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Lying about homelessness isn’t the main scandal

It’s bad enough that Ministers repeatedly lied in concealing their predictions about the growth of homelessness due to their own measures. But what matters a lot more is what’s going to be done to avert potentially the worst social crisis in Britain for decades. Having to subsist on poverty rations is dreadful, but not having a home at all is worse still. And the numbers are set to rise dramatically: the 23% rise in homelessness over the last year (with applications actually doubling in some areas in London over the same period) is just the tip of the iceberg, reflecting only the impact of the financial crash in 2008-9. It doesn’t yet reflect the impact of public spending cuts starting 3 months ago, nor of the housing benefit cuts kicking in from January next year. That could well push the homelessness total, currently about 80,000, to double or more. How can that be prevented?

The glib answer is that Government executes another of its hallmark U-turns. Unlikely when homelessness doesn’t arouse public concern and anger at all like the Lansley NHS bill. However, the fact that Government acknowledges that cost savings from housing benefit cuts, estimated at £270m a year from 2014, will be outbalanced by the huge surge in costs dealing with homelessness might cause a re-think.   But don’t hold your breath.

Even that is not the real scandal. The central cause of this impending disaster is the catastrophic collapse in the building of social housing by local authorities over the last 40 years. In 1968 local authorities built 143,700 homes. By 1980 this had almost halved to 74,800.   Under Thatcher there was then a precipitate decline to 14,700 by the end of the 1980s. It continued to drop under Major to just 500 in 1996-7.   Under New Labour the decline shamefully continued, falling to only 84 in 1999 and 87 in 2000, and thereafter reached no more than 200-300 a year in the decade since.

Obviously the soaring homelessness problem that is fast approaching cannot be solved without a very big annual increase in social housing construction taking it up to at least 30,000 a year within 3-4 years and continuing to rise thereafter. There are still 1.8 million households on Council waiting lists.   There’s no point pretending the Tories will ever do this; but why isn’t Labour shouting this from the rooftops?

And there’s a very promising line here for Labour. Instead of capping welfare and housing benefits which is counter-productive in cost terms as well as gratuitously ratcheting up human misery, why not impose a modest cap on tax reliefs which any individual can use, and utilise the proceeds (which could raise billions) to kickstart a housebuilding programme which would rapidly alleviate the worst of social misery today whilst also creating a big number of jobs to bring down the still extremely high 2.5m level of unemployment?

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