One of The Big Issue magazine’s weekly editions in December carries a feature on Lush co-founder Mark Constantine, and since the focus of that commendable enterprise is all about encouraging homeless people back into work (and a home), Miles King takes a look at the real social and political reasons behind Britain’s scandalous rise in homelessness.
This week, I’m straying out of my comfort zone, as I’ve been asked to write about homelessness. This feels appropriate, as we approach that time of the year which is inextricably linked to the story of a homeless family searching for somewhere to sleep, being turned away, again and again, until they find a stable where a mother can give birth to her baby.
In our small town of Dorchester in Dorset homelessness has become increasingly visible over the last 10 years. The extreme end of the homeless spectrum - rough sleepers - sit in shop doorways under multiple layers of sleeping bags during the day. I honestly don’t know where they go at night, but I have seen glimpses, through the trees, of small tented camps on the wooded slopes of the bypass, and a tent has appeared in the water meadows by the Frome river.
I wonder how they can sleep with the constant traffic noise. Nationally, the number of homeless people sleeping rough in the UK has almost tripled since 2010 and with changes to Universal Credit, which mean people in temporary accommodation are unable to pay their rent, these figures are likely to increase substantially over the next couple of years - unless Universal Credit is substantially reformed.
Of course homelessness is about far more than rough sleepers. Homelessness, according to the UK charity Shelter, includes people who are in temporary accommodation like B&B’s, hostels, staying with family or friends, squatting, at risk of domestic abuse (which might mean you have to leave home to find a place of safety), living in such poor housing it affects your health; and living apart from your family because you don't have a place to live together. There are all sorts of reasons why people end up homeless, but one of the main reasons they stay homeless is because they do not receive sufficient financial support, from the State, to find a home; and because there aren’t enough homes available for people in poverty.
In rural West Dorset (which includes Dorchester) nearly 1700 families are on the housing register, but only 68 were housed in the quarter to September 2018. The Council is responsible for finding homes for homeless people. It seems like ancient history, but for a large chunk of the 20th Century, local Councils provided housing to the poor, specifically to prevent homelessness. Before this, for the homeless, there was the appalling prospect of ending up in the workhouse.
The myth of a property owning democracy
Immediately after the First World War, Councils started building their own housing - initially these ‘Homes for Heroes’ were intended to house soldiers returning from the Great War. Between 1921 and 1932, London County Council, for example, purchased farmland outside London and built 25,000 houses on the Becontree Estate outside East London. My father and grandmother took refuge with cousins in Becontree, when their house (near to the London docks) was damaged during the Blitz.
Further Council housing was built after the Second World War and this continued through to 1979 when Mrs Thatcher decided to sell off Council housing, to create that mythical Property Owning Democracy. 4.5 Million Council houses were sold from 1979 to 2013, leaving only 2 million with Councils. Councils also passed over their housing stock to Housing Associations - and there have been more recent moves to allow tenants to buy their housing association homes in an extension of the Right to Buy scheme. In this way the enormous safety net of Council Housing, built up over a 50 year period, has been reduced to a flimsy fabric of holes, through which more and more people are falling.
To a large extent, social housing has been replaced by the private rented market, where private landlords are paid to provide housing via housing benefit. Once again this is a kind of privatisation, which sees public funds end up in private pockets. The demand for private rented housing in some areas also encourages profiteering - including charging prospective tenants for basic rights such as viewing a property.
One of the many attacks on the public sector and public provision in the last eight years has been the prison system. Prison reform, (a euphemism if ever I heard one), has led to Victorian prisons being closed down and sold off, with plans for private prisons to replace them. Dorchester prison was sold as part of a bundle of town centre sites, to a property developer - City and Country properties. It picked up Dorchester, Gloucester, Shepton Mallet and Kingston (Portsmouth) prisons in 2014, for an unknown sum, but presumably not very much.
The developer gained planning permission for 900 homes across the four sites, so you can see that a tidy profit is likely. At Dorchester Prison, the developer proposed that not a single one of the 189 new homes it will build there, will be designated as affordable, let alone social housing. The developers used a loophole in the planning law, introduced by David Cameron’s Government, which meant that they could prepare a secret housing viability assessment, which assessed whether they should be required to provide affordable or social housing as part of the development. Because the assessments are secret, it is not possible to challenge their findings. The Council, although furious, could not reject the planning application on these grounds, knowing it would have lost on appeal (with expensive costs incurred).
Private sales for private profit
If the Government were serious about tackling homelessness, it could have handed these old prisons over to their local Councils, and allowed them to borrow money to convert them into social housing, to replace some of the millions of Council Houses that were effectively privatised during the Thatcher era; or it could have used the proceeds from those sales to build new Council or Housing Association housing. Instead, the Government has sold these sites to private developers, for private profit - and the sale money (what little there was) has been kept by the Treasury.
Meanwhile flagship housing policy Help to Buy (cost £9Bn so far) provides a subsidy to people who already have the resources to buy property - as well as lining the pockets of those house-builders like Berkeley’s Tony Pidgely or Persimmon’s Geoff Fairburn. House Builders are prominent donors to the Conservative party.
This really epitomises the ideology that drives homelessness in Britain. Policies are driven by a belief that the State - whether central Government or local Councils - should not own land or housing - and so every available scrap of public land and housing is being sold off, without any requirement to recycle the income generated into providing decent housing that is available to everyone.
Until this changes, homelessness will only continue to rise, with all the suffering, pain, humiliation and damage to our social fabric, that accompanies it.
Miles King is an Ecologist, founder of People Need Nature and a regular columnist for Lush Times. These are his own views. Follow him on Twitter @MilesKing10.
Photo credit: Tomascastelazo, Wikimedia Creative Commons