I wrote the following article for Roof Magazine in June 2006
“The Tories left us with a shocking legacy including a £19 billion repairs backlog in social homes, a huge rise in rough sleeping and run-down city centres” - so said the Housing Minister, Yvette Cooper, in a briefing to Labour MPs prior to the local elections setting out the Government’s achievements. No one could dispute that the Government has put in more money but this is woefully inadequate to deal with the scale of the inherited problems.
Sadly, the decline in the availability of social housing has continued, not only as a result of right to buy sales but also as a result of demolitions of homes that cannot be brought up to the decent homes standard without a greater commitment of resources than the Government has been prepared to give. Is it not shocking that, after 9 years of Labour Government, waiting lists for council housing in England have risen by 50%, to one and a half million, higher than at any time in the last 20 years since comparable figures were collected
During most of this time, priority homeless acceptances were also rising until last year when, for no obvious reason in terms of the supply or affordability of housing, they dropped by 20%. The Government explains this as being achieved by the use of innovative ways of preventing homelessness. However, if the experience of constituents seeking my help with housing problems is anything to go by, a contributory factor is the increasingly hard line taken in refusing homeless applications or applying the intentionality rule (numbers of applicants considered as intentionally homeless have almost trebled since 1997). The most likely explanation for this is, as Roof reported last year, that local authority staff are being pressurised to reduce the number of people they accept as homeless. Strategies are employed to delay even considering an application (a process that can take several weeks unless someone is literally roofless) by demanding further information or by requiring tenants in temporary private rented housing to contest hopeless cases against landlords serving a notice to quit.
Increasingly I find myself in the position of having to explain to constituents, who approach me with their housing problems “because you are our last hope”, that I cannot help them. I know many other MPs find themselves in the same boat. How do you respond to someone who tells you “I keep telling my wife we need to be strong for our son…but it is hard for me to be optimistic after so many years of waiting and getting no-where”? Nine years ago, I could blame the Tories. Now all I can do is point to the times I have pressed the Government to improve its housing record on behalf of those who are neither able to afford good quality market housing nor are amongst the fortunate minority who live in council or housing association housing that meets their needs. These are households living in non-decent or overcrowded social housing, those sharing with friends and relatives and those living in unsatisfactory and insecure housing in the private sector. Ironically many of the latter have been placed there by the local authority. Between 1997 and 2005, the proportion of homeless households placed in private sector temporary housing has gone up from 17% to 60%. It is all the more poignant when such housing used to be owned by the council, as in one recent case that came to my attention. A family sought my help because they are about to be booted out of temporary accommodation in an ex-council house, rented on their behalf by Birmingham City Council at £300 a week.
The continuing inequality between those who have adequate housing and those who do not is blighting Labour’s good record and is creating great resentment. At the local elections we saw how extremist political parties are tapping into the search for scapegoats. In response to Kate Barker’s 2004 recommendation that an additional 23,000 social homes a year should be built, the Government said that it will set out ambitious plans for increasing the social housing supply in the 2007 spending review. Voters at the next general election, less than 4 years away, will judge on the record, not on the plans.
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