In which Medway Labour’s Housing spokesperson Naushabah Khan looks at the homelessness situation in Medway.
Welcoming in 2019, I thought it was important to start the new year discussing an issue that we really have to get under control. A problem that frankly has no space in one of the world’s richest economies and one that should instead be close to eradication. Yet since 2010 homelessness, in all its guises, has been on the increase; exacerbated by a shortage of social and affordable homes and the politics of austerity, driven by a Conservative
To give a sense of the numbers, rough sleeping is up by a startling 134% (in seven years) nationally, while there has been a 60% rise in the number of families living in temporary accommodation. In Medway alone over six hundred children are classified as homeless, the worst figures in Kent.
The biggest contributors to this significant and very real rise, have been changes to welfare reform, an increasingly expensive and largely unregulated rental market, and a re-housing process that is wholly inadequate. As a Medway Councillor, housing casework takes up the bulk of my time and I have experienced first-hand a housing process which is fundamentally flawed, and at best can be described as outdated, and at worst as ludicrous.
One particular case involved a couple who had a young baby and had left their property due to the damp and mould issues, which the landlord refused to fix despite many requests. After sofa-surfing for many months they were informed that legally they had made themselves intentionally homeless and therefore were not entitled to any support.
The serious lack of social housing has further exacerbated the problem. Last year the council delivered approximately a hundred affordable homes, despite contending with a housing waiting list of approximately 20,000 (official figures, published by DCLG in 2017, although the Council state this has been reduced and is now closer to 5,000).
Medway Council is not necessarily unique in its position, and like many local authorities relies heavily on the private sector to ease the burden; this is working less and less. For instance, in Medway the number of landlords who will let to council tenants has decreased significantly with many realising they can actually get a better deal from ex-Londoners, who have been priced out of the capital and would rather not spend their life savings (presuming they have any) living in a shoebox, for far less hassle – thank you very much. Rising private sector rents and cuts in housing benefits have simply priced people out. The result is hundreds of families chasing a small number of properties desperate to get their foot in the door. The situation is dire and the system not fit for purpose.
Solutions can be found but it will need a joint up approach from both national and local government. The Government’s recent announcement to remove the Housing Revenue Account (HRA) cap, allowing councils to borrow to build, and the introduction of a new homelessness assessment centre in Medway could potentially provide some immediate respite. In the long-term, however, the whole system needs a fundamental overhaul to ensure it is in line with today’s housing situation, taking into account the significant changes that have taken place and a realistic assessment of the market with further regulation of the rental market.
Here in Medway, real and practical steps can be taken, including increased support for housing charities (such as One Big Family) who are doing brilliant work running shelters and supporting rough sleepers. The introduction of the ‘Housing First’ policy which ensures a safe and comfortable home for those at risk of homelessness, before tackling the other issues that may have left them vulnerable or socially excluded. And as a priority, a real and firm commitment to building more council housing, through its own development arm – Medway Development Company (MDC) – as well as ensuring private developers deliver on their promises.
Homelessness is a blight on our society, it impacts the most vulnerable causing lasting damage and from a purely crude economic perspective costs taxpayers more than £1 billion a year. It is a problem that has been heightened by bad politics that has seen support services, benefits, and local authorities decimated. It’s time we got a grip of this situation before the damage becomes irreversible.
Further information on Housing First can be found here.
Naushabah Khan is the Medway Labour Spokesperson for Housing and councillor for Gillingham South.