Local Housing Allowance and Homelessness — [Mr Adrian Bailey in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:24 am on 24th July 2019.

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Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Inclusive Society) 10:24 am, 24th July 2019

As always, it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Bailey. I congratulate Mr Sharma on securing this hugely important debate and thank everyone who has contributed to it, including Eddie Hughes who, with his hands-on experience from the YMCA, shone an interesting light on this issue based on his own background.

As we have heard so often this morning, there is an inescapable and undeniable link between the paucity of affordable rented property in the private rented sector and the increased risk of people becoming homeless simply because they cannot afford to meet the cost of living in private rented accommodation. Jim Shannon was absolutely right when he described the “chasm of difference” between what those people are expected to pay and what they can afford to pay. To back up what the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall said, local housing allowance should be there to help those on low incomes meet the cost of renting a home, and provide stability and security in their housing situation and prevent the risk of falling into homelessness.

The hon. Members for Westminster North (Ms Buck) and for Stroud (Dr Drew) were also right in what they said. They gave all-too-real examples of what happens to people, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable in our society, who are told that they can no longer afford to live in the areas where they have grown up and in which they have roots and families. It is little wonder that social problems follow as people are moved further and further away from the areas in which they have those roots.

However, let us be absolutely clear: this housing crisis, particularly in England, as well as the rising levels of homelessness and rough sleeping, did not happen by accident. There has not been some unforeseen set of circumstances that has led to the number of households living in temporary accommodation in England rising by 60% between 2012 and 2018. There has been no unexpected or unforeseen quirk that has led to the number of rough sleepers in England nearly doubling over the past five years—far from it. This housing crisis was all too predictable, because just about every stakeholder warned the Government right from the start about the inevitable consequences of pursuing their austerity agenda. When they froze local housing allowance and failed to meet their targets for building social housing, what did they expect to happen, other than a rise in homelessness and the number of people sleeping rough on our streets? That is exactly what has happened, so let us call this what it is: a crisis entirely of the UK Government’s own making.

It is incontestable that the UK Government’s austerity agenda has had a hugely negative impact on people’s ability to rent private-sector accommodation. Research from the Chartered Institute of Housing shows that many LHA rates now fail to cover even the cheapest third of rents as they were designed to do, and a survey carried out by the National Housing Federation and the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations found that tenants on universal credit were more than twice as likely to be in debt than other tenants.

This year alone, the Scottish Government will spend in excess of £125 million to mitigate the worst impacts of those cuts and seek to protect those on low incomes. That will include £50 million to mitigate the bedroom tax and £63 million in discretionary housing payments, of which £1.3 million will be used to directly offset the impact of the LHA freeze. However, it is not the responsibility of the Scottish Government to foot the bill for the Tories’ austerity programme; that is the UK Government’s responsibility, and theirs alone. By lifting the benefits freeze, the Scottish Government will no longer have to plug those gaps caused by austerity, and those funds can be spent on other vital services that benefit the people of Scotland.

The freeze to local housing allowance has had a devastating impact on the poorest people in our society. Removing the freeze and reinstating its true value would be an enormous help, but that is only part of the answer. Only by increasing the supply of affordable housing will long-term, sustainable solutions to the crisis be found. Last month the Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Will Quince, admitted exactly that in reply to an urgent question, saying that a lack of new housing was a major factor in the rise of homelessness, and that,

“successive…Governments…have…not built enough affordable…social …housing.”—[Official Report, 13 June 2019;
Vol. 661, c. 833.]

We have heard from others this morning, including Andrew Selous, that the shortage of housing, particularly for social rent in England, is a major contributory factor to the rise of homelessness. Liam Byrne was absolutely spot on when he said that it was fuelling both the invisible and the visible housing crisis.

The Centre for Policy Studies reckons that England is on course for its worst decade of house building since the second world war. It has calculated that the total number of completions between 2010 and 2019 will average out at 130,000 a year, which is down 20,000 from the figure of the 1990s and 2000s, and is at only half the level seen in the ’60s and ’70s—a successive pattern that has continued for almost half a century. As I said at the start, the issue is about political choices and Governments deciding what their priorities are and what they deem to be important. That is why I fully commend the work of the SNP Scottish Government, who have delivered 76,500 affordable homes since 2007 and are investing more than £3 billion to deliver another 50,000 affordable homes by the end of the current parliamentary Session in 2021. That figure will include 60,000 homes for social rent, 7,000 homes for affordable rent and just over 20,000 homes designed for affordable home ownership. In addition, the Scottish Government continue to support the empty homes partnership, which has brought 3,200 empty homes back into use since 2010.

To put the figures into perspective, between 2007 and 2018, the supply of affordable housing per head of population in Scotland has been a third higher than in England. In the four years to 2018, the Scottish Government have delivered 50% more affordable housing units per head of population than the UK Government have for the people of England. In those four years, the Scottish Government have delivered a remarkable five times more social rented properties per head of population— 84 units per 100,000 compared with only 13 for the people of England. That is not because the Scottish Government have a magic wand and are able to do things that this Parliament cannot do. It is simply that the Scottish Government have prioritised housing as a fundamental of any decent society and, despite a shrinking budget, have invested accordingly. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, the Scottish Government have stopped the right to buy in Scotland. We have protected social rented homes and prevented them from entering into the private sector to the tune of up to 15,500 houses in the past 10 years.

In conclusion, as I said earlier, what we are witnessing, particularly in England, is a crisis entirely of the UK Government’s own making. Knowing full well the consequences of their actions, the Government steamed ahead, creating a perfect storm where punitive, arbitrary and deeply damaging cuts to welfare, coupled to a devastating under-investment in building social housing, have led to soaring rents in the private sector and caused a spike in homelessness and rough sleeping. It is the UK Government’s own mess. When will they wake up to the crisis that they are creating?