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It takes more than a house to make a home – and the UK is out of policy ideas on how to build more

What makes a home? A safe dwelling – a roof – is a good start, but it takes much more than bricks and mortar. Support for individuals and families, good quality repairs and maintenance, affordable rents and proximity to community and resources help to make and sustain a “home”. It’s also dependent on a secure and accessible physical structure to dwell in – and the UK just don’t have enough of these that people can afford to buy or rent.

The Conservative government made two announcements in August about homelessness and social housing. First came a rough sleeping strategy and budget – which it quickly became clear was “reprioritised”, rather than new money. This takes a small step on the road to deal with the issue of homelessness. But there need to be large strides of leadership, money and joined-up policy to reach the aim of ending rough sleeping by 2027. This is an ambitious aim and it needs ambitious measures.

Government statistics show an estimated 4,751 people sleeping on the streets. These figures are based on a snapshot overnight count, or an estimate from local authorities in autumn 2017, and may well not show the true extent of rough sleeping. The figures certainly do not reflect the growing crisis of homelessness more broadly.

Homelessness is a complex, multifaceted issue. It’s a community challenge which requires a joined up response, not a problem that can be solved on an individual level. While individual reasons for homelessness will vary, the scale of it reflects a structural social policy failure. And yet, there is a stigma associated with homelessness that lays blame on individuals and makes assumptions about their character.

From research that digs deep and gets to know each person by name, asks about their lives before they were on the street, it’s clear that this could happen to any one of us. Research I conducted in November 2017 as part of the European End Street Homelessness campaign in Leicester, surveyed 93 homeless people over a week of “connecting” – talking to people to find out their histories and stories.

Of those we spoke to, 40% said that their current period of homelessness had been caused by a traumatic experience, such as domestic violence, or some other kind of physical or emotional abuse. Other people we talked to had a range of physical and mental health issues and there were some examples where respondents had a complex mix of physical, mental and substance abuse issues.

Homelessness is often caused by a complex web of issues. Victoria Jones/PA Archive

Green shoots or dashed hopes?

The government also recently launched a widely anticipated Social Housing Green Paper. This was a chance for the new housing minister, Kit Malthouse, to offer a fresh and meaningful policy agenda to address a growing crisis. The document recognised the need for good quality housing and regulation of providers – in the wake of the tragic Grenfell Tower fire. But it didn’t seem to recognise the scale of the negative impact of the Right to Buy (RTB) policy, with thousands of homes sold each year and not being replaced, on the quantity of properly affordable social housing stock. The Green Paper does however note that something needs to change to deliver more homes and says the government will consider allowing councils to hold RTB receipts for longer and to raise the borrowing cap.

Government policy continues not to engage with the basic ingredient of home – a secure, affordable and accessible dwelling. It proposes league tables to rank housing organisations as one measure to increase quality – an inadequate response to the totality of Britain’s stark affordable housing shortage. Quality is, of course, important, but so is actual house building in times of acute affordable housing shortage. It is this lack of quality, secure, affordable housing to help people create homes that has cast a shadow over government policy which offers little light for the future of social housing delivery.

Malthouse, defended the Green Paper in an interview with the BBC, but admitted that again only 6,000 houses for social rent will be built in 2019 – he conceded to the interviewer that this might be the lowest number ever. There are “enormous waiting lists” he agreed, but continued to focus on the “stigma” of social housing for existing tenants rather than looking at the massive latent demand for social house building.

Creating social homes

In research for a forthcoming book on the meaning of home, I focus on the conditions necessary to create and support a home – including strong government leadership, finance and planning to build sufficient dwellings. These conditions go way beyond just the physical structure of a roof – they include security, safety, quality, privacy, connectedness and affordability. But they are dependent on the physical construction of housing.

The frustration of the government’s recent announcements is that there doesn’t seem to be recognition of the urgency for government-led structural support through funding, policy and legislation, to build houses for people to make their homes. The money and the ideas are not new – ideas on increasing quality are welcome but are only a small and partial response to what is needed. Let’s be bold – don’t raise the borrowing cap a little – abolish it. Until like for like replacements are built for social housing, then a more drastic suspension of the sale of affordable homes is needed to halt the decimation of social stock. What needs to happen is a rebuilding of social housing, not just a rethink of it.

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