Homeless people need homes, but how can we get more houses built and ready to live in? It’s a problem that affects us all, so it calls for bold thinking.
Homelessness is a scourge in the UK, and it is growing. Some are calling it a national emergency. Research from Shelter found that the number of people homeless in England alone totalled 320,000, with more being added to that number all the time.
We traditionally think of homeless people as individuals, sleeping rough on the streets. While it’s true that these people are the most visible examples of homelessness that we see in everyday life, it’s by no means all there is. Homelessness includes people living in temporary accommodation, such as bed and breakfast hotels. It’s families, with young children, who have nowhere to live. Shelter found that an astonishing 55% of homeless households have a member that is in work.
The effects of homelessness are dire on the people who have to live with it. It leads to physical and mental health problems. It can lead to dependence on drugs or alcohol. Often, the end result is death, either by suicide, illness or accidents. However, homelessness has a massively detrimental effect on society as a whole. The cost to local government of the homelessness problem is massive and rising. In 2019, according to Local Government Association figures, local councils spent a collective £663 million on homeless services, £140 million more than budgeted. Imagine what else local authorities could spend that money on.
What can be done?
One of the leading causes of the rising homeless figures is a shortage of social and affordable housing. The lack of housing stock in the UK, coupled with an increasing population, means that demand is high. This leads to rising property and rental prices. On the other hand, average wages have not risen in tandem, while housing benefit levels have generally fallen. This has created a gap between the rents, wages and benefits, making housing unaffordable for an increasing number people and families on low incomes.
It’s clear what we need: more housing. We need more homes, available for rent at lower prices, with a higher proportion allocated for social provision. It is as simple as that, or at least, it should be.
There are other things the Government could do to alleviate the homeless problem. Such as:
- Making unoccupied buildings available for shelters
- Reallocating budgets to local government homeless services
Yet really, these would just be tinkering at the edges. More housing is what we need, in large quantities. Homeless people need homes.
Unfortunately, simply building more houses doesn’t seem to be much of an option. The most significant challenge is the size of the problem. Years of inadequate house building has allowed homelessness to spiral out of control, making it even harder to fix.
What we need is a long-term solution, which does not rely on long term action from the government, because a new government may simply switch priority.
The size of the problem is stark. Estimates vary on the number of houses that need to be built in order to end homelessness, but either way, it is massive. Shelter estimates that we need at least 90,000 new social rental houses every year, to fix the problem.
The number of affordable homes being built in England is rising:
- 57,485 affordable homes were constructed in England in 2018/19, up 22% from 2017/18
- Of the 57,485 affordable homes provided last year, 51% were for affordable rent, 30% were for shared ownership and 11% were for social rent
- New builds made up 53,044 (92%) of new affordable homes delivered
But, this is still not enough. How can we, on a practical level, get these houses built?
Obviously, building houses on this almost unprecedented scale requires bold measures. Each will have its own advantages and disadvantages, but there was never going to be a perfect solution.
In an ideal world, the UK Government would implement a massive social house building scheme, paying for the entire operation: land, materials, labour, everything out of taxes. It would essentially be a recreation of what happened after World War II and into the 1960s, when the council blocks we still see today were constructed. However, this solution would not be popular with the taxpayers. It would require a vast investment from the Government’s funds and taxes would have to rise to make it happen. Tax rises are rarely popular, even when it’s for a worthwhile reason. In addition, a programme on this scale would take a lot of time to come to fruition.
In the current economy, it’s much more likely that the homes would be built by the private sector. So, the Government has to do more to make it worthwhile. At the moment, Section 106 of the Town Planning Act requires developers to allocate a specific proportion of their new build for affordable housing, in order to get permission to build. The authorities could be more bullish about this, making the requirements much larger. They could also boost incentives to build affordable housing, such as tax breaks. A carrot and stick approach could be what is needed.
However, changing laws in this way takes time and there is much red tape to negotiate. Amending Section 106 may have the reverse effect, discouraging developers from building new properties at all.
Bold solutions for pressing problems
Homelessness is a problem that affects the entire society. It’s the result of many different events coming together: economic, social, governmental and more.
The outcome needs to be more homes. The way we do it is up for discussion.
Perhaps there is another solution that could emerge, bold thinking to solve this problem that we all share? Time will tell. It will be interesting to find out.
The one thing that is needed above all else to end homelessness in the UK, is the will to do it.