Tackling homelessness is one of the most pressing social policy priorities for the country and the fiftieth anniversary of Cathy Come Home last year gave it a particular emphasis.
It has defied simple answers over the last fifty years. Every day in Westminster our homelessness service helps people with huge and complex problems in an environment where levels of need remain stubbornly high and resources have not increased to meet them.
Our priority is to prevent people from becoming homeless, and the upheaval it causes, from arising in the first place. Measures we employ include working with the Citizens Advice Bureau to provide debt advice, specialist legal teams to challenge illegal evictions, working with landlords to ensure properties are brought up to standard and supporting 20 households a month to move into the private rented sector through rent deposit schemes.
Last year alone we prevented homelessness in 483 cases, of whom 203 were supported to move into homes in the private rented sector through rent deposit and advance payment schemes, while 157 households were prevented from becoming homeless after receiving a combination of legal and financial advice. The underlying causes of homelessness are many and a wide range of agencies at local, regional and national level have parts to play in addressing them.
The Homelessness Reduction Bill being debated by the Commons this week will inspire a shift from coping with homelessness, to acting to prevent it. Funding will be needed to make this a reality; we are encouraged by ministers’ recognition of this.
Local authorities need to work together to find and implement effective steps to help people avoid homelessness where possible and, where it isn’t, to support them into housing they and the public purse can both afford. To do this, we need to recognise that the issues related to homelessness go far beyond any one borough’s boundaries and have an honest discussion about how to face it across London and beyond.
Westminster City Council is keen to catalyse this debate. Our position at the heart of London, with some of the country’s highest housing costs and land values mean that the challenges involved in tackling homelessness here are particularly intense. But the basic problems of securing enough accommodation that homeless households and the council can both afford, and of finding ways to prevent homelessness in the first place, are faced by all London boroughs and many authorities beyond the capital.
The fundamental issue is that it is unsustainable for any council to try to fund people to live in places they cannot afford over the long-term. It is also unfair to those involved. Like many other boroughs of all political persuasions, we have to place homeless households outside Westminster. We are doing this in ways intended to ensure a better and quicker outcome for homeless households, against the background of constrained resources and central London’s high-cost housing market. We always take individuals’ needs into account in deciding whether these placements are suitable and now have a rigorous policy framework in place to ensure this happens. Our objective is to provide people with as much certainty about their futures as early as we can – and to find ways forward they, (and we), can sustain until they are able to make their own housing choices.
This is a start. But the only way to tackle these issues long-term is to ensure the policies of different government departments are aligned, to enable councils - and in London, the Mayor - to work together on ways to combine land, money and expertise to deliver more homes and enough resources to provide the level of help to people in housing need that the nation expects.
Getting to this point depends on a frank debate about all the issues involved which goes beyond simplistic slogans. This is the only way we can make proper headway in addressing need, managing demand and ultimately, eradicating homelessness in this country altogether.
Daniel Astaire (Con), cabinet member for housing, regeneration, business and economic development, Westminster City Council