Housing is in crisis, yet the coalition does nothing | Lynsey Hanley

Scotland is taking the lead in housing the homeless. If only Westminster did likewise

The year has started, incredibly, with two pieces of good news to counteract an otherwise unending stream of grim revelations about Britain’s housing crisis. First, the Scottish government has brought into force a law that will effectively end homelessness there, by requiring local authorities to house all involuntarily homeless people in settled accommodation. The second is that Newham council in east London is regulating the free-for-all in private rented housing by requiring landlords to have background checks before being licensed.

Note that neither of these initiatives has come from the coalition, and therefore won’t be applicable throughout Britain. But they’re a start, and a promising one at that. The central message is that social inequalities are not inevitable: with enough political will and the persistence to see off pessimists, a desire for positive change can be made concrete – which is possibly why we’ve seen so little of it under the coalition. Of 600 housing professionals polled by the Guardian before Christmas, only 6% trusted the Conservatives to remedy the troubling housing situation in Britain, and only 4% trusted the Lib Dems. A majority who worked with local authorities reported that they were worried about councils allocating unregulated private housing to vulnerable tenants, and that in any case, it would be hard to find enough permanent accommodation to ensure that they stayed within legal guidelines for use of temporary housing such as bed-and-breakfasts.

The phrase used by the Scottish government is “settled accommodation” – not bed and breakfast, but a home to call your own. It’s clear that prevention is better than cure: once you become homeless, a disaster has occurred from which it is extraordinarily hard to scramble back. There are few things more unsettling than knowing you cannot rely on the bed you have one night being available the next, or the gut unease caused by being forced to share aspects of your home life – cooking, washing, having rows – with other stressed strangers.

Julia Unwin, chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, in her assessment of an “increasingly desperate” economic landscape, highlighted the vicious circle of working poverty in which people move in and out of insecure, badly paid work, “remaining poor … as they struggle to improve their lives”. The same can be said for housing, as fluctuating incomes force unwanted moves between housing tenures, from owner occupied to private rented, and then from better quality to poorer quality rented accommodation.

The 2011 census revealed that private renting has increased in the 10 years from 2001 from 9% to 15% of households in England and Wales. Having increased from 68% in 2001 to just over 70% mid-decade, the percentage of home-owning households had fallen back to 64% in 2011.

The homelessness charity Crisis notes that local authorities in Scotland “collect more detailed data on people applying for homelessness assistance than their English counterparts”, suggesting that there is a precedent for this issue being taken more seriously north of the border. Indeed, the Scottish state has historically played a greater part in housing its citizens, with about 70% of Scottish households living in council housing at its peak around 35 years ago, compared with around a third in England and Wales.

Back in London, housing has received another demotion down the priority list of central government through the appointment of Mark Prisk as housing minister, replacing Grant Shapps, who at least had a high media profile, albeit for the wrong reasons. Shapps at least appeared to have the ability to keep housing on his government’s agenda, and therefore visible as a sign of what needs to be done.

This news is as significant, for Scottish residents at least, as the introduction of the national minimum wage in 1999. Coupled with the announcement from Newham council, there’s cause to be hopeful that, at least in some parts of the country, a secure home is now seen as a necessity to be protected for all, rather than a privilege for those who can afford to protect themselves.

What’s just as significant, but less surprising, is that Westminster shows no signs of following their lead.

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