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September 17, 2021

Ending homelessness must be central to 'levelling up'

Dame Julia Unwin

Michael Gove’s appointment as Secretary of State at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government puts him in charge of the UK Government's ‘levelling up’ agenda. This is Boris Johnson’ signature policy.

It’s title is unfortunate and thus far it has proved to be a slippery and rather confusing concept. Michael Gove’s task is to give focus and meaning to 'levelling up', and to translate this into impact in communities.

In practice, this is one in a long line of government initiatives intended to bring social and economic recovery to those parts of the country most damaged by de-industrialisation. 

From inner city partnerships in the 1980s, single regeneration budgets in the 1990s, action zones and targeted  funds, and any number of other initiatives, the determination of government to focus attention on the local, and use funding and collaboration to drive lasting change, has a long and frequently impressive history. 

More recently the issue of the needs of ‘disadvantaged communities’ has been the subject of a political analysis developed after the 2016 Brexit referendum when many who voted for Brexit felt most left behind by the supposed benefits of globalisation and modernity. 

This decades-long programme of state intervention is given additional heft and urgency by the devastating impact of the pandemic. The economic uncertainty ahead, the deserted high streets, and the threat of high levels of unemployment are rightly focusing attention on what steps national government can take to facilitate and support a genuine, and lasting economic and social recovery.

At the heart of these discussions there is a repeated focus on the need to increase skills, attract inward investment and improve the appearance of a place. And the solutions offered include improved transport connectivity, better broadband and almost always a commitment to drive up skills and attract higher value jobs. 

What has rarely been admitted is that this approach is doomed to inevitable failure, while so many people are in desperate housing need. 

  • No one  is able successfully to take part in a course, however brilliant, while they’re struggling with the anxiety of not knowing where they are going to sleep that night. 
  • No-one can perform well in a job, however good it is, when they believe they will lose the room in which they sleep by the end of the week. 
  • No investor wants to invest in an area where tents are the first thing you see in the high street, and people experiencing homelessness are forced to use the open green space.  
  • Children who are living in insecure, crowded accommodation will never thrive at school 

Acute housing need, homelessness and housing anxiety are the enemies of regeneration. They undermine any efforts to change a place, and what is more they sap energy, and capability. Homelessness wastes skills and talent. People who are fearful and worried cannot give of their best, they cannot contribute, and they cannot grow. 

Analysis by the Centre for Homelessness Impact has estimated the fiscal, economic and social costs of street homelessness at more than £36,000 per person a year. 

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government estimates the average fiscal cost of rough sleeping to be of £12,260 per person, compared with £3,100 for an individual of similar age in the general population. But another study that tracked 86 individuals experiencing homelessness over 90 days suggests that the annual cost to local authorities is higher, such as by including stays in hostels. 

If costs on other public services are added, particularly to healthcare and the criminal justice system, unpublished internal analysis by CHI puts the cost at £29,025. It adds to this a cost of £1,685 in benefits and taxes and, crucially, £5,565 per person in lost economic output every year. 

Street homelessness is, of course, only one aspect of homelessness. It is the most extreme form but the smallest in scale. At its peak in 2017, the government’s annual snapshot count on one night in England reached around 4,751 and has fallen since. In contrast, there were 95,370 households in temporary accommodation at the last count, a year-on-year rise of 8 per cent.  

And at the same time the solutions to homelessness drive growth, create jobs and enable places to thrive. The building and renovation of good quality housing employs people with skills, and commitment. It attracts capital into an area, and it allows neighbourhoods to flourish.  The creativity and knowledge of people who have been homeless is illustrated in enterprises across the country.

Stable, good quality  housing, which people can afford is the baseline of economic recovery. And so levelling up not only has to address homelessness, it is doomed to fail if it does not. 

In too many parts of the country the housing that is available is expensive, insecure and of a low quality. It leaves people impoverished, unsafe and unable to contribute. Good quality housing provides the heart of a place. It allows people to contribute, to grow and to develop. It makes skills investment worthwhile. It improves the public realm. And it pays its way several times over. 

The challenge of tackling homelessness needs to be a central plank of any government commitment to ‘level up’. How can we say that levelling up has been achieved when hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens are without a place to call home? 

Dame Julia Unwin was Chef Executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust from 2007-16 and Chair of the Independent Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society from 2017-19.

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