This week’s official homelessness figures for England bring further shame on this failed Tory government that clearly doesn’t care about families and communities.
The number of households living in temporary accommodation in England in the first three months of this year was at the highest level on record. Without urgent action, those figures will only get worse.
Some 104,510 families, including 64,940 with children, are among those forced to live in B&Bs, hotels and hostels. Across the Yorkshire and Humber region, there are 8,250 officially homeless households and in my Wakefield District Council area, nearly 440.
Those may not be huge numbers compared to inner city areas, but nothing truly reflects the real picture of the chronic lack of social and council housing and the resulting pressure on the private rental sector that, during a worsening cost of living crisis, means people are unable to find anywhere affordable to live.
Spiralling rents, no-fault evictions and brutal desperation
Such is the shortage of affordable housing, over 20,000 households in the Wakefield district are on housing waiting lists and over one million people nationally. They are uniquely vulnerable to unscrupulous landlords who now hold most of the cards.
My office is contacted by at least one family a week, desperate for help as they are threatened with homelessness at a time of spiralling private sector rents and other housing costs. It’s brutal.
My constituents, retired couple Anne and John Slater, featured on our local ITV news because they’d been ‘sofa surfing’ at the homes of family and friends since being thrown out of the home they’d rented for 11 years.
Like them, most of the real people behind the government’s grim statistics have been forced out of private rented properties, often by the use of Section 21 (S21) notices – the so-called no-fault evictions loophole being increasingly exploited by landlords to remove tenants with little notice and no reasons given. Forty families a day have been threatened with a S21 notice since the Tories first vowed to ban them back in 2019.
While horrified by the current level of homelessness in one of the richest countries on this planet, I am sadly not surprised. In my 27 years in parliament, I’ve never seen a housing crisis as deep as it is now.
The Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto pledged to build 300,000 homes every year by the mid-2020s, yet their government has repeatedly missed its own housing targets. It has failed to build sufficient housing to meet the country’s needs, while stripping councils of the money to do so.
Tens of thousands of families across Yorkshire are desperate for affordable, good quality housing. It’s a scandal that it doesn’t exist.
Private landlords have filled the void. Four million households rely on them for a roof over their head. But it’s clear that many of them cannot or do not wish to carry out the necessary enhancements to meet modern day living expectations, especially as there’s no shortage of desperate tenants.
Some people will say this demonstrates the market works, except perhaps for the ‘occasional rogue landlord’. But is this really true?
Government sticking plaster
To be blunt, the provision of an adequate number of decent homes should never be left to the market. Families are under pressure precisely because of the dogma that the market can satisfy social needs.
It’s unsurprising that housing secretary Michael Gove’s sticking plaster plans to make it easier for property developers to convert office blocks and empty shops into housing without applying for planning permission have been condemned by homelessness charities as dangerous.
It is this obsession with the market that prevents the Tories simply working with councils to build the quality homes local communities need. I don’t mean the unaffordable private development executive housing popping up all over the green belt in my constituency, but good homes built on brownfield, of which Yorkshire and Humber has the second biggest housing unit capacity in England, according to countryside charity Campaign to Protect Rural England.
Renters (reform) bill inadequate in current form
Returning to the appalling increase in the use of S21 notices, not until May did we finally see a renters (reform) bill published to tackle the issue, but it failed to make any progress before parliament rose for summer recess, and Gove refused to commit to bringing the bill back straight after recess in September when I challenged him.
Every day we wait for the bill, another family loses their home.
However, while the bill, should it ever become law, will close the no-fault evictions law loophole, it will open several others, including making it easier for landlords to evict tenants with just two-weeks notice for ‘anti-social behaviour’, of which there is no definition.
And it won’t tackle unjustified rent increases.
In short, it is wholly lacking in any ambition to rebalance the rights and responsibilities of renters and tenants to drive up standards. Gove has come down firmly on the side of the landlords. His proposals have more holes in them for landlords to exploit than a bag of Yorkshire Tea.
Urgent necessity for more social housing
Meanwhile, polling shows a huge majority saying that building more homes to rent (both council housing and social landlords) is more important than increasing the supply of homes to buy.
While Labour has committed to a massive programme of house building, and it is right to do so, we need to create more social rented housing, to tackle abuses in the private sector, review the role played by private developers, and deploy the staggering £16bn spent by the state on housing benefit annually to achieve such social objectives.