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How Grant Shapps is ‘tackling homelessness’

eless person sleeping rough against background of concert hall organ and angelsTackling homelessness and rough sleeping is what first got me into politics,’ Conservative housing minister Grant Shapps emphasised in a Department of Communities and Local Government press release just over a week ago.

I’m glad to hear it, and it is obviously not for me to doubt the sincerity of a man who famously once spent Christmas Eve in a sleeping bag on the streets outside Victoria station in order to highlight the plight of homeless children.

Shapps’ attitude marks a refreshing change from that evinced by his Old Etonian predecessor Sir George Samuel Knatchbull Young, 6th Baronet, who contemptuously remarked in 1991 that one couldn’t even leave the opera without stepping over a rough sleeper. When housing ministers say things like that, you know your housing policy is deeply mired in something undesirable.

So now that Shapps has been running the government’s housing show for the last year and a bit, it cannot be unfair to look at the relevant statistics, and ponder how much headway he is making in vanquishing the problem that has for all these years provided him with political inspiration.

Luckily, the latest figures are out today, and homelessness has risen by 17% since the Coalition took office, with some 11,820 applicants accepted as homeless by local authorities between April and June this year. As anyone who knows how the UK housing system works will be aware, that number drastically understates the real picture.

Shapps is blaming the recession – and by implication, a Labour government that presided over a stable or declining trend in the numbers of people without anywhere to live – for this reversal.

But new research commissioned by housing charity Crisis highlights Shapps’ housing benefit reforms, which restricts access to private sector rented accommodation for the poor, and the government’s decision to halve investment in social housing.

Crisis chief executive Leslie Morphy is predicting a sustained increase in homelessness levels, with – in her words – the worst yet to come. Given her job, she is hardly an unbiased commentator. However, common sense alone suggests she might not be far wrong.

I am old enough to remember a broadly social democratic Britain where homelessness was not a major problem. Much of the housing stock may have been appalling, but that another issue entirely.

It was Thatcherism that changed that. Cardboard City in Waterloo was probably the most visible corrective to the atmosphere of bourgeois triumphalism that prevailed across affluent London in the hey-day of 1980s yuppie culture.

Indeed, so bad was the situation that the young Grant Shapps decided to do something to rectify it, and using some brand of logic that presumably made sense to him at the time, decided on a career in Conservative politics as the most efficient route to redress.

But instead of diminishing homelessness, he has ended up exacerbating it. Opera goers in the years ahead should watch their step on the way home.

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