22 Jun 2009

On Homelessness

Homelessness. It’s not a topic I have ever written about before. It’s off my radar and I don’t know much about it. But I was fascinated to read an article in yesterday’s Express by Ross Clark saying that the available statistics show that homelessness is a problem that seems to be going away. Who’d have thought it?

So I checked the CLG website and there are statistics around that show that homelessness – defined as households in priority need - has been on a declining track since 1991 (which is when the table begins – it would be interesting to see if there are figures before this). Back then, just under 140,000 households in England became “homeless” during that year. The figure declined to 102,000 in 1997 and then shot back up again to peak at 135,000 in 2003. Since when, it has dropped dramatically. Down to just 63,000 last year and, if the press release is to be believed:

The number of households that became homeless (accepted by local authorities as owed the main homelessness duty in England) between January 2009 and March 2009 was 26 per cent lower than the same period in 2008.

All the other related statistics – people in temporary accommodation, rough sleepers — are also moving in the right direction, dramatically so.

National Statistics, published in June 2009, show that the Government's strategy to prevent homelessness is working.

Quite so. Something good is happening here, and maybe the government is right to crow a little, as so little else it has done has worked. But before they get too self-satisfied, they should perhaps consider that other factors may be at work here, as Clark suggested in his article. One is that the private rental market is collapsing, as a result of a flood of properties onto the market which, in a healthier housing market, would have been sold. Now many private landlords are finding it’s better to let their properties to benefits claimants because the rental income paid by local authorities is higher than the open market rate.

The other factor which comes into play here is that there is apocryphal evidence that the population is now declining, as many of the recent migrants move on to pastures new, or return home, as the prospects of staying on in Blighty look dim.

So the combined market forces of an oversupply of property and a shortage of people looking for places to rent (or buy) is maybe what’s behind the dramatic turn around in the fortunes of the homeless, rather than any clever government interventions.

But what does this say about the oft-quoted assumption that we are suffering from a chronic undersupply of housing, which is behind another government policy, namely a target of building huge numbers of new houses (like 3 million) by 2020? A target, incidentally, which the Tories seem happy to acquiesce in. Where is the evidence of this housing shortage? Not in the housing market. Not in rental market. And not in the homelessness statistics.

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