Siobhain McDonagh, a Labour Party MP who has represented London’s Mitcham and Morden constituency since 1997, writes in the Irish World about the UK’s “scandalous” homelessness crisis.
“Our broken housing market is one of the greatest barriers to progress in Britain today.”
Those were the words of our Prime Minister almost two years ago. Since then, her Government has watched on as our housing crisis has exacerbated, reaching unprecedented levels like nothing I have seen in my twenty-one years as an MP.
When my Mum and Dad came to London from Ireland in 1947, the postcards in the windows read, “no blacks, no Irish, no dogs.”
Discrimination does not come in the form of postcards these days, but in an understanding among landlords not to welcome people on universal credit or housing benefit. It’s no surprise therefore that the Guardian newspaper reported last week that just 6 per cent of London’s private rental market is available to families reliant on housing benefit.
These families cannot afford to get on the housing ladder, there are not enough social homes to go around, and for those who do make it into the private rented sector, they are just one step away from finding themselves without a home.
Because not a week goes by when I don’t meet yet another hard-working family who have been evicted from their privately rented property and threatened with homelessness just because the landlord can collect more rent from somebody else. The housing charity ‘Shelter’ estimates that there are now 277,000 people homeless across England.
But where do they go?
Whilst the most visible indication of this country’s homelessness crisis is the thousands of rough sleepers on our streets, we have 130,000 children trapped in buildings like hostels, bed and breakfasts, and office blocks across England. This misery cost the taxpayer almost £1 billion last year alone, every single penny of it badly spent.
Take Connect House in my constituency of Mitcham and Morden, located in one of the busiest industrial estates in South London. Hidden between the racing lorries, this converted warehouse is the temporary home for more than 100 children from across the capital. Terrifyingly, my local authority is often unaware of their arrival.
For some of these children, there’s nothing ‘temporary’ about their surroundings. Life in an industrial estate is all they have known and it will have a lifelong impact, with the absence of a permanent home complicating all areas of their lives. These children are the human face of our housing crisis.
Across the country, Councils are sending vulnerable families to buildings like this, miles away from their home community and without any idea who they are placing them with. It terrifies me that the Government underestimates just how dangerous this is.
It’s completely out of control.
There are now over 1 million families growing understandably impatient on housing waiting lists across our country. And what’s the Government’s response? Just 6,463 homes for social rent were built in England in 2017-2018.
There have been endless Parliamentary debates. There have been hundreds of statements and reports. But it is not frightening statistics that build new homes, it is tangible action and political will.
So what can be done?
When it comes to the housing crisis, there is not one solution but many.
It’s time to assess the imbalance in a society where one in ten British adults owns a second property whilst so many do not have their first.
It’s time to fill the 200,000 homes that are frustratingly left empty across the country.
It’s time to stop public bodies hiding behind the requirement to obtain the best value with their land rather than providing the housing that we so desperately need.
And it’s time to burst the myth that all Green Belt is green, and start using the non-green sites for the homes that our children so desperately need. In London alone, there are garage sites, waste plants and deserted scrublands all posing as ‘Green Belt’ land.
Would we rather have homes that our young people can afford to buy or are we happy for scrappy plots of non-green land to remain wrongly designated as Green Belt just because of the potential furore that de-designation may cause?
130,000 children will go to sleep tonight without a permanent place to call home. When are we going to wake up to the need to protect these children?