Now is the time to end homelessness

There needs to be real action to protect renters, end rough sleeping and stop a new homelessness crisis, writes KEN LIVINGSTONE

THIS week, Labour, homelessness charities, housing campaigners and others have called for the government to repeat the Everyone In scheme from earlier this year to protect rough sleepers this winter as the country again enters lockdown.

As Labour’s shadow minister said, “On Saturday, the Prime Minister said: ‘From Thursday until the start of December, you must stay at home.’ For this to happen, it is essential that everyone has a safe place to call home.”

As part of this, 15,000 rough sleepers were helped off the streets by local authorities and charities. It literally saved hundreds (possibly thousands) of lives and showed that with the political will this scar on our country can be dealt with.

But this did not mean that the homelessness crisis was solved or that new people have not been made homeless. Indeed, here in London recent figures showed 3,444 people had been sleeping rough between July and September, and that of these 1,901 people were sleeping rough for the first time.

Tragically, these figures also show that the number of young rough sleepers has increased by half.

And there is no reason to believe that this is not a picture that is repeated across the country.

Now then is the time for the government to take a clear lead, and protect people on our streets from a cold, dangerous and potentially deadly winter. This will take resources and determination, and progressives must do all we can to keep this issue on the agenda.

Another way to ensure there isn’t rising homelessness at this dangerous time is for the government to send a clear signal through a renewal of the ban on evictions as well as the ban on repossessions.

The government has previously claimed that no-one will lose their home due to the pandemic, but words are not enough to make this a reality — action is needed.

Renters and homeowners need clear protection, and neither the ban on evictions (which ended on September 20) nor the ban on repossessions (which ended October 31) should have ended when the country was in the grip of both public-health and economic crises, the latter including a deepening cost-of-living crisis.

Furthermore, as Labour pointed out this week, “although landlords must now give six months’ notice for most eviction cases, this will not help those at most immediate risk of eviction, who were issued with eviction notices before 29 August and whose cases will be the first to go through the courts this winter.”

In addition to this, the deepening economic difficulties have meant that more and more renters are struggling to pay and are falling into arrears.

Shelter recently revealed that 322,000 renters have fallen into arrears, so the scale of the issue here is really serious.

They have also estimated that since March this year illegal evictions are up 60 per cent, showing yet again just how much rogue landlords believe they can get away with in this country.

In terms of the broader picture, under a decade of Tory austerity the housing crisis has deepened on many fronts.

Crucially, the number of new homes being built never recovered to pre-recession levels and, specifically, the number of new homes built for social rent fell to ever lower levels. This has mean that with people unable to get a council home, private renters face extortionate costs alongside a lack of the most basic rights.

Here in London, we see this housing crisis in all our communities.

The truth is that, ever since Margaret Thatcher stopped building council homes for rent, house prices have soared beyond the means of most Londoners, and our children and grandchildren are forced to rent homes that cost more than half their take-home pay.

In the 2000s, as London mayor, I was proud to put my London Plan to use by requiring 50 per cent of the capital’s new homes to be affordable. But then we saw Boris Johnson become mayor and that was the end of that.

It’s important to understand that for ideological reasons the Tories are both against greater public-sector building and regard negatively planning policies that “interfere” in the market. It was therefore no surprise when Johnson abolished this 50 per cent target for affordable housing in 2008.

Vast swathes of London have seen families who have lived here for generations forced to leave the city in a devastating tide of social cleansing.

Moving forward, to tackle the housing crisis — and its sharp end, the homelessness crisis — we need to build at least a million new homes in five years, with at least half a million council homes.

We also need action to put renters first rather than profit-making landlords, including through meaningful rent controls, secure tenancies and a charter of private-tenants’ rights as included in Labour’s last Manifesto.

Additionally, I would argue that the “help to buy” scheme should be ended as it simply exacerbates unaffordability in the housing market and depletes council-housing stock even further.

After this crisis, there should be no return to business as usual, including in terms of our broken housing system and the national scandal that is the disgusting level of homelessness this government has tolerated for far too long.

This article originally appeared in The Morning Star