I, like all of you, was shocked to learn that a woman gave birth on the cold street at Christmas near one of the wealthiest academic institutions in the country – Trinity College. Comment on social media and elsewhere have viewed this as an example of the stark inequality of life in 21st Century Austerity Britain.
Austerity – a political choice – is undoubtedly the cause of the 165% rise in homelessness since 2010. Local government has been among the worst affected by public sector cuts, with their ability to provide valuable services hit. The sluggish economy through the 2010s led to pay not keeping up with the cost of living, making many worse off. Cuts to benefits hit the poorest hardest. A housebuilding slump led to pressure on the availability of affordable homes. In short, the last decade was calamitous for social cohesion.
But this is not to say councils are not trying to make stretched resources go further. Homelessness is a moral disgrace, and tackling it is one of Cambridge City Council’s top priorities. I am proud that, since 2014 when Labour took control, we have not cut our homelessness budget, with annual funding in place of £750,000 for local organisations and charities. We also launched Street Aid, with the public’s loose change going towards small grants to help homeless people turn their lives around, for example through a new qualification or a suit for an interview.
How we tackle homelessness depends on the kind experienced. Most who are homeless do not end up on the street. These ‘hidden homeless’ are often sleeping on sofas, staying with family for a limited time or in insecure accommodation. We do our best to prevent someone from either becoming homeless in the first place or shorten the time from which they come to us and are provided with alternative housing. New laws allow councils to intervene earlier to help stop an eviction. But the same stretched councils must find more money to deal with the increased workload. Government funding to help meet the expanded role currently falls short of what is required.
And for the minority who do sleep rough, even with support on offer, it is sadly the case that some are initially resistant to help. This demonstrates how complex homelessness is. While it is critical to have beds, shelter and hostels in place – and in Cambridge there are over 340 beds available across the city – this alone will not end rough sleeping. Poor mental health, an addiction or bad experience of being in a shelter, can all lead to support initially being declined. It can take months for trust to be gained for someone to take up assistance. This is certainly not helped by the NHS being starved of funds, leading to a deterioration in mental health and drug addiction services, making it harder for vulnerable people to get the treatment they need. The Tories say they will deliver a big increase to the NHS budget over the next few years. Whether that will be enough to overcome the gap they created remains to be seen.
Austerity won’t end for councils like ours any time soon. Our core grant from the government is now zero. Reforms to council funding will likely deplete our income further. There will be tough choices for us for years to come.
We will keep battling on, however. Cambridge City Council are strong supporters of the ‘Housing First’ model where a flat – like the modular homes to be built on Newmarket Road – is offered to someone, together with support, to ease the challenging transition of being off the street for perhaps the first time in years.
And with over a thousand families and individuals on our housing register, we are building council houses again, being on course to complete over 540 new homes by 2022. We want to build a further thousand by 2032. This is the largest expansion of council housebuilding in Cambridge since the 1960s and will assist with preventing the most vulnerable from being exposed to the cliff edge of an eviction and possible homelessness. But this can only make a real difference as part of a proper joined-up approach, with clear commitments from the government.
Aside from more money for councils and the NHS, we need rent controls and better regulation of the private rental sector, including abolishing “no-fault” evictions. Our social security system needs urgent reform, with housing benefit to be linked to the real cost of renting in places like Cambridge. We also need to reform the planning system. Some developers make phoney arguments about “viability”, cutting the number of affordable homes available as part of any new private housing development to maximise profits.
The government want to end rough sleeping in the UK by 2027. Unless they give charities and public services the tools required, with real reforms to give power to renters and ease the affordable housing crisis, then this goal as believable as a figure on a side of a bus. Is Boris Johnson committed to ending austerity and tackling inequality? For as long as there is bluster instead of real commitments in this vital area the answer remains a resounding ‘no’.