Right to buy "perfect storm" blamed by charities for homelessness spike

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As homelessness recently spiked, central government policy has been attacked as a “perfect storm” by both the city council and the voluntary sector, especially the right-to-buy scheme.

The government has recently negotiated with the National Housing Federation a deal, which will allow housing association tenants the right to buy their home for a discount of up to £77,000.  

A spokesman for the Department of Communities and Local Government said last month: “We want to help anyone who works hard and aspires to own their own home turn their dream into a reality. The NHF have voluntarily come forward with a proposal, which the government will now consider.

“Since 2012, councils have already delivered more than 3,000 homes through the reinvigorated right-to-buy scheme.” Also, at the Conservative Party conference, Communities Secretary Greg Clark insisted that every home sold under Right to Buy would be replaced, partly by reforming the planning system to allow more building, claiming that 240,000 homes a year already receive planning permisison.

However, leader of the city council and Labour councillor, Lewis Herbert, was highly critical of the government. While saying that “the numbers of recorded homelessness have mushroomed in the past year”, he told The Cambridge Student that “we can’t help the fact that the government has kneecapped us [the city council] as priority in government policy at every turn has been for ownership over rental.”

Some of the local homeless charities have also criticised government policies. Wintercomfort’s James Martin said: “We do have fears about the changes recommended by central government and specifically the impact this will have on the situation in Cambridge … The housing market in Cambridge represents its own really difficult challenge.”

Martin added: “The right to buy scheme” will “undoubtedly lead to a reduction in social housing specifically” and said the proceeds of the sale will go back to central government rather than for investment “in more affordable housing locally.

“With further austerity to come I can only see an increase in the demand and need for a charity such as Wintercomfort.”

This is not a universal opinion. Jane Heeney, Services Development Manager of Jimmy’s Shelter, when asked about these issues, simply said: “We will have to wait and see.”

Still, the shelter Cambridge Cyrenians also have concerns, especially on the lack of local social housing. Brian Holman, manager of the Cyrenians, told TCS that “proposed government policy to expand the Right To Buy policy to Housing Association tenants, the requirement for local authorities to sell off their most valuable properties to help fund the expanded RTB and the squeeze on rents are all coming together to create a perfect storm.”

Holman argued that this “storm” applied particularly to single homeless people as local social housing for individuals is in very short supply. There can be several years of wait, according to the Cyrenians, “if they don’t have some special circumstances that would enable them to increase their priority”.

And a spokesperson for Homeless Link, the national homeless membership charity said: “It is hard to see how future policy which may reduce the stock of affordable rented accommodation and further benefit cuts will not make the situation worse.”

However, they continued: “the coalition Government did take action to address homelessness” including launching the Streetlink service which allows the public to highlight rough sleepers so they can be helped.

Meanwhile, the Cyrenians’ 2015-17 Business Plan states: “The recent years of austerity, reduced government expenditure and reductions in grant funding means that investment in homeless services and homelessness prevention has contracted, not just locally, but nationally” and that temporary bedsapecs have fallen by 20% since 2008. It said “essential support services” have been lost, including mental health support, and that the Housing Related Support budget has been squeezed.

“At the same time demand for our services is very much on the rise.” The Board of the Cambridge Cyrenians took the decision two years ago to seek “alternative sources of funding or prudent use of reserves.”

More generally ‘Ozzy’, a local Unite activist, argues that “the real issue in Cambridge is the unaffordability of housing”. He told TCS: “Unite has been campaigning for “rent controls now” and to build council housing. They plan a demonstration beginning in Parker’s Piece at midday on Saturday 14th of November.”

Additional Reporting by Olly Hudson and Colm Murphy

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