Disposing of that pesky homelessness problem

[Originally posted on Liberal Democrat Voice, 11/11/10]

It was entirely predictable. The opening moves in a game that could see another hard-won component of the welfare state undermined have now been played.

It may have been predictable, but it is no less distasteful for all that.

The Coalition’s proposals for restricting housing benefit in the private rented sector have been greeted with a chorus of disapproval from informed commentators and the housing policy and practice community. Many grassroots LibDem members are equally concerned. Dire consequences are forecast.

The Government believes that landlords will happily adjust their rent downwards to reflect benefit cuts. Informed opinion says otherwise. (I discuss this issue further here). In sharp contrast, a significant increase in homelessness is predicted as a result of tenants no longer being able to pay to sustain their tenancies.

The Government has sought to dismiss such arguments as scaremongering and stirring up fears unnecessarily. Personally I’d take informed opinion over wishful thinking any day.

So it would be prudent to expect a significant rise in statutory homelessness. Local authorities will have to pick up the pieces of this ill-conceived and ill-intentioned policy.

Unless … Unless …

What if we disposed of the problem by the simple expedient of (re)defining it out of existence? That is a strategy that Lord Freud, the Welfare Minister, suggested would be “very valuable” when he appeared in front of the Work and Pensions Committee last week. The legal provisions which mean a household can be considered homeless as a result of living in overcrowded accommodation were identified as particularly suspect and ripe for revision.

After all, if you are not going to guarantee households sufficient resources to pay for what has, up until now, been a socially-accepted minimum standard of housing then why not just redefine “adequate” so the problem goes away. I hope this is a strategy that will be challenged vigorously before it develops too much momentum.

Like many concepts at the heart of policy, “homelessness” is a social construction. It is a contestable concept. The precise boundaries of the category “homeless” can be debated, as can the nature and extent of the obligations to assist homeless households assumed by the state.

Our current understanding of “homelessness” gained sufficient support to underpin the architecture of policy for more than 30 years. Its origins lie in the same impulse to improve the housing conditions of poorer households that led to the founding of the campaigning charity Shelter. The legislation of the mid-1970s is considered a milestone in social policy.

The current UK framework of homelessness legislation is one of the most extensive in the world, based on a broad understanding of homelessness as a range of insecure and unsuitable living arrangements.

The last time the homelessness legislation was significantly challenged was during the Major government of the early 1990s. Even then the government didn’t really challenge the established understanding of homelessness. Rather, it watered down the state’s obligations to help. The first Blair government reversed the move.

However, New Labour’s choice in public services agenda has already placed a tension at the heart of the social housing allocations system. How can you offer choice, and allocate social housing to different types of household, when the system is “clogged up” with homeless households to whom the state has legal obligations?

Part of the answer has been using homelessness prevention initiatives to avoid households seeking to be declared homeless in the first place. Some of this activity – particularly mediation – has been very positive.

But for some time now local authorities, particularly those with a blue tinge, have also been lobbying for a reduction in legal obligations towards the homeless in order to “facilitate choice”. It looks like the government is minded to deliver the outcome desired, but by approaching the issue from a different direction.

It would be quite wrong to suggest that the existing allocations and homelessness system is perfect. And the scale of the homelessness problem alongside a declining social housing stock has created some formidable challenges.

But it would be worse to dismantle the system without thinking very hard about why its there and what will be lost.

The housing standards deemed acceptable tells us a lot about a society’s values. Equally, housing standards have important practical implications.

Take overcrowding – the target of Lord Freud’s disapproval. There is research evidence that living in overcrowded conditions has implications for the spread of infectious and communicable disease and increases the risks of accidents in the home. Insufficient space has implications for child development because of, among other things, increased rates of illness, which keep children from school, and absence of quiet space which impeded study at home. Poor housing condition in childhood are associated with long term limiting illness and disability in adulthood.

I could go on. But perhaps the country “can’t afford” to be worried about those sorts of things any more …

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