The rising issue of homelessness. What can housebuilders do to help?

In his 16th March budget speech, George Osborne announced a £115 million fund to help tackle homelessness, including £100m for accommodation for rough sleepers. Perhaps surprisingly, the announcement received a lukewarm reception from homelessness charities and organisations, who argued that the funding was not enough and would not do anything to tackle the underlying causes of homelessness. Campbell Robb, Chief Executive of housing and homelessness charity Shelter, stated that “the chancellor can’t simply deal with the symptoms and ignore the root causes. He needs to take major action on building homes that ordinary people can actually afford to rent or buy”.

An insight into the reason for the charities’ unexcited response was provided a week after the budget, when the latest official statistics on homelessness were released. The dataset shows that over 40,000 households were accepted as homeless by their local authority in 2015. An analysis by Shelter found that this figure was 42% higher than five years ago. Furthermore, the number of families using emergency shelters and hostels has more than doubled in five years. Perhaps most worryingly, the figures do not account for the ‘hidden homeless’ – people sleeping on friends’ floors and sofas, or in the social care system.

Image credit: Shelter

Image credit: Shelter

There is also evidence that councils are struggling to cope with the rise in homeless people who need their support. Although councils will fulfil their statutory duty to provide accommodation for those in priority need, many are finding it difficult to allocate funds for homelessness prevention schemes, which most consider vital to tackling the issue.

Despite the increased demand for homelessness services, and the restriction of funds available to local authorities, some councils have been able to take action. For example, Kettering has employed a multi-agency approach, providing financial advice, support for tenants and life skills training, as well as increasing the supply of affordable homes. Other authorities, such as Plymouth, have directly commissioned new homes designed for local homeless individuals and families.

Most charities and local authorities now agree that a multi-agency approach is required to successfully reduce homelessness. However, as councils try to manage fundamental reforms to their funding, many in local government now believe that the fight against homelessness will need significantly more support from national government to be truly effective. However, in the current climate of austerity it is unlikely that the level of support they require will be available in the short to medium term.

As one commonly identified cause of rising homelessness is the housing shortage in the south east of England, there may also be a role for the private sector in alleviating the issue. Recent research by Nathaniel Lichfield and Partners, commissioned by Cala Homes, found that a decline in the proportion of larger homes being built may be causing overcrowding in smaller, more affordable homes, and prevent these properties coming onto the market. Therefore, in addition to the provision of affordable homes within developments, housebuilders can continue to build larger homes as an option for those who can afford them, helping free up smaller properties.

There is no simple solution to the rise in homelessness – no single agency can ever hope to tackle the problem alone. It is, however, increasingly clear that work done by private sector actors, including housebuilders, can help.

By Richard Parry