Next week, the new leader of the Conservative Party will be chosen by a narrow sliver of the population. They will then become Prime Minister.
But while Brexit dominates the race to Number 10, rising homelessness and the ongoing housing crisis are far too important to be an afterthought for whichever one of Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson wins a majority among the Conservative Party membership.
So let’s look at what the two candidates have said and done about homelessness.
The causes of the crisis go back decades but housing charities say recent policies have exacerbated it. “Due to the perfect storm of spiralling rents, welfare cuts and a total lack of social housing, record numbers of people are sleeping out on the streets or stuck in the cramped confines of a hostel,” Polly Neate, chief executive of homelessness charity Shelter, said last year.
Shelter’s report found that there are now at least 320,000 people without a home in the UK. A recent report from Centrepoint said that homelessness had risen by 165 per cent since the Conservatives came into power in 2010.
There is nothing to choose between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt on their voting records. Both Hunt and Johnson have voted with their party throughout their time as MPs for reductions in welfare spending, Universal Credit and for capping housing benefit.
Except that Hunt, who has been an MP since 2005, was available to vote for the so-called bedroom tax in 2012 during the first wave of austerity policies while Johnson was still mayor of London.
The bedroom tax – ostensibly designed to encourage social renters to down-size – did not end up making better use of the social housing stock. A year after being introduced only six per cent of those affected had moved to smaller houses. Meanwhile, its introduction meant an extra squeeze on incomes.
There are currently around 1,450 Big Issue sellers working hard on the streets each week.
What have Hunt and Johnson said about all this?
A search of their contributions to debates in parliament brings up very little. Johnson has mentioned homelessness once and Hunt also just once. “Housing” more generally has been mentioned far more often. Hunt, for example, could be found talking about mental health, addiction and housing when he was Health Secretary for almost six years (he referred to people experiencing a “housing problem”, which sounds highly euphemistic).
Johnson has discussed housing 19 times in the House of Commons. That includes a time when contributing to a debate on the Housing and Planning Bill in 2015, where he claimed there was no national housing crisis, just one affecting London. Anyone who’s spent time in other UK towns and cities could tell him he’s wrong, but he’s always been a London-centric character. To be fair, part of the reason for Hunt and Johnson’s lack of contributions is because neither has had the housing brief as an MP (Housing Secretary James Brokenshire has mentioned homelessness in debates 31 times by comparison). But it’s still an indicator that the issue is not something at the front of their minds, or that they’ve had much to say on how it interacts with the areas for which they have been responsible.
It might be useful to look at Johnson’s tenure as mayor of London for more answers on the Tory leadership frontrunner. Appealing to a more socially progressive base in London than the Tory membership, his approach was bound to be different. For example, Johnson did things such as intervene in the row over spikes placed outside a housing development in Southwark to deter people from sleeping there (he labelled the spikes “stupid” and called for their removal). He also hailed Big Issue vendors as being “as much a part of our great city’s streetscape as black cabs and red telephone boxes”.
In 2008 he pledged to eradicate rough-sleeping in the capital by 2012. That patently did not happen and the failed eye-catching pledge was later included in many round-ups of promises that didn’t work out during Johnson’s mayoralty. However, some efforts were made. His No Second Night Out scheme introduced by the London Assembly was aimed at offering shelter to anyone spotted sleeping rough the first time. However, some homeless outreach organisations found it didn’t help the city’s long-term rough sleepers seen out more regularly.
His campaign team reminded us of other initiatives such as working the Big Issue on “converting empty homes into affordable ones and introducing interest-free loans for rental deposits”. They added: “It will be a priority to make sure that everyone in a country as developed as ours has a roof over their head at night” if he becomes PM.
Johnson’s No Second Night was funded but commentators said was eventually undermined by cost-cutting elsewhere in the system. Later, a more damning criticism hit the headlines when it was discovered £5m for the project had been diverted to other causes.
Hunt, now Foreign Secretary, was shadow minister for disabled people and later for culture before getting into government. Back in 2010 he could be found criticising the then Labour government for not building enough social housing, which is interesting. But clearly words in opposition don’t necessarily translate to action in power.
It’s probably wisest to consider both candidates in light of their recent decisions and priorities – and from that alone, their voting records and recent statements (or lack thereof), it seems housing and homelessness is a worryingly low priority. Having said that, Hunt does have his homes pledge, and Johnson has mentioned investment, so perhaps when they are appealing to the country in a general election priorities will shift.
Update: Jeremy Hunt responded to The Big Issue’s request asking what he’d do to tackle homelessness if he was Prime Minister. This is what he had to say.