result very little control over development. This is resulting in developers building profitable homes that will meet most housing needs, but will leave some falling through the net. These vulnerable people are at risk of living in poor housing or becoming homeless.
Aiming to remove all barriers to developers the government removed the affordable housing contribution on small developments. In some local authority areas where development is restricted whether by the built form or Greenbelt – the government restricted income that was being used to prevent homelessness at a stroke.
The government is right to focus on home ownership. Large numbers of people want to own their own homes. Starter homes are a great helping hand to step on to the housing ladder. But, to allow them to be sold after a short period of time means the local area loses an affordable home. To focus solely on starter homes means other types of much needed affordable homes for more vulnerable groups are being ignored.
Restricting right to buy
Right to buy must be restricted – particularly for rural exception sites where affordable homes provide answers to rural poverty, keeping families and communities together. But those homes must be there in perpetuity to help future families and encourage future building of rural exception sites. Villagers will not accept development in the greenbelt for an affordable home that could become a market property in a few years.
Every local area has different pressures and housing needs. They should be encouraged to commission Housing Needs Surveys to establish what that need is so it can be met. Every local authority needs to know how many people need single person accommodation, supported housing (mental health needs, older people, those fleeing domestic abuse etc), family accommodation and so on.
A Housing Needs Survey costs a lot of money – often out of reach of most local authority budgets. But they can be funded using affordable housing contributions that can also be used to help fund the solutions: for example, supported housing for people with mental health needs – a demand that seems to be increasing.
It is a shame that the report’s solutions focus on the government monitoring the performance of local government – identifying authorities which are not meeting their statutory duties and implementing a code of practice to which local authorities should adhere.
Local flexibility needed
It would have been far more uplifting to have read a report that talked about holistic housing and planning policies at national and local level that were completely joined up, and where the consequences of policies were understood and mitigated. A Bill where local authorities are given the powers, flexibility and resources to establish local need and either fund or enable solutions through its partners.
Local government is aware of its responsibilities towards homelessness and it is best placed to understand its own specific needs and pressures – but it will never solve homelessness until Westminster gives it the freedoms and allows it to raise the funding that it needs.
Westminster needs to be more aware that housing is complex and trying to solve one aspect, for example home ownership, will have consequences further down the line. Although the market will go a long way in meeting housing need, developers will always build the most profitable homes. Without some state intervention this will automatically result in some people slipping through the net. Those people will be the most vulnerable and will either end up in poor quality private rented homes or without a home at all.
It would be good to see more freedoms, flexibility and access to funding to tackle homelessness for local government in the new PMB, as well as more monitoring and regulation. Westminster needs to recognise that it has also played its part in the rise of homelessness and that the blame is not solely that of local government. Together Westminster and local government can reduce homelessness, but Westminster needs to be bold enough to set councils free to find their own solutions.
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