The number of people sleeping rough in the UK is at a record high, after a 73 per cent rise in numbers over the last three years.
According to the latest snapshot analysis by UK local councils, there were 4,751 people sleeping rough on a given night in the autumn of last year. That represents a 169% increase on 2010 figures. In the course of last year 8,108 slept rough in London, a 121% increase on 2010 figures.
General homelessness has shot up. Just over 59,000 people were accepted as homeless by local councils in England last year. That figure is 19,000 higher than it was 2009-10. The vast bulk of the rise in homelessness is attributable to the sharply rising number of people made homeless by private landlords. Evictions have nearly quadrupled since 2009-10 — from 5,000 in that year to over 18,000 last year.
These evictions are related to cuts in housing benefit. The removal of “automatic” Housing Benefit entitlement for young adults and the full roll out of Universal Credit will make this crisis even worse.
The same local councils who are implementing the cuts in benefit are now expected under the Homeless Reduction Act (2018) to do better at housing homeless people — the victims of their cuts!
The Act asks councils to focus on people most at risk of rough sleeping, to help them to find accommodation. But meagre central government financing of this duty on council (just £72 million a year), makes it unlikely councis l will fulfil it.
Most local councils have little housing to offer the homeless apart from temporary accommodation. Placements in temporary accommodation have risen sharply. The overall national total has risen by 8 per cent in the year to 31 March 2017 to reach 78,000 — up by 61 per cent from a low point six years earlier.
This appalling situation forms a backdrop to the increasingly brutal way that police and council officials, acting under measures put in place by local councils, treat rough sleepers.
Under the 2014 Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act, local councils are able to use Public Space Protection Orders to outlaw all kinds of so-called anti-social behaviour in a designated public places. The orders can cover a few streets or a whole city centre. Sometimes the behaviour council seek to outlaw has included begging and rough sleeping (and the drug and alcohol use of rough sleepers).
The Act also allows “authorised people” (including council officers) to issue a Community Protection Notice to individuals engaged in so-called unreasonable behaviour. Some councils are issueing these notices to people begging, rough sleeping, erecting tents and so on.
People found to be breaching these orders have been fined and imprisoned. The Guardian found through freedom of information requests that at least 51 people have been convicted of breaching a PSPO for begging or loitering and failing to pay a fine since 2014. In some cases the fines have been as high as £1,100. Hundreds of fixed-penalty notices have been issued.
Public Space Protection Orders represent just the latest measure in a raft of laws and policies over the last twenty years used by central and local governments to control public space and to sanitise city centres by driving out “undesirables” — rough sleepers, but also buskers and political activists.
This moves are directly tied to meeting the demands of business and property developers who want to sell an image of the “clean and safe” city.
The bullying and victimising has to stop. A Labour government should repeal all of New Labour’s and the Tories’ anti-social behaviour legislation.
Underpinning the introduction of soulless “clean safe” cities has been the astronomical rise of land values. Urban residential land values rose by 21% just between 2015 and 2017. They tripled between 2003 and 2015, and increased by a factor of 21 in 1983-2015. Land is £7.3 million per hectare in east London, and £93.3 million per hectare in Westminster. Much of it is owned by a few ultra-rich individuals and institutions.
In the same period most local authorities have sold valuable land to those developers; Labour-controlled authorities justified those sales by the need to maintain services (although that proved impossible). In return developers made minimal promises of building “affordable housing”, which turned out to be unaffordable for most, let alone people at the bottom of the housing market.
To help the homeless, Labour urgently needs to take power away from land owners, landlords, and property developers and stop the appalling bullying and victimisation of the homeless.
To do that it could nationalise strategic land in urban areas in order to facilitate council house building and create new open and green spaces. Labour should build thousands more council homes (more than is promised in the Manifesto). The Party should encourage and facilitate councils to take over the empty properties of landlords. It should introduce maximum rents and secure tenancies in all forms of housing and restore and raise housing-related benefits.
We want to expropriate the landowners and the big private housing landlords. We want to bring all large-scale rented housing under public ownership and democratic control!