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05 December 2019

Can the manifesto policies solve the crisis in homelessness?

Michelle Cornes and James Fuller

MICHELLE CORNES AND JAMES FULLER: The remedy to homelessness is in our grasp, but arguably the manifestos of all three main parties fall to medicate appropriately

Rough sleeping

The Policy Institute is producing a series of comment pieces analysing election manifesto pledges from the different parties across a range of policy areas. Read the full series here

The number of people experiencing homelessness in the UK has dramatically increased since 2010. In the autumn of 2018, 4,677 people in England were estimated to be sleeping rough, a worrying increase from 1,768 in 2010. Rough sleeping is at the extreme and visible end of homelessness and estimates of the total number of people affected by the UK’s housing crisis highlight an even larger problem. Data from 2019 suggest that around 250,000 households and 400,000 people are currently homeless or at risk of homelessness.

According to the Homeless Monitor, housing market trends and policies have the most direct impact on levels of homelessness. However, an increasing focus on the rising number of deaths of people who are homeless alerts us to a public health emergency, not just a housing problem. Recent reviews of the evidence on what works to tackle homelessness, published in the Lancet and our own homeless research programme at the Health & Social Care Workforce Research Unit, King’s College London, suggest that the remedy is in our grasp. However, arguably, the manifestos of all three main parties fall to medicate appropriately.

First, we must tackle the political determinants of homelessness, including child poverty, poor education and employment opportunities, criminalisation, invisibility and stigma. These issues do not feature strongly in the manifestos with regard to what are conceptualised as the preventative measures necessary to tackle homelessness.

Second, across all three main parties, homelessness is viewed largely as a lack of affordable housing. All parties are committed to building affordable and/or social housing at a typical rate of 100,000 per annum. Official figures reveal that 37,825 new homes were built to be let at discounted rents last year, despite a national housing waiting list of more than 1.1 million households. Meanwhile, the number of new homes classed as social housing and available at the cheapest rents from councils remained historically low at a mere 6,287, the second-lowest level in peacetime since council house building began in earnest in 1921.

The number of new homes classed as social housing and available at the cheapest rents from councils remained historically low at a mere 6,287, the second-lowest level in peacetime since council house building began in earnest in 1921.

Michelle Cornes and James Fuller

Eviction from the private rented sector is one of the main causes of homelessness in the UK. Labour and the Liberal Democrats promise to legislate for longer term tenancies and limits on annual rent increases. Labour intends to strengthen “rights for renters”, however an adverse consequence of this may be to reduce even further the number of private landlords still willing to let to people on benefits and low incomes. Landlords may also be bemused by the party’s commitment to: “Capping rents with inflation and giving cities powers to cap rents further”. Few have achieved any significant increase in recent years; indeed, many have been obliged to accept reduced rents in recognition of good tenants’ straightened circumstances.   

The Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats pledge to end rough sleeping within five years. In the Labour manifesto there is a promise of 8,000 additional homes for people with a history of rough sleeping. This is to be welcomed, however a clearer commitment to Housing First is warranted. There is growing international evidence that providing people who have experienced severe adversity with a home and wrap around support from health and social care is key to improving their health and wellbeing as well as their housing status.

To end the blight of rough sleeping the Conservatives are earmarking an additional £1 billion a year for councils’ homelessness services and ensuring extra shelters and support available during winter. This will be funded, in part, by a national levy on second homes. This is to be welcomed but, as people sleeping on the streets will tell you, rough sleeping is just as dangerous in the summer as it is in the winter. It is not the cold that kills but the lack of access to timely healthcare and a failure to safeguard appropriately, for example where a homeless patient is discharged to the street. Services designed for frail and vulnerable older people need to be available to people who are younger but who may be approaching the end of life. The average age of death of a person who is homeless is 42 years.

There is also a commitment by the Conservatives to continue with “pilot projects”. Although some good progress has been made in Rough Sleeping Initiative pilot areas to reduce the numbers of people sleeping rough, there is strong case to be made that short-term non-recurrent funding is much less impactful than ring-fenced sustainable funding sources. Funding programmes such as Supporting People were the locomotive behind the significant reductions in homelessness that were achieved by Labour up until the end of 2010. Many working in the field of homelessness would see sustainable funding for high quality support work as being just as important to successful outcomes as bricks and mortar. This has all but vanished in many areas, alongside much supported housing and many smaller local charities.

Finally, few parties can be found pounding the street raising awareness among people who are homeless of their right to vote. Well done to Stan and the other “experts by experience” recently featured in the BBC News who are bridging the divide making sure that most excluded and marginalised in our society have a say in tackling homelessness. 

Dr Michelle Cornes is a Senior Fellow at the NIHR Health & Social Care Workforce Research Unit, King's College London. She is writing in a personal capacity.

James Fuller is a Peer Researcher and Expert by Experience at the NIHR Health & Social Care Workforce Research Unit.


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