When Ken Loach’s film ‘Cathy Come Home’ was released in 1966, it exposed an appalling lack of housing, with families forced to live in unsuitable accommodation, and a cruel system that separated families, taking children from their parents if they became homeless. Watching the film today exposes some shocking truths about how we’ve come full circle, with a huge shortage of affordable accommodation. In some respects, matters are worse. In 1966, private sector rents were regulated by law. And there was no such thing as ‘no fault evictions’ – tenants had a right to a secure tenancy, and could only be evicted for breaching their tenancy agreement or not paying their rent. Secure private tenancies and rent controls were abolished in the 1980s, making life for households in the private rented sector far more precarious.
One thing however did change for the better following Ken Loach’s film. In 1977, the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act placed a duty on local authorities to provide free temporary accommodation for all ‘priority homeless’ households (mostly households with people under 18 or over 65, or with particular kinds of disability or health problems) until they can find permanent accommodation. This requirement, although modified by later homelessness legislation, is still in place.
The number of households accepted as ‘priority homeless’ in Hastings is rising again, after a period of stability. The most common reason is the termination of private tenancies. During February, 153 people were living in temporary accommodation provided by Hastings Council. The length of time households spend there has also increased, now 117 days on average. This is usually in bed & breakfast accommodation, which is unsuitable and expensive – the council spends over a million pounds on providing temporary accommodation for homeless households.
Over the last few years, rents have gone up significantly, but the amount the government will pay in Housing Benefit, or the housing portion of Universal Credit, has been frozen. So people get stuck in temporary accommodation because they can’t afford private sector rents, with councils having to pay out far more than the government saves from the housing benefit freeze.
To get people out of unsuitable bed & breakfast accommodation, Hastings Council has approved £2.5m in borrowing to buy housing for use as temporary accommodation. The costs of maintaining and managing this accommodation, combined with the loan repayments, is significantly cheaper than the costs of bed & breakfast accommodation, and is much better for the homeless households. And the council ends up with a valuable asset. The programme has only just started, but 11 homes are in the purchasing pipeline at present, providing 28 bed spaces. This will use around a million of the £2.5m earmarked for this, but will save the council £165,000 a year. The £2.5m should be fully committed by September, realising substantially bigger savings, with homeless households accommodated in a much more satisfactory way.
But this isn’t a cure for homelessness. To achieve that, the government could create secure tenancies in the private sector, re-introduce rent controls, and pay housing benefit at a level that covers actual rents, as well as funding more social rented homes. It’s time we moved on from the days of Cathy Come Home. We need housing policies that ensure a secure, affordable home for all, and end the constant threat of homelessness that hangs over everyone who lives in the private rented sector.