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Tories plan new law to imprison and fine rough sleepers who don’t accept help

As we enter 2024, surely, we should be looking at new approaches to ending homelessness. Not rehashing laws from the Victorian era

This is Home Front with Vicky Spratt, a subscriber-only newsletter from i. If you’d like to get this direct to your inbox, every single week, you can sign up here.

Good afternoon and welcome to this week’s Home Front.

The last few weeks have contained a year’s worth of news. Between the desperate events in Gaza, the sad news that an asylum seeker died while living on the Bibby Stockholm barge, and the furore over the government’s fight to deport people to Rwanda, there’s a housing policy that hasn’t had the attention it deserves.

Buried in the Criminal Justice Bill, which was delayed after the former Home Secretary Suella Braverman said she wanted to ban homeless people from sleeping in tents, was a worrying announcement.

The government wants to replace the Vagrancy Act 1824 – a piece of legislation from Victorian times that makes it an offence to sleep rough or beg – with new legislation in the Criminal Justice Bill.

While Braverman’s tents proposal was, like her, dropped by the government, there are still measures in the Criminal Justice Bill to criminalise people sleeping rough if they don’t accept help and support.

The Vagrancy Act means police can arrest people who are begging or rough sleeping. The new proposals go further: the government wants to give police the power to imprison anyone who is begging or rough sleeping and refuses help for up to one month as well as issuing them with a fine of £2,500.

This may not be as headline-grabbing as Braverman’s ill-informed insistence that sleeping rough is a lifestyle choice, but it is just as pernicious.

Homelessness experts say the new measures are unnecessary at best and harmful at worst.

Matt Downie, chief executive of the homelessness charity Crisis, said these new powers will “only cause further harm to people already experiencing the brutality of life on the streets”.

Crisis has long argued that there is no need to replace the powers that already exist as part of the Vagrancy Act. Indeed, many experts argue that sleeping rough should not be criminalised at all.

But here we are.

“It’s deeply disappointing to see that the government has pressed ahead and introduced new, punitive measures,” Downie said. “Hidden among the detail are powers to move people on who are sleeping rough and criminalise them if they don’t comply.”

The question of enforcement of these new powers is an interesting one.

What help, exactly, will rough sleepers be offered when there is a shortage of social housing? Where will they be told to go? And how, exactly, will refusal be quantified? Will there be a housing-first approach which also takes complex needs such as addiction into account?

The power to fine and arrest people who sleep rough has existed since Victorian times. Has it ended homelessness? No. Will pumping up police powers to punish those on the streets end homelessness? No.

“We know that fining or moving people on who have nowhere to go does not solve homelessness,” Downie said.

“The government says it wants police and local authorities to provide support to people rough sleeping, but the only way for this to genuinely work is to provide safe accommodation alongside help. We cannot expect people to overcome challenges like mental health or addiction while also facing all the dangers of sleeping on our streets.”

As we enter 2024, surely, we should be looking at new approaches to ending homelessness. Not rehashing laws from the Victorian era, when we still had workhouses, child labour, and rape within a marriage was legal.

There is only one evidence-based way to end homelessness in the era we live in: genuinely affordable housing combined with wraparound support services so people can rebuild their lives.

Key Housing

And now, more bad news I’m afraid.

The number of planning permission approvals granted for new homes has fallen to… wait for it… a new record low.

In the 12 months to the end of September, only 2,778 developments across Britain were granted planning permission, according to data collected by Glenigan, an analytics provider for the building industry, and analysed by the Home Builders Federation.

This, developers warn, could see supplies of new housing drop to its lowest level in a decade next year.

The Government is trying to lay the blame at the feet of councils for not approving enough. Councils, however, are cash-strapped and under-resourced. I recently encountered the planning system in my local area in London and can attest to this! And then, of course, there is the vocal anti-building ‘NIMBY’ lobby, who protests whenever a new development is suggested and blocked the Housing Secretary Michael Gove’s own planning reform before it could even reach the House of Commons.

Many councils are warning that their finances are in dire straits. They need funding – not only to build new homes but also to employ and train a new generation of skilled planning officers to help get those homes built.

Ask me anything

This week’s question came via a reader who was concerned about a friend Mbalu.

Mbalu, a care worker from east London, had just been evicted by her private landlord via a ‘no fault’ Section 21 eviction.

Was there anything he could do, he asked? He couldn’t believe this could happen – that someone could just be turfed out of their home the week before Christmas.

Sadly, no was my answer. Section 21 evictions are completely legal, even if they mean someone is made homeless a week before Christmas.

Please do give the story of Mbalu and her four children a read here. It is a case study in why Section 21 needs to end – now.

Vicky’s pick

This week I am afraid it’s more housing from me! I am lucky enough to have been sent a proof of a new book called Against Landlords: How to Solve the Housing Crisis, written by the housing barrister Nick Bano.

Nick knows more about the housing courts than most; he knows the law inside out. His book is one of the best and most rigorous explanations of how the current system is rigged in favour of landlords and why that needs to change.

It will be published in March 2024 by Verso.

This is Home Front with Vicky Spratt, a subscriber-only newsletter from i. If you’d like to get this direct to your inbox, every single week, you can sign up here.

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