Opinion: Disposing of that pesky homelessness problem

It was entirely predictable. The opening moves in a game that could see another hard-won component of the welfare state undermined have now been played.

It may have been predictable, but it is no less distasteful for all that.

The Coalition’s proposals for restricting housing benefit in the private rented sector have been greeted with a chorus of disapproval from informed commentators and the housing policy and practice community. Many grassroots LibDem members are equally concerned. Dire consequences are forecast.

The Government believes that landlords will happily adjust their rent downwards to reflect benefit cuts. Informed opinion says otherwise. (I discuss this issue further here). In sharp contrast, a significant increase in homelessness is predicted as a result of tenants no longer being able to pay to sustain their tenancies.

The Government has sought to dismiss such arguments as scaremongering and stirring up fears unnecessarily. Personally I’d take informed opinion over wishful thinking any day.

So it would be prudent to expect a significant rise in statutory homelessness. Local authorities will have to pick up the pieces of this ill-conceived and ill-intentioned policy.

Unless … Unless …

What if we disposed of the problem by the simple expedient of (re)defining it out of existence? That is a strategy that Lord Freud, the Welfare Minister, suggested would be “very valuable” when he appeared in front of the Work and Pensions Committee last week. The legal provisions which mean a household can be considered homeless as a result of living in overcrowded accommodation were identified as particularly suspect and ripe for revision.

After all, if you are not going to guarantee households sufficient resources to pay for what has, up until now, been a socially-accepted minimum standard of housing then why not just redefine “adequate” so the problem goes away. I hope this is a strategy that will be challenged vigorously before it develops too much momentum.

Like many concepts at the heart of policy, “homelessness” is a social construction. It is a contestable concept. The precise boundaries of the category “homeless” can be debated, as can the nature and extent of the obligations to assist homeless households assumed by the state.

Our current understanding of “homelessness” gained sufficient support to underpin the architecture of policy for more than 30 years. Its origins lie in the same impulse to improve the housing conditions of poorer households that led to the founding of the campaigning charity Shelter. The legislation of the mid-1970s is considered a milestone in social policy.

The current UK framework of homelessness legislation is one of the most extensive in the world, based on a broad understanding of homelessness as a range of insecure and insuitable living arrangements.

The last time the homelessness legislation was significantly challenged was during the Major government of the early 1990s. Even then the government didn’t really challenge the established understanding of homelessness. Rather, it watered down the state’s obligations to help. The first Blair government reversed the move.

However, New Labour’s choice in public services agenda has already placed a tension at the heart of the social housing allocations system. How can you offer choice, and allocate social housing to different types of household, when the system is “clogged up” with homeless households to whom the state has legal obligations?

Part of the answer has been using homelessness prevention initiatives to avoid households seeking to be declared homeless in the first place. Some of this activity – particularly mediation – has been very positive.

But for some time now local authorities, particularly those with a blue tinge, have also been lobbying for a reduction in legal obligations towards the homeless in order to “facilitate choice”. It looks like the government is minded to deliver the outcome desired, but by approaching the issue from a different direction.

It would be quite wrong to suggest that the existing allocations and homelessness system is perfect. And the scale of the homelessness problem alongside a declining social housing stock has created some formidable challenges.

But it would be worse to dismantle the system without thinking very hard about why its there and what will be lost.

The housing standards  deemed acceptable tells us a lot about a society’s values. Equally, housing standards have important practical implications.

Take overcrowding – the target of Lord Freud’s disapproval. There is research evidence that living in overcrowded conditions has implications for the spread of infectious and communicable disease and increases the risks of accidents in the home. Insufficient space has implications for child development because of, among other things, increased rates of illness, which keep children from school, and absence of quiet space which impeded study at home. Poor housing condition in childhood are associated with long term limiting illness and disability in adulthood.

I could go on. But perhaps the country “can’t afford” to be worried about those sorts of things any more …

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39 Comments

  • Great article, thoughtful, considered, and most importantly, compassionate. Exactly what being a LibDem is about.

  • I agree with this article completely. But you’re not following the correct line and supporting your party. The “true” LibDems will be along soon to call you a troll like they do me and anybody else who voted LibDem but are now disgusted by the way they have rushed to the right.

  • The points about the definition of homelessness are well made. However, if you think spending £20bn of taypayers’ money on subsiding rents is a good idea, then I suggest you go and promote that among the working poor – the people who are in jobs and no the breadline and wondering why they are paying for people to stay in homes in Westminster and Chelsea that they themselves couldnt dream of affording. If you make it back alive, let me know what they said.

  • Again I get called a troll for feeling betrayed by the party I voted for. I am angry, hurt and I feel constantly betrayed by every passing day by this government. The LibDems campaigned in my area on the slogan “Vote LibDem to keep the Tories out”. I voted Liberal because I wanted to protect the weakest in society, because I was against tuition fees, against the destruction of our welfare state, against fast and deep cuts. And all these promises and more have been broken in less than 6 months. I come here to express my anger, my sadness and disgust at how right-wing and uncompassionate that Clegg and co. have become. But this makes me a troll. Thanks a lot.

    If you truly cared about the way your party is headed, you would do all you can to remove Clegg from power and disassociate yourselves with the Tories. But you won’t. The power is too seductive, right? You just don’t want to hear dissent. Or you want to hear it in your nice polite Liberal way. You people are treating your disgruntled voters the same way New Labour did.

    I won’t bother to engage with the party I voted for any longer. And I certainly won’t vote Liberal ever, EVER again. There’s a reason your party is polling as low as 9% in some polls. Take a look in the mirror.

  • @Marianne

    “as junior partners in a coalition, with severely limited power, there’s often not much that the Lib Dems currently in government can do against Conservative policies, although we should be proud of the concessions we have achieved, at least. ”

    I’ve heard this line too many times from. If the reason for swallowing Conservative anti-welfarism whole is that they don’t have a choice in the current arrangement… why don’t the leadership and the party say this, instead of telling me that the fee hike to students is actually a graduate tax… that capping housing benefit, free schools… all things that weren’t in the manifesto, that the lib dems actually opposed, I wish they would stop saying that these things are ‘progressive’ and ‘good’. FFS, if they have to sell their soul to the devil they could at the very least admit that they support these issues because they have to, rather than coming on this website and sending us emails saying that they support coalition policy because it is very ‘lib dem’ and ‘progressive’ and f’fair’.

    In short, I wish they would stop treating us like fucking idiots. They are either being horrifically patronising, not telling us the true reasons for wholeheartedly supporting policy which a few months ago they campaigned against…. or they really do support that policy and supported it all along, and so lied to us… the members and voters who elected them to office.

    And you are right to be worried, if you want to do something you should support those who want the lib dems to change tactic, quickly.

  • No more than five minutes after I make my post, this is the email I receive:

    “Dear Robin,

    The welfare white paper we have launched today has fairness at its heart.

    Our Universal Credit is a radical and liberal policy. It will simplify and amalgamate the main welfare benefits into one single system; ensure that work always pays; and alleviate poverty by boosting take-up and encouraging people into work. It is exactly the kind of change that we came into politics to make.”

    I really wish this was some kind of bad joke… but it just demonstrates my point exactly.

  • http://www.leftfootforward.org/2010/11/investigation-into-dwp-use-of-stats/

    Damned lies and statistics being used by the coalition to be investigated.

  • The problem isn’t with people having to use housing beneift to keep renting in the areas where they were brought out, it isn’t with the people who wish to resist being cleansed from areas for simply not earning far above the national average wage.

    No, the problem is with over-centralisation of our economy centering on London. Peoplecome to London to find work now, and indeed their low-paid work is badly needed.

    Rent controls and social housing products would be a far more adequate soultion to this problem than evicting people who have only recently been priced out of a city that has been made great by the very mix of people who lived in it for centuries.

    I suppose Tebbit and IDS want the poor to form a ring around the city, where they can spend an hour commuting in every day to work at their favourite starbucks. Nick Clegg will of course tell us that this is a thoroughly liberal and progressive thing.

    London: the neoliberal dystopia. A social experiment in action.

  • Douglas – http://www.socialliberal.net
    There is a resistance movement!

  • Mariane – well said. A thoughtful response to Douglas, who then responded in exactly the vein that makes people suspect his motives.

    Douglas – “If you truly cared about the way your party is headed, you would do all you can to remove Clegg from power and disassociate yourselves with the Tories. But you won’t. The power is too seductive, right? You just don’t want to hear dissent. Or you want to hear it in your nice polite Liberal way. You people are treating your disgruntled voters the same way New Labour did. ”

    It may have passed your notice but there are a lot of people who “care about the way their party is headed” who are party members that support the current direction of the party. The party leader was elected fairly according to the rules. If you don’t like the fact that he’s leader, pay your subs and campaign against him.

  • @It may have passed your notice but there are a lot of people who “care about the way their party is headed” who are party members that support the current direction of the party.

    But it seems the majority of lib dem voters do not like the way the party is headed.

    And there is no future for this right-ward tinge in the liberal democrats. It is both incompatible with liberalism and incompatible with politics… the Conservatives have the ground too well covered for there to be a ‘I love right wing economics but hate social conservatism’ party. This new slant would also seem to contradict the majority view of what this party is about.

    The thing that bothers me is not so much that the we joined up to a coalition with the Tories, although that is hard to stomach especially when it becomes clearer that it would have been both more loyal and more electorally viable to support a minority government. No, the thing that bothers me is that I have a sneaking suspicion that Nick Clegg really loves being in a coalition with the Tories, his unqualified praise for every right0wing coalition policy is genuine… and that he has hijacked a party where both the majority of members and voters seem to have supported a social liberalism and is using the coalition to drive it over to the right.

    In the end it is likely AV will fail due to this move, since left-wing supporters, Labour or otherwise, were the only ones ever going to support the lib dems in that vote… and they have been alienated and practially told to go away. When AV fails it will become clearer to others, I hope, that the party is being dragged in the wrong direction. Nick Clegg’s decisions will be disasters for the party, we will have to rebuild and Clegg might end up becomming a Conservative… after all why would anyone let principles get in the way of such a promising political career?

  • Dominic Curran 11th Nov '10 - 4:02pm

    Alex – if someone is living in a home but it is overcrowded, then they are not homeless. They maybe overcrowded, but the have a home. Surely common sense dictates that the homeless are those either those on the streets, or in temporary accommodation or dossing on mates’ floors. Basically, anyone who is not in a place with their name on the lease (except those sub-letting etc etc). What Lord Freud suggested seems fairly reasonable to me.

    The issue is not so much what we call things but what we do about them. The genuinely homeless who i define above are surely in greater need of housing than those who are overcrowded, no? I’m not saying we shouldn’t help those folk too, but surely the priority has to be those who have no home at all, before those whose home is overcrowded, wouldn’t you say?

  • If they think the rents are too high why not cumpulsary purchase the houses and rent them at cost? Then build more social housing with no right to buy, turn the clock back on Thatcher and Blair. This would also help the construction industry. Wouldn’t that be radical and progressive ? A bit to left leaning for some I suspect…..

    The real problem isn’t those whose housing benefit is £20K per year. It’s the fact that the reductions are accross the scales. Shelter introduced some interesting points into the debate all of which were ignored. Time will tell how this affects people but changing the definition of homeless would be like Blair when he changed the definition of unemployed, a deceitful measure linked to spin not substance.

    What would really help the Government (if they want show there really is new politics) is to start the debate and allow themselves to be moved by it. Cameron and Clegg have both already said the changes will go through unchanged. Use the Commons and the Lords (especially the committees) to full effect, invite rational debate and then there is a chance to regain the high ground and show Labour are not being constructive. If the debate starts with a closed position and whipped opposition to sensible ammendments then Labour keep the high ground.

    I know that’s a bit radical, suggesting democracy to the Mother of Parliaments!

  • @Dominic Curran

    I think the point is that if you change the measure you get to “demonstrate” a reduction in figures where one does not really exist. Like Bliar and unemployment..

  • Andrew Duffield 11th Nov '10 - 4:05pm

    “The Government believes that landlords will happily adjust their rent downwards to reflect benefit cuts. Informed opinion says otherwise.”

    Landlords may not downwardly adjust rents ‘happily’, but that’s exactly what they’ll have to do – or go without the rent. The economic reality of market forces trumps ‘informed opinion’ every time.

  • @Andrew Duffield

    “Landlords may not downwardly adjust rents ‘happily’, but that’s exactly what they’ll have to do – or go without the rent. The economic reality of market forces trumps ‘informed opinion’ every time.”

    But that isn’t what will happen, because there are more potential tenants than vacant places.

    That of course means it won’t be landlord’s competing for tenants, but tenants competing for flats and houses.

    Which means, if anything at all, prices will continue to rise, not fall.

    I’m afraid this is just another example of how religious market fundamentalism, the belief that the free market always results in a better outcome for everybody, is just silly and simplistic.

    I wouls say “The economic reality of market forces trumps simplistic ideas of how the market works every time'”.

  • @Marianne

    “At the same time, had we refused to enter a coalition government with the Conservatives, another election would have had to happen – one the Lib Dems would not have money to campaign properly in, and one the Conservatives would probably win outright, so we’d have a pure, unhindered Conservative government rather than a mostly-Conservative government we can get at least some concessions out of (even if, on certain issues, I don’t think the Lib Dems are pushing hard enough).”

    But that isn’t what would have happened.

    If we had a minority government there is really no reason why it should collapse. It is also likely the Conservatives would have suffered the most in terms of votes.

    Had there been another election called, if the lib dems were to lose votes it would be mainly to Labour… we probably would have ended up with a hung parliament again, although maybe with a few less lib dem MP’s.

  • Marianne

    Andrew Duffield, alternatively landlords will simply kick out tenants on benefits and replace them with tenants who are working and can afford to pay full price, this unfortunately seems the more realistic outcome to me (and is why I’m so worried about my own situation).

    Agreed, I remember seeing many adverts for accommodation in the 80s with NO DHSS written all over them but I don’t see that many these days.

  • Dominic Curran 11th Nov '10 - 4:41pm

    @ Steve Way

    “I think the point is that if you change the measure you get to “demonstrate” a reduction in figures where one does not really exist. Like Bliar and unemployment..”

    That would be sneaky, if that were the intention. i’ve not seen any suggestion (apart from you) that that is the intention. Any change is sometime off so we’ll see if that’s how any change that does happen is used (or abused). But on the actual facts of the suggested change, i think there’s a good case for it.

    I may be wrong, but i think the change of definition of unemployment that Balir did was actually a move away from the very, very sneay set of redefinitions of unemoployment that the tories did between 1979 and 1997, and the Labour Government actually moved the UK’s measurement to the same as the ILO one, which was a sort of industry standard. So, i think it was actually an honorable move.

  • Dominic Curran 11th Nov '10 - 4:47pm

    @ Marianne

    “alternatively landlords will simply kick out tenants on benefits and replace them with tenants who are working and can afford to pay full price, this unfortunately seems the more realistic outcome to me (and is why I’m so worried about my own situation).”

    whether that happens really depends on what rent you’re paying. If the cap is way below what the market rent would be for your home, then you may not have your tenancy renewed, or, if you can’t make up the shortfall, you may have to move. But, if it’s a difference of, say, £10 per week, it’s pretty likely that your landlord will swallow that. Remember that voids, that period of time between tenancies, can often be as long as two months. That period of time equals a lot of rent – one sixth of the lanlord’s expected annual return, or about 16%. He may well be prepared to accept a slightly lower rent in order not to lose that 16%. Best do some maths and work out whether you should be looking for somewhere else.

  • Dominic Curran 11th Nov '10 - 4:56pm

    @ Alex – thanks for your response. I am not arguing that people in overcrowded homes should not be seen as having a problem that the state should try to solve. i just think that calling someone homeless when they have a home, however imperfect, is a little bonkers.

    i do not think that the aim should be to say that people in overcrowded accommodation are no longer a problem, as you suggest, but rather that they are in a different sort of problem compared to those who are on the streets or in hostels.

    ultimately, unless we have a programme of mass council house building, we’re all doomed anyway.

  • What I find amazing the huge amount of effort, legislation and re-organisation going in to tackle benefit cheating which, according to DWP’s own figures, is costing £1.5 billion per year.

    And yet tax cheating is costing £42 billion per year (HMRC’s own figures) but there seems to be little enthusiasm for dealing with this: the Treasury have cut HMRC’s budget; the number of tax collectors are being reduced; Vodafone’s £4.8 billion tax has recently been waived.

    How do they determine their priorities? Certainly not by logic.

  • Dominic Curran 11th Nov '10 - 5:26pm

    @ Richard SM

    i’m amazed at how often people say that the government is not doing anything about tax avioders. Did you all miss the announcement at the libdem party conference, widely covered in the media, that the government is spending an extra £900m on employing more people and other measures to chase this up? Just so you can be sure about the story, here’s a link:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-11359306

    contrary to your assertion, there is not only enthusaism for this, but there is real money behind that enthusiasm.

    i should add that i read in the guardian that benefit cheating costs £5bn p/a, not £1.5bn: http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/oct/17/tax-benefit-cheats-clampdown

    best check your facts!

  • @Dominic Curran

    The £900m isn’t actually new money, it is recycled money from previously announced schemes to crack down on tax evasion. And the revenue is still being cut by 15%.

  • @Dominic Curran
    Your comment to Marianne
    “Best do some maths and work out whether you should be looking for somewhere else.”

    Considering that Marianne has spelt out her fears and how vulnerable she is I consider this comment to one of the most cruel I have ever read. This is a Liberal Democrat’s response to one of the most vulnerable groups in society?

  • @Dominic Curran

    “Of the £5.2bn lost each year, fraud accounts for just £1.5bn across benefits and tax credits. In addition, £1.1bn of losses occurs from official error, and a further £1.1bn from customer error.”

    From your link.

  • @Dominic Curran

    You’re not up to speed. Osborne’s CSR announcement on 20 October 2010 trumped Alexander’s speech at the Lib Dem conference in the previous month. The HMRC budget is being cut. The £0.9bn that Alexander announced is actually the total across four years, not each year, and is simply being ring-fenced within the existing HMRC budget. Contrary to your assertion, it’s not extra money. You’ve been had.

    http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/

    Regarding your second point, you’re wrong again. You obviously don’t understand the information you’ve linked to.

  • Andrew Duffield 11th Nov '10 - 7:59pm

    “alternatively landlords will simply kick out tenants on benefits and replace them with tenants who are working and can afford to pay full price”

    And where are all these working tenants currently living I wonder?!

    Wherever they are, they are also paying inflated rents thanks to HB artificially driving up the market. Well-intentioned schemes that seek to address hardship by further distorting an already skewed market have an impeccable track record of making bad situations worse. The rich get richer on the backs of the workers and the poor. The tax and benefit system was ever thus.

    Alternatively, introduce LVT then watch as rents fall, homes become affordable and a million empty properties become available again. Would that we had such a positive, progressive and practical policy to rally around at times like these…

  • Andrew Suffield 11th Nov '10 - 9:27pm

    introduce LVT

    This one.

  • Dominic Curran 12th Nov '10 - 2:44pm

    nne
    “Considering that Marianne has spelt out her fears and how vulnerable she is I consider this comment to one of the most cruel I have ever read. This is a Liberal Democrat’s response to one of the most vulnerable groups in society?”

    Marianne is obviously a bright lady. I was simply suggesting that she start planning now to ensure that she is as unaffected as possible by the HB cuts, which, whether you like them or not, are going to happen. In any event, I have heard a lot of talk about protecting those with disabilities so i would hope that Marianne will be ok – but we’ll have to see what that commitment means in practice of course. We all have to work out what we can afford on a given budget – unless, Anne, you’re the lucky minority – and my advice was not intended to be cruel, rather a pratical statement that, given that all these changes are happening, marianne – and anyone else on HB, frankly – had better get their calculators out and start figuring out what’s going to happen to them.

    as for my mistakes on the links – apologies. i bow to those better read on this subject than me.

  • @Dominic Curran”
    We all have to work out what we can afford on a given budget – unless, Anne, you’re the lucky minority”

    Unfortunately I am not one of the lucky ones and am also disabled.. There is no protection for those with disabilities as ATOS is being used to force sick and disabled onto JSA even though there is no hope of work. I have been terrified since the budget in June as have many in our situation. Nobody should have to worry day and night about losing their home especially the most vulnerable. There are are many vulnerable and alone people out there who do not have much support to work out the maths so your ‘getting out the calculator’ comment does not help.

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