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Andy Burnham Accuses Westminster Of Ignoring The “Bigger Picture” On Homelessness

Andy Burnham (Alamy)

6 min read

Having managed to buck the national trend of rising homelessness, Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham has urged senior figures in Westminster to learn from the ways in which he has helped drive down the number of people forced onto the streets of his city.

But he worried that there is a "lack of an ability in Whitehall to see the bigger picture" and focus on tackling the root causes of homelessness, such as squeezed local government budgets, income insecurity, and soaring housing costs – especially among those receiving welfare payments.

"The gap between the money you're given to cover your rent and what your actual rent is just gets bigger, your problems get greater," Burnham told PoliticsHome

Burnham noted that mental health issues were a “really common factor” among the rough sleepers he has encountered, underlining the importance of increasing provision for support. He also pointed to "holes" into the welfare system, such as some people having no recourse to public funds, as contributing to the issue becoming "embedded”, and warned of a that "family homelessness" was common because of a freeze on the local housing allowance (LHA), and caps on benefits. 

He blamed the national government for freezing public spending and a political class influenced “certain newspapers” inclined towards “toughness on benefits”, which he believed often led to the removal of safety nets that might otherwise stop people from becoming homeless. 

“Actually, all that leads to is human misery and more cost," he said. 

“It's only when you get out of Westminster [that] you actually see the perverse implications for public budgets of those policies."

Across England, homelessness is rising. According to the latest government figures published in July, 83,240 households were assessed as homeless or threatened with homelessness between January and March 2023 – up 5.7 per cent on the same period last year, and 11.5 per cent on the previous quarter. In February, the department for levelling up published data which showed rough sleeping has increased 26 per cent since 2021 in England, with 3,069 people were estimated to be sleeping rough on a given night – the steepest increase since 2015. 

But in Manchester, figures published in June showed that the overall number of people in temporary accommodation had fallen by 13.1 per cent to 2,775 households since a peak of 3,194 at the end of last year. The number of households sent to live in temporary Bed & Breakfasts was down by 65.8 per cent, dropping from 814 at its peak in February this year to 278.

Charity bus pull
Greater Manchester Mayor’s Charity held a charity bus pull in July to raise money for tackling homelessness in the city. (Credit: GM Mayor’s Charity)

Manchester has also made significant progress on reducing rough sleeping, with the city’s A Bed Every Night (ABEN) scheme housing 550 and 600 people in a bed each night. The scheme has helped rates of rough sleeping in the city drop by 67 per cent over four years. Around 350 people moved on from ABEN in the previous quarter, and typically the organisation gets around 100 people per month moving on positively from the service.

Burnham, who donates 15 per cent of his salary to the Great Manchester Mayor's Charity which supports homelessness charities in the city, said solving the issue has been "a big commitment" for the city's leadership. 

"It's hard to fund it so we have to manage our budget," he explained. "We have an NHS contribution towards it, recognising that homelessness is a health issue. It causes catastrophic damage to physical and mental health and if you just spend one night out on the streets sleeping rough."  ​ 

Key to Manchester’s success in reducing homelessness and rough sleeping has been a pilot of the government’s Housing First scheme in the city, which works on the principle that everybody has the right to a home. Burnham said it gave the city "the confidence to improve A Bed Every Night" and enabled them to provide accommodation to people with “no strings at first". 

Rough sleeping in Manchester has fallen by 67 per cent over four years. (Alamy)
Rough sleeping in Manchester has fallen by 67 per cent over four years. (Alamy)

Emily Cole, programme lead at Great Manchester Housing First, told PoliticsHome the programme helps address the "complexity" of why a person has become homeless, whether as a result of trauma, addiction, or insufficient funds to get by. 

"With Housing First, obviously, we're providing housing first – then a person-centred, tailored support for that individual that is really intense and flexible," she explained.

"That is what's the key really to helping people to recover and move out of homelessness.”

There’s no time frame for how long a person is able to receive support from the scheme. “It should be for as long as that individual needs," Cole added. But she worried funding could reach a "cliff-edge" when the initial pilot expires in 2025, and hoped that it would be made permanent. 

"It is a really big concern, especially with the short term funding cycles and decisions always being made right towards the end of your current funding," she said.  

“You need a lot longer than a couple of months to be informed of what's going to happen, especially when you're delivering at scale. And then also there's the personal impact on the people on our programme."

Director of homelessness at Manchester City Council, Rob McCartney, told PoliticsHome the city's new approach to moving people from B&Bs into permanent suitable housing has also been part of the city's success on homelessness.

He explained that this had been achieved by allowing people to remain on the list for long-term social rehousing while living in “stepping stone” private rentals rather than the limbo of temporary accommodation. 

“It could take three to five years to get social housing in Manchester. So rather than people waiting in a bed and breakfast for that length of time, we're allowing people to take a private rental but keep their priority awards,” he said. 

While McCartney felt the city had made "incredible progress" in tackling homelessness over the last six months, he warned against becoming "complacent" as Manchester was already seeing the impact of the escalating cost of living crisis. Rents in Manchester rose by 19.6 per cent last year, well beyond the 14 per cent national rise. 

"We were going to keep going, and we'll need to, given the pressures are going to grow," McCartney added. 

A general election must be called by the end of 2024, and Labour is widely expected to be voted into government, which would give Burnham’s party the opportunity to introduce fresh reform to tackle homelessness. While Labour is yet to solidify any manifesto policy pledges on the issue, the Manchester Mayor said he would like to see a review of the freeze on local housing allowance and benefit caps. In particular he would like to see Labour reinstate their recently scrapped commitment to cancel the two-child benefit cap, but conceded that he understood Labour leader Keir Starmer’s need for "discipline at this point in the electoral cycle".

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