Demonstrators Take Fight against the National
Homelessness Scandal to Downing Street
Hundreds took part in a mass rally outside Downing Street on April 15, as part of March for the Homeless 2015, an international protest action to raise awareness of the treatment of homeless people in Britain, Ireland and beyond.
Homelessness has risen by a staggering 55 per cent since David Cameron became prime minister in 2010, with 742 people sleeping rough every night in the capital alone – a 37 per cent increase on 2013.
At the action in London – centred on the theme of “No more deaths on our streets” – grassroots campaigners, housing and homeless groups – directly involved in the fight against homelessness – came together to serve food and distribute essential items to the homeless in a carnival atmosphere, complete with speakers, music, performances and workshops. There was also a voter registration drive to encourage homeless people to register to vote on May 7.
Amid mounting concern that a number of London councils are criminalising homelessness by making rough sleeping illegal under Operation Encompass, demonstrators called on London mayor Boris Johnson to play his part in ending the national homeless scandal.
Pilgrim Tucker, Unite Community coordinator, said: “Unite is proud to support this important day of action. David Cameron’s coalition government has inflicted misery on millions and is now guilty of turning a blind eye to the horrendous plight of our society’s most vulnerablecitizens. Homelessness has risen by a shocking 55 per cent under Cameron’s watch. He can run but he can’t hide, we are calling on David Cameron and London mayor Boris Johnson to face up to this national scandal and to end the criminalisation of homelessness.”
Jon Glackin, Street Kitchen coordinator and Unite Community member, said: “People are dying on our streets, in hostels and because of homelessness, last year in London alone at least 149 people tragically died. We will be remembering all those that died and are calling on this government to end this national disgrace.
“People need support from society not to be kicked when they are down. They are being killed by the cold and indifference, and are running out of places to turn to as austerity hits the services they use.
“We are coming together to say: ‘enough is enough’, there is no reason for people to go without adequate housing, food and good health in the sixth richest country in the world. Today we say, there can be no more deaths on our streets.”
Widespread Opposition to Cameron’s “Right-to-Buy” Promise
David Cameron, in launching the Conservative’s election manifesto, pledged to extend the so-called Right-to-Buy policy to housing associations.
This policy does nothing to guarantee the right to housing, nor does it increase the availability of affordable housing. In fact it does the opposite, and is clearly in opposition to the need for social housing and the claim of all members of society for shelter.
David Cameron officially announced the policy in a speech on Tuesday, arguing that it could benefit 1.3 million families and turn Britain into a “property-owning democracy”. “We are the party of working people, offering you security at every stage of your life,” he said.
An exposure in The Independent pointed out that the Right-to-Buy is running down the supply of genuinely affordable housing. In 2012 the Conservatives promised to replace all council houses sold off under Right to-Buy, but this has not happened: in the period since the policy was announced the government sold off over 26,000 homes – and built only 2,298. 80% of councils say they are struggling to replace the homes.
In fact, huge numbers of the Right-to-Buy homes have been bought up by private landlords, who then charge much higher rents to tenants. In London 36% of homes sold under Right-to-Buy have found their way into the hands of private landlords; in some boroughs the figure is even higher.
Demand for council houses and housing association properties is far out-stripping their short supply and extending Right-to-Buy would make it worse. When Right-to-Buy was souped-up in 2012, 1 in 10 people in the capital were on council housing waiting lists, with 4.5 million waiting nationwide. Right-to-Buy reduces the number of properties these people can go into.
Councils facing a shortage of housing have been known to house homeless people in private rented properties that were once council homes. They have to pay rents to private landlords to use houses they were forced to sell off at under market value. Under this arrangement, council taxpayers have to build a house, sell it for far less than it’s worth, then pay well over the odds to use it.
The government has dramatically cut the amount of money it gives to housing associations – as a result they are more reliant than ever on raising their own money to build houses. One of the main ways they do this is by borrowing against their existing housing stock and the future rents they bring in. Right-to-Buy would both run down associations’ existing stock and also make it difficult for planned homes to pay for themselves through rent in the long run. Associations would find it much more difficult to get credit to build homes.
Associations build around 50,000 homes a year and if building ground to a halt the housing shortage would get even worse fast. Homes would become even more unaffordable for more and more people.
The Independent article points out that because housing associations are private not-for-profit businesses, forcing the sale of homes at below market value could be in contravention of Article 1, Protocol 1, of the European Convention on Human Rights which gives everyone the “right to the peaceful enjoyment of one’s possessions”.
Gavin Smart, deputy chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing, said: “Extending right to buy to housing associations is not going to tackle the housing crisis – in fact it could make things worse for people on lower incomes who are already struggling to access a decent home at a price they can afford.
“Individual tenants might benefit from the opportunity to own a home, but we would be very concerned that it would result in a dramatic loss of vital social and affordable housing. The Conservatives say that forcing councils to sell off their most valuable properties would fund this extension plus 400,000 new homes over five years – we fear the figures simply won’t stack up. And it could have a huge impact on councils’ ability to build new homes, particularly in more expensive areas like London and the south east, where it might actually make more sense for them to borrow against the value of these properties so they can fund more homes.
“The Conservatives say each home sold under the extended right to buy would be replaced on a one-for-one basis – but we know this is not happening under the current scheme. Our research has shown that most authorities only expect to be able to replace half or fewer of the homes they sell under right to buy. And government figures show that between April 2012 and last September councils started or acquired 2,298 homes using right to buy receipts – just one for every 11 sold.
“Right to buy has already had a huge impact on the supply of genuinely affordable homes, which is being cut at a time when more and more people are in need. The next government should be reviewing the way the policy currently works, not extending it.”
Tony Stacey, chair of a group of 100 housing associations and chief executive of South Yorkshire Housing Association, told trade publication Inside Housing when the policy was first mooted in March, “I would definitely challenge it legally. This is so fundamentally critical to us. It would shoot up to the top of our risk map if it was confirmed. We are duty bound morally to fight it in any way we possibly can.”
Other housing association chief executives are quoted as saying they “would be surprised” if a legal challenge did not happen because the policy would risk the viability of the entire social housing sector. Industry sources also say charity law would have to be changed to accommodate the move because charities, including many housing associations, are generally prohibited from selling off their assets at below market value.
Ruth Davison, policy director of the National Housing Federation, said: “We fully support the aspiration of homeownership but extending right-to-buy to housing associations is the wrong solution to our housing crisis. Following 40 years of successive governments’ failure to build the homes the country needs, soaring rents and house prices and the biggest baby boom since the 1950s, ensuring that there enough homes today and tomorrow must be our nation’s top priority.”
John Healey, a former Labour housing minister, described the policy as a “cheap Thatcher tribute act” and said it would worsen Britain’s housing shortage.