by Haydon Etherington
The first goal of any self-respecting state is to uphold the rights of its own citizens; the right to be free from violence and oppression, the right to follow one’s own aspirations, and the right to have a basic level of living standards should be achievable by any competent government. Reinforcing her self-proclaimed image as a One Nation Conservative, the Prime Minister recognised this on the steps of Number 10 in 2016:
“We will do everything we can to give you more control over your lives. When we take the big calls, we’ll think not of the powerful, but you. When we pass new laws, we’ll listen not to the mighty but to you. When it comes to taxes, we’ll prioritise not the wealthy, but you. When it comes to opportunity, we won’t entrench the advantages of the fortunate few. We will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you.”
What has changed since the Prime Minister made these remarks just over two years ago?
Let us take the most severe example of inequality and disadvantage: homelessness. A report was released earlier this week with the saddening but unsurprising news that statutory homelessness has increased by 60% in the last 6 years, and rough sleeping has increased by 134% since the Conservatives took power.
This measure of homelessness doesn’t even count those who may be overlooked by local authorities; a Homeless Link report stated that fewer young homeless people were seeking the help of councils as they did not have the means to help, with some 57% of service providers turning away young homeless people due to a lack of public funding. This situation has led to an artificially low measure of statutory homelessness amongst younger people, at odds with much more damning reports from charities.
Although there is much to criticise in a One Nation Conservative vision of society, the emphasis on agency and people being able to, with the help of the state, lift themselves out of poverty is not one of them. Homelessness, however, does not facilitate this at all. The inability to have a basic quality of life, to find sufficiently well-paying work, and being onto the periphery of society are the opposite to what any government should seek to oversee – the failure to ensure every citizen has somewhere to call home is a failure of the state on the most fundamental level.
In a conclusion which should not be surprising, much of the blame for the rise in homelessness falls squarely on the shoulders of the government’s welfare reforms. A majority of housing service providers said that every aspect of welfare reform they were asked about has had a negative impact on young people’s ability to find housing, with over 90% raising specific concerns with benefits sanctions and the extension of Shared Accommodation Rates (SAR) to people under 35. This extension of SAR effectively means that housing benefit is cut to the level that subsidies one room in a house, rather than the entire accommodation – evidently not enough to pay rent with.
The perfect storm created by spiraling housing costs and continued benefits cuts has led to a situation in which rough sleeping is so ubiquitous that its end appears almost impossible, which is most certainly not the case. The housing stock outstrips the number of households in the UK, with empty homes outnumbering homeless families by, according to one estimate, 10-to-1. This means there are thousands of empty houses lining the same streets that many families are forced to sleep on. Of course, it would be economically illiterate to seize empty houses, but measures must be taken to discourage people from using properties exclusively as investments rather than homes.
If the Prime Minister wishes to stay true to her word and tackle the “burning injustices” she used to lament – which may help to salvage her reputation in years to come – she must take on more robust measures to prevent houses being left empty and immediately cease the punitive benefits measures which are pushing more and more people out of their homes. The homelessness crisis is a man-made injustice perpetuated by deeply entrenched inequalities, which may only be solved by the government’s immediate intervention. Anything less is insufficient.
Should Theresa May wish to prove her credentials as a One Nation Prime Minister before her departure, let her tackle one of the fastest growing inequalities in our country, homelessness.
If you are interested in any further information on homelessness, please see The Labour Campaign to End Homelessness.