Building more council housing will not, by itself, solve the most severe forms of homelessness and the lack of council housing is not behind the dramatic rise in the number of people sleeping rough.
Jules Birch has recently argued that we should build more social housing to combat homelessness
He’s right to highlight the steep rise in the number of people sleeping in temporary accommodation and to make the case that more social housing would improve the situation.
There are a variety of forms of homelessness, from living in temporary accommodation, to hostels, to sofa surfing, to sleeping rough. Shelter say there are over 300,000 homeless people in Great Britain, of which 5,000 are sleeping rough.
The limitations of council housing as a means to ending rough sleeping can be summed up in one word “Westminster”
In some years over a third of the people sleeping rough in London are sleeping rough in Westminster. For example (according to the CHAIN database) in 2018-19, 2,512 people were seen rough sleeping in Westminster, 28% of all rough sleepers in London. Most of those people were new to the street (1,492 in 2018-19).
Westminster Council has little appetite to build new council housing, and no interest in building thousands of new units each year to house people who are sleeping rough. It’s a Conservative controlled Local Authority that has not build substantial numbers of social housing units in living memory.
Westminster decide who moves in when a council house becomes empty. Their allocations policy stresses that they are keen to give council housing to people who are in work, have “strong links” with Westminser, were in the Armed Forces and so on.
Their rough sleeping strategy sets out that one of the principal ways they want to support people sleeping rough is to “make an offer of a planned reconnection back to their home area”
Each year there are lots of people sleeping rough in Westminster. The Council does not want to build lots of council housing and does not want to give existing council houses to people who are sleeping rough, preferring to move them on.
It’s very hard to look at this and conclude that giving Westminster the money needed to build more council flats will result in the kind of dramatic reduction in the number of people sleeping rough which we desperately need to see.