The most significant piece of legislation seeking to combat homelessness in almost 40 years became law last month. The Homelessness Reduction Act will oblige councils to start assessing someone at risk of being made homeless 56 days before losing their home rather than the current 28 days. The legislation also binds councils to offer support to all families and single people, regardless of priority need, who are eligible for assistance and threatened with homelessness.
Homelessness and rough sleeping has spiralled in recent years. In 2016 4,134 people slept rough on any one night across England - double the number counted in 2010. Last year, 112,330 people in England made a homelessness application, a 26% rise since 2009-10. By widening the duties on local government and ensuring earlier intervention in cases of possible homelessness the measures contained in the legislation will bring positive change. However, for the homelessness epidemic to be solved the government elected on 8 June will need to develop a broader, national response.
As part of its support for the Homelessness Reduction Act the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) has said that it will provide £61million to local government to meet the new costs associated with the legislation. Although welcome there are concerns that this is not enough. The London council of Lewisham alone reckons that the new duties could cost it £2.38m a year, whilst the Association of Housing Advice Services estimates London's 32 boroughs will face a combined bill of £161million to implement the new duties. Particularly worrying is that the government funding tumbles to zero within two years and there is no evidence that savings will offset costs by this time. For this reason the Local Government Association is right to request a full review of costs after two years.
In addition to this the new administration will need to build more affordable homes. DCLG's own figures show that affordable housebuilding has fallen to the lowest level in nearly 25 years, with the number of homes being built for social rent at the lowest point since records began. Last week the Public Accounts Committee noted that only 54% of the homes needed to keep up with population growth are estimated to have been built between 2011 and 2015. With Nimbyism declining and several new measures to alleviate the housing crisis already in place there was an expectation May's government would liberalize building on green belt land as part of the housing white paper published earlier this year. Instead the paper jettisoned any reference to easing restrictions stating that ministers will "reaffirm this government's commitment to the green belt." This is a missed opportunity. Research carried out by The Centre for Cities shows that building on just 5 per cent of green belt land within and around the UK's least affordable cities would provide 1.4 million new homes. This would help more ordinary working families to own their own home and tackle the homelessness crisis.
When DCLG took the decision to back the legislation last year, Communities Secretary Sajid Javid announced that ministers were "determined to do all we can to help those who lose their homes and provide them with the support they need to get their lives back on track". But in order for this vision to be realized our new government must develop more radical plans. A significant injection of cash now will lead to considerable savings for other public bodies, fewer NHS hours with substantial savings for accident and emergency departments alone, fewer police hours and, fundamentally, more lives turned round for the good of society.