Gove defends government record on homelessness

A series of promises made by ministers have been broken, reports Noah Vickers, Local Democracy Reporter

Michael Gove (credit
Michael Gove (credit

The government’s failure to end rough sleeping in England over the last five years is largely due to the knock-on impacts of Covid-19, Michael Gove has argued.

In an interview with the Local Democracy Reporting Service, the housing secretary – who is not standing for re-election in his Surrey Heath seat – said the Tories’ new aim was instead to end street homelessness in the next five years.

According to government data, rough sleeping has risen across England by 120% since the Conservatives took office in 2010.

The party promised in its 2019 election manifesto to “end the blight of rough sleeping by the end of the next parliament”, but the figure in 2023 was only nine per cent lower than when the promise was made.

Gove said: “I think Covid has played a significant part in that, both because there was a significant allocation of resources to deal with it, but also because it put pressure overall on government budgets.

“But we have shown that with determined effort, it is one of our priorities to significantly reduce rough sleeping, to eliminate it over time – and that remains our ambition.”

He said that by the time of the next election – which will be no later than 2029 – the Conservatives’ “aim” is to have reduced street homelessness to “the effective statistical measure of zero”. While it would not mean no one ever sleeps rough again, Gove said his party wants to ensure no one is forced to sleep rough “on successive nights”.

On a single night in 2010, a total of 1,768 rough sleepers were recorded across England by outreach teams. The equivalent figure rose every year until hitting a peak of 4,751 in 2017, falling slightly just before the pandemic and dropping to 2,440 in 2021. But the number started to climb again in 2022 and rose further last year to 3,898 people.

Asked why rough sleeping has more than doubled since 2010, Gove said: “I think there have been a number of challenges, and the numbers have gone up and down.

“But there are several things. The first is that some of those who are rough sleeping are people who have been through the immigration and asylum system, so there is some pressure from people who don’t have recourse to public funds, because they’ve come here in order to press an asylum claim or because they’ve come here illegally.

“It is also the case that there are pressures on individuals who have challenges in their lives. Sometimes people who are struggling with substance abuse, sometimes people who have gone through a crisis, who will find themselves rough sleeping.

“But when Eddie Hughes was [rough sleeping] minister, we managed to have a very successful campaign and to be fair, Andy Burnham – the mayor of Greater Manchester – played a part in this as well, in Covid, to make sure that we effectively eliminated rough sleeping [during the pandemic].”

He admitted however: “There is more that we need to do, including providing funding for councils that provide temporary accommodation.”

Another housing pledge was to ban Section 21 notices, known as ‘no fault’ evictions, with Gove promising as recently as February this year that they would be outlawed by the time of the election. The notices allow landlords to evict tenants with two months’ notice and without any reason needing to be given.

Asked whether he regretted the fact that a ban has still not been passed, the Housing Secretary said: “Yes, but it was only because we introduced the legislation that we were on course to deliver it.

“The timing of the election – and there were very good reasons for the election being called when it was – meant that we weren’t able to complete the bill’s passage through the House of Lords.

“So it wasn’t a promise abandoned, it was simply something that was timed out by the election.”

The Conservatives are promising to build 1.6 million homes over the next parliament, slightly higher than Labour’s pledge of 1.5 million.

The Tories’ equivalent promise in 2019 was to build one million homes – a target the government says it has only just met, with an estimated 1,001,000 new homes built since the election.

Gove said he was “fairly confident” that the higher target of 1.6 million will be hit thanks to changes the Conservatives will make to ‘nutrient neutrality’ rules, which restrict home-building in places where protected habitats and rivers are at risk of pollution.

He pointed out that Labour had opposed the scrapping of those rules. Labour pledges in its manifesto to “implement solutions to unlock the building of homes affected by nutrient neutrality without weakening environmental protections”.

Gove added that inflation being “under control” will mean the “whole [housing] sector will be in a stronger position”, and that the recent Levelling Up and Regeneration Act will also make the higher target easier to reach.

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