Record number of rough sleepers – is enough being done?

homelessBy Heather Cameron

Rising for the seventh consecutive year, the number of rough sleepers in England has more than doubled since 2010. This is despite various initiatives over the years and a recent surge in political activity around homelessness.

The government has committed to halving rough sleeping by 2022 and eliminating it altogether by 2027 but given this alarming growth, it is difficult to see how this will be realised. Perhaps even more concerning is the recent revelation by the UK’s new Homelessness Minister, Heather Wheeler, that she doesn’t know why these figures have increased so significantly in recent years.

Highest ever recorded level – an underestimate

The government’s most recent annual rough sleeping count shows the highest ever recorded level. On a given night in autumn last year 4,751 people were recorded sleeping rough – an increase of 15% on the previous year and 169% since 2010.

However, the actual figure has been suggested to be much higher as these estimates only count the number of people sleeping rough on one night.

Recent research by homelessness charity, Crisis, found that more than 8,000 people were currently sleeping rough across England, predicted to rise to 15,000 by 2026, if nothing changes. The base estimate for rough sleepers across the UK is 9,100 – a figure that Crisis suggests is set to rise by 76% in the next ten years. And even these figures are recognised as an underestimate.

What’s behind this surge?

Lack of housing and rising property prices, along with government cuts and welfare reforms have been widely blamed for the increase in rough sleeping. However, Heather Wheeler has also said that she did not accept the suggestion that welfare reforms and council cuts had contributed to the rise.

Despite admitting she did not know the reason for the huge increase, Wheeler did hint at two contributory factors. She referred to a “classic” reason for rough sleeping as coming out of prison with no support and “a real problem in London with people coming over [mainly from Europe] for jobs, sofa surfing with friends, and then the job changes and they have a problem.”

Wheeler also highlighted the lack of supply of affordable housing as the real issue. Indeed, Crisis has also highlighted this as a particular issue that, if addressed, could lead to ‘particularly noteworthy’ reductions in rough sleeping.

But while lack of supply is cited as an issue by most, so too are welfare reforms and funding cuts – including by a recent parliamentary briefing paper:

“Factors identified as contributing to the ongoing flow of new rough sleepers to the streets include: welfare reforms, particularly reductions in entitlement to Housing Benefit/Local Housing Allowance; reduced investment by local authorities in homeless services; and flows of non-UK nationals who are unable to access benefits.”

A recent report from youth homelessness charity Centrepoint reported that 85% of local authorities said welfare reform aimed at young people is a barrier to delivering housing duties. It also highlighted a need for more funding.

Findings from the Institute for Fiscal Studies have also shown that government cuts mean that housing benefit no longer covers rent for almost 70% of people in social housing.

‘A step in the right direction’

Successive governments have introduced initiatives to tackle rough sleeping, including: The Rough Sleepers InitiativeNo One Left Out and No Second Night Out.

More recently, there has been a surge of activity around homelessness which could provide grounds for optimism. The government has pledged £28 million for Housing First pilots in the West Midlands, Manchester and Liverpool. This approach has been proven to reduce rough sleeping in other countries and a recent study in the Liverpool City region concluded the scheme could save £4 million compared with current homelessness services.

The Homelessness Reduction Act, introduced last month, gives local authorities new responsibilities to step in earlier to prevent homelessness and support more people facing homelessness. Concerns have however been raised that councils will be unable to fulfil their new duties due to a lack of funding.

The government has also announced a new package of measures to tackle rough sleeping, which includes:

  • a new Rough Sleeping Team made up of rough sleeping and homelessness experts to drive reductions in rough sleeping
  • a £30 million fund for 2018 to 2019 with further funding agreed for 2019 to 2020 for local authorities with high levels of rough sleeping
  • £100,000 funding to support frontline Rough Sleeping workers to make sure they have the right skills and knowledge to work with vulnerable rough sleepers.

Crisis has described the government’s new rough sleeping initiative as “a step in the right direction” but argues that “it falls short of what’s required to truly end rough sleeping”.

Way forward

The evidence suggests that the rise in rough sleeping numbers is down to a number of contributory factors, including welfare reforms and funding cuts. And while the recent surge in activity is welcomed, frustration remains over the government’s failure to recognise the “baleful influence of welfare reforms”.

The chief executive of Crisis has argued that if the government doesn’t invest in social housing and change direction on welfare reform, any reduction in rough sleeping won’t be sustainable:

“We must acknowledge that the continued rise in rough sleeping is a result of welfare cuts, decline in social housing, soaring private rents and chronically underfunded support services. Until we do we will only be tackling the symptoms and not the causes.”


If you enjoyed reading this, you may be interested in our other posts on housing solutions for prisoners and Finland’s Housing First approach.

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Released with nowhere to go: housing solutions for prisoners

It has been widely argued that securing adequate housing for ex-offenders reduces rates of recidivism. However, it is not uncommon for a person to be released from prison with nowhere to live and there have been criticisms over the statutory support available for prison leavers, and the lack of housing options available on release.

Being homeless on release from prison can lead to a downward spiral, re-offending and more prison time, incurring substantial social and economic costs for all concerned. The annual cost of re-offending to the economy in the UK has been estimated at between £9.5 and £13 billion.

Housing linked to re-offending

Various studies have highlighted the link between housing and recidivism and the importance of housing support for rehabilitation.

A study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) back in 1996 highlighted that ex-prisoners are more likely to re-offend if they do not find satisfactory accommodation on release – two-thirds of ex-prisoners with no satisfactory accommodation re-offended within 12 months of release, while just a quarter of those with good accommodation did so.

The Social Exclusion Unit highlighted in a 2002 study that housing was one of the factors that had a “huge impact” on re-offending and that having stable accommodation reduces the risk of re-offending by a fifth.

A report published in 2012, found that three-fifths (60%) of prisoners believed that having a place to live was important in stopping them from re-offending in the future. It also found that 15% of people in prison were homeless prior to custody. More than three-quarters of prisoners (79%) who reported being homeless before custody were re-convicted in the first year after release, compared with less than half (47%) of those who did not report being homeless before custody.

The Howard League of Penal Reform has highlighted that a third of people leaving prison say they have nowhere to go. If those on remand are included, it is estimated that this could represent up to 50,000 people annually.

Further, the rough sleeping in London report (CHAIN) found that 32% of people seen rough sleeping in 2015/16 had experience of prison, indicating that a significant number hidden homeless are ex-offenders.

Such statistics suggest a clear link between housing and re-offending. It has even been suggested that ex-prisoners have intentionally re-offended to avoid homelessness.

 ‘Inadequate’ housing support

The JRF report found that the general level of housing support received by prisoners was ‘inadequate’.

Worryingly, 15 years after this report, Barnardo’s highlighted the need for improved support for young ex-offenders as it found children as young as 13 were being released from custody without a safe place to live. Barnardo’s argued that supported accommodation on release from custody could produce savings of more than £67,000 per individual over a three-year period.

A review of probation services carried out in 2014 also criticised the system, finding that:

“contact between offenders and offender supervisors or managers varied considerably and even where there was good contact, this had little impact on accommodation and ETE [employment, training and education] outcomes at the point of release, although contacts were more effective post-release. Sentence planning and oversight were weak and resettlement work in prisons was insufficiently informed.”

The Public Accounts Committee has more recently noted that “the offender housing problem is deteriorating”, despite probation reforms. And Crisis has also raised concern about the lack of financial or practical support to find accommodation for those leaving prison.

Current action and the Homelessness Reduction Act

Most prisons have a housing and resettlement service called ‘through the gate’, introduced by the government in 2015. However, early reports on these services have not been hopeful, described as “having a negligible impact on reducing prisoner re-offending rates, two years after its introduction.”

Local authorities also have a statutory duty to assist homeless and vulnerable ex-offenders in some circumstances, and if not entitled to social housing, they must provide advice to ex-offenders at risk of homelessness. This duty has been strengthened by the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 in England, which has just come into force. The Act puts an obligation on prison or probation services to notify a local authority if they believe a person to be at risk of homelessness.

Crisis has described the Act as “the most significant change to the homelessness legislation in 40 years”.

In Scotland, the Scottish Prison Service and partners launched the Sustainable Housing on Release for Everyone (SHORE) standards in December 2017. These standards represent a good example of preventative measures, which aim ‘to ensure that the housing needs of individuals in prison are handled at an early stage, in a consistent way across Scotland, regardless of where they come from, their housing status and how long they have been in prison or young offenders’ institution’.

Will it make a difference?

It is too early to tell whether these actions will have the desired impact but here’s hoping they will be more effective than previous reforms. It has been suggested that such provisions will go some way to help create the culture change needed but that it is not enough.

The evidence points to the need for greater collaboration and partnership working across all sectors.

With the shortage in housing, austerity, and increasing numbers of homeless people among the whole population, it will certainly be no mean feat.


The Knowledge Exchange provides information services to local authorities, public agencies, research consultancies and commercial organisations across the UK. Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team. 

Housing matters: our recent publications cover issues from homelessness to housing and health

tiny houses 4

By Heather Cameron

The Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) annual conference and exhibition, the largest housing-focused event in Europe, takes place this week. Over the next three days the conference will examine and explore the political and policy environment, the economic outlook and the latest thinking across the sector.

A variety of topics will be addressed, including housing supply, housing policy, social housing, welfare reform, regeneration and homelessness. These topic areas feature extensively on our database, some of which we have also written about. So this is a good opportunity to highlight some of our recent publications in this area.

What we’ve published

Our most recent ‘In focus’ briefing looks at housing retrofitting, something that has been highlighted as essential for improving the energy efficiency of our housing stock. It considers the benefits of renovating domestic properties to improve energy efficiency and environmental performance and describes the features and technologies of retrofit, such as heat pumps, combined heat and power and various types of insulation. The environmental, economic and social benefits as well as the barriers are summarised. Recent developments concerning retrofit schemes introduced by the UK government and the devolved administrations are also described, and there are examples of good practice from the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK.

Last month we published Delivering solutions to tackle homelessness (Ideas in practice), which looks at the scale of homelessness across the UK and its causes, and provides innovative examples of projects and initiatives that are tackling the problem.

The examples of innovative approaches highlighted include:

We have also written a series of blogs on the topic of homelessness. These include a look at the Christmas Dinner campaign for the homeless run by Scotland’s not-for-profit sandwich shop, Social Bite, while also highlighting the recent increase in homelessness in Scotland and the UK, and the shocking number of homeless children at Christmas.

Another blog post looks at the problem of the hidden homeless and its financial and human costs.

Digital inclusion and the social housing sector is the topic of another ‘In focus’ briefing. This looks at the benefits of digital inclusion, the barriers to digital inclusion for social housing tenants, and how these might be overcome. It refers to a 2012 report which found that almost half of the UK’s adult population who do not use the internet live in social housing, suggesting digital exclusion is a particular problem in the sector. It includes examples of good practice and highlights the importance of digital inclusion in the context of welfare reform.

We also recently blogged on this topic, highlighting one of the examples of best practice featured in our briefing: a case study of a collaboration between Reading Room – a digital consultancy which joined the Idox Group in 2015 – and Catalyst, one of the leading housing associations in London and the South East. This collaboration highlights the potential of technology for improving communications between social housing providers and their tenants, and for encouraging more people to reap the benefits of going online.

Another topic we have looked at is the integration between housing and health. Housing conditions can affect the physical and mental health of people, and can contribute to many preventable diseases and injuries. The ageing population is also putting pressure on the NHS, and growing numbers of older people have to stay in hospital longer because their homes are unsuitable for their recovery. Our briefing notes that housing associations, local authorities and healthcare providers have been working on solutions to tackle these challenges, and provides case studies from London, Tyneside and Bristol as examples of greater collaboration between housing and health services.

The challenges of an ageing population for the housing sector has also been highlighted in our briefing on meeting the housing needs of older people. It indicates that there will be a need for: adaptations to existing housing stock; mainstream rented accommodation built to accommodate wheelchair users; and newly built specialist accommodation. Examples of good practice – including case studies of extra care housing from Calderdale Council, and adapting homes for older and disabled residents in Knowsley, Merseyside – are highlighted.

This is just a flavour of what we’ve recently covered on housing-related topics, and we will inevitably produce more as the sector responds to a time of change and uncertainty.


Some of our briefings are only available to members of the Idox Information Service.

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Can Housing Zones help the housing crisis?

By James Carson

The UK government believes that brownfield land has a crucial role in meeting the need for new homes. But development of brownfield sites has often been held back because of the need for high upfront capital and delays in obtaining planning permission.

Last year, a new programme of Housing Zones (HZs) was launched by the chancellor of the exchequer and the Mayor of London with the aim of breaking down the barriers to brownfield development.

What are Housing Zones?

HZs are areas where home building will be accelerated by partnerships between local authorities, land owners, investors and builders. The areas proposed by local authorities (which may include brownfield sites and town centres) will receive a share of government funding that will unlock vital components of the HZ scheme, such as infrastructure, site acquisition and leaseholder buyouts. In addition, planning restrictions will be removed, enabling rapid delivery of residential development.

Housing Zones in London

London’s HZ programme was launched in 2014 as part of the Mayor’s housing strategy. The aim is to build 50,000 new homes in 20 HZs across the capital by 2025. The £400m programme is also expected to create 100,000 new jobs.

The first 18 zones in London include:

  • Abbey Wood, Plumstead and Thamesmead (Greenwich)
  • Hounslow Town Centre (Hounslow)
  • New Bermondsey (Lewisham)
  • Tottenham (Haringey)
  • Wembley (Brent)

Most London’s boroughs have published their HZ plans. Examples include:

  • The Royal Borough of Greenwich has identified Abbey Wood Plumstead and Thamesmead as an HZ, with the aim of providing 1,512 homes. The borough sees the programme as an opportunity to improve public space and infrastructure in advance of the arrival of Crossrail in 2018.
  • Hounslow’s HZ will create three residential sites with 3,478 new homes by 2025. The HZ will also host relocated council offices, a flexible community space and a new primary school.
  • Tottenham’s HZ plans include 10,000 new homes. Supporting this growth, infrastructure development will comprise a revamped Tube, bus and rail station at Tottenham Hale, three Crossrail 2 stations and overground rail upgrades.

Housing Zones beyond London

In his March 2015 Budget speech, the chancellor of the exchequer confirmed the creation of 20 new HZs outside of London. Among the areas included are:

  • Guildford and East Hampshire
  • Bristol
  • Derby, Stoke and West Lindsey
  • Wakefield and York
  • Gateshead.
  • Preston.

The Treasury hopes that central government investment of £200 million will result in up to 45,000 new homes in these regional HZs.

HZs: the reaction

There has a been a range of responses to the HZ initiative.

Home Group, the UK’s fourth largest housing association has warmly welcomed the new HZs:

“Enterprise zones worked for business when implemented correctly and the concept will work to help housing providers deliver the homes which are so desperately needed.”

The National Housing Federation (NHF) also welcomed the linkage of planning, housing and infrastructure delivery. However the NHF indicated that the HZ programme lacks ambition:

“Housing Zones are currently relatively small-scale, and the principles should be applied at a larger scale to genuinely tackle the housing crisis.”

The HZs received a cautious response from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA):

“RIBA is wary of such a large release of public land on very tricky brownfield sites with lots of issues that require strategic planning at a local level. We await the detail on how the Government would support delivery of high quality infrastructure and ensure high standards of design in new development.

As host to one of the new regional HZs, Bristol City Council has welcomed the “much needed investment”. However, Hackney Council believes the HZ model is less appropriate for inner London boroughs because the challenges are more to do with making affordable housing viable than providing infrastructure.

The law firm Pinsent Masons has highlighted one possible unintended consequence of HZs.

“As Housing Zones pick up momentum, this may have the adverse effect of increasing surrounding land values and stimulating more right to buy, which may affect the viability of future phases.”

They may not match the 260,000 homes required to tackle England’s housing shortage, but the broadly positive welcome HZs been given suggests that they are a step in the right direction.


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Read our other recent articles on housing:

Garden cities – back to the future?

Ebenezer Howard

Image by Monty Trent on Flickr via a Creative Commons License

By Dorothy Laing

Today’s announcement that Bicester is to be the second new garden city with 13,000 new homes, is a reminder that the UK’s housing shortage requires large-scale solutions. According to the Town and Country Planning Association’s estimates, between 240,000 and 245,000 new homes are needed each year up to 2031 to meet the needs of our growing population. This demand can only be met by building new settlements including schools, transport links, infrastructure and community facilities. Continue reading

Loosening the belt: the debate over building on green belt land

By James Carson

“The green belt has been exalted as sacrosanct in a way in which almost no other policy area has been indulged, and any attempts to have a serious conversation about its development have been swiftly stifled with the same kind of force as would usually be reserved for suggestions to entirely dismantle the NHS.”

So said Andrew Carter, the Acting Chief Executive of Centre for Cities, writing on the Conservative Home website earlier this month. It’s true that green belts have long been regarded as untouchable. But there are signs that the bulletproof shield protecting them could be breaking down.

In September, the Wolfson Economics Prize went to regeneration consultancy Urbed for its proposal to create a city of 400,000 people by doubling the size of an existing town and building on the surrounding green belt. The following month, Rowan Moore, The Observer’s architecture critic, considered the arguments for and against green belts and concluded:

“…it is no longer good enough to insist that green belts must, at all costs, never change.”

Meanwhile, defenders of green belts have been voicing their concerns. “A weakening of protection for green belts would lead to urban sprawl over precious countryside and farmland,” said the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE), launching its campaign for a stronger commitment from government to review the latest threats to the green belt. And after the Wolfson prize winner was announced, architect Richard Rogers spoke out against Urbed’s proposal to take a bite out of the green belt, calling it “a ridiculous concept.”

The idea of curbing urbanisation is not new. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, a three-mile wide belt around London was proposed in order to stop the spread of the plague. More recently, the garden city movement’s ideas about urban and rural areas, led to the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, which allowed local authorities to include green belts in their town plans.

Today, there are 14 green belts in England, 10 in Scotland, 30 in Northern Ireland and one in Wales. They exist as buffers between towns and countryside, and successive governments have ensured that they are maintained. The UK government’s latest National Planning Policy Framework sets out the green belt’s five purposes:

  • to check the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas;
  • to prevent neighbouring towns merging into one another;
  • to assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment;
  • to preserve the setting and special character of historic towns; and
  • to assist in urban regeneration, by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land.

Historically, green belts have been regarded as one of Britain’s great planning successes. But there has been growing criticism of the costs of the green belt, typified by Rowan Moore’s observation:

“It stops cities expanding, which had previously done so for centuries. It contributes to the scarcity and cost of decent homes in large parts of the country. It encourages bizarre and wasteful patterns of commuting. It often fails in its original aim of providing accessible recreational space for city dwellers. It is enforced with a rigidity that makes little sense, except as a sign of mistrust.”

Britain’s housing crisis has amplified calls for the green belt to be breached.  Government projections suggest that the UK needs six million new homes in the next 30 years. Proponents of building on green land contend that existing urban and brownfield areas alone cannot cater for the housing demand, an argument underlined by Urbed in its submission to the Wolfson competition.

Centre for Cities has claimed that building on 5.2% of green belt land within and around Britain’s least affordable cities would deliver 1.4 million new homes.

Their opponents disagree. This month, the CPRE reported that a minimum of 976,000 new homes could be built on identified brownfield sites in England, and that the supply of these sites is steadily increasing. The organisation has also suggested that housebuilders are “sitting on huge areas of land with planning permission which could provide over 280,000 new homes.”

With a general election on the horizon, the main political parties have been drawing up their battle lines. The Labour Party is showing signs of greater flexibility on the green belt issue. In October, Sir Michael Lyons published the final report of his independent review of housing for the Labour Party. One of his recommendations included allowing more homes to be built on parts of the protected green belt if the land has little “environmental or amenity value”. In response, the Conservative Party has reiterated its commitment to protecting the green belt.

Perhaps most interestingly, it’s at the local level that changing policies on green belts can be most clearly seen. Councils in England are responding to the housing crisis by using localism powers granted to them by the coalition government to de-designate or swap greenbelt land in the context of making a local plan. Figures published in August by Glenigan planning and construction consultants revealed that 5,600 new homes were approved to be built on green belt land last year, a 148% increase on the 2,260 green belt homes in 2009/10.

The debate now seems to be moving towards a recognition that some infringement of green belt land is inevitable, which is perhaps why a recent commentary on the subject by an academic from the London School of Economics was not titled, “Why should we build on the green belt?” Instead, it was headlined: “Where should we build on the green belt?”.


Further reading

The Idox Information Service has a wealth of research reports, articles and case studies on planning. Items we’ve recently summarised for our database include:

Delivering change: building homes where we need them

Utopias that work: how to create tomorrow’s garden city

Removing obstacles to brownfield development: how government can work with communities to facilitate the re-use of previously developed land (Foresight paper no 2)

Uxcester garden city (second stage submission for the Wolfson Economics Prize 2014)

Greenbelt under development: special report

Green belts: a local way forward for the twenty first century

N.B. Abstracts and access to subscription journal articles are only available to members of the Idox Information Service.