Rough-sleeping might appear to be an urban problem but many rural areas have it bad – with isolation and few services and housing making matters worse, writes PETER FROST
BRITAIN has a huge number of rough-sleepers. They are just the tiny tip of the gigantic iceberg that is our obscene national housing shortage.
According to the latest official figures the number of people sleeping rough in England rocketed for the sixth year in a row.
An estimated 4,134 people bedded down outside last year, more than twice the 2010 figure and up 16 per cent on the 2015 figure of 3,569.
London’s 960 homeless accounted for 23 per cent of England total. This is proportionally down from 26 per cent in 2015.
Tory-controlled borough Westminster — yes, the one in the headlines recently for its appalling housing policies — has the highest number of rough sleepers, 260, in both capital and country.
After Westminster, the worst areas for rough sleepers were Brighton and Hove (144), Cornwall (99), Manchester (78), Luton (76), Bristol (74), Croydon (68), Redbridge (60), Bedford (59) and Birmingham (55).
But a surprising new report has revealed that one in 10 of this homeless army lives not in the shop doorways of cities and towns but rather out of town, finding shelter in deserted barns, farm buildings or in tents pitched away from prying eyes and official scrutiny deep in the woodlands of the English countryside.
The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) report Right To Home? Rethinking Homelessness in Rural Communities shows that 6,270 families across England’s 91 predominantly rural local authorities were homeless and in priority need last year.
In 16 of these local authorities, at least two in every 1,000 households were homeless, a higher ratio than urban areas in 2010-11.
The report found that many cases of homelessness in rural areas go undetected — a small tent in a woodland glade is unlikely to be thought of as a permanent residence.
Army might be exactly the right description for these countryside homeless. We know a remarkably large percentage of rough-sleepers are ex-service personnel. Many soldiers learnt to live under canvas and off the land while serving abroad.
As well as holiday accommodation the parlous state of British farming mean there are many unused and deserted agricultural buildings and rough shelters that can be used as temporary housing until the otherwise homeless occupants are evicted by an irate landowner.
Country attitudes are different from those in towns, the report notes. The stigma of being visibly homeless in rural areas can be much stronger. Accessing local authority services can be much more difficult. This means many households never show up on official records.
Even so between 2010 and 2016, authorities categorised as mainly rural recorded a one-third increase in rough-sleepers. The figure jumped to twice as many for areas classified as largely rural.
The report also made the point that, “for every rough-sleeper recorded, there will be a considerable number of invisible homeless.”
The research also showed that much of the data collected by local authorities to record rough-sleepers was unreliable or, worse, often deliberately distorted and underplayed.
It suits Theresa May’s government and uncaring Tory local authorities to downplay figures for homelessness and rough-sleepers just as they regularly do with jobless statistics.
Even so, rural local authorities reported dealing with 12,977 homelessness cases in the year 2015-16. This is 11 per cent of the total of homelessness cases across England.
The report only covers England but homelessness charities suggest that Scottish and Welsh figures will be almost certainly be higher than in England.
The IPPR report listed poor economies of scale, long travel distances and insufficient public travel networks, difficulty to access specialist services, isolated communities and the lack of emergency housing provision as the main issues exacerbating the problem in rural areas.
It also argued that while the reasons for homelessness in urban and rural areas were often similar, government policies including the ending of an assured short-hold tenancy, as well as family breakdown and the fact that services to tackle homelessness are concentrated in urban areas, left rural communities to fend for themselves.
The report said a one-size-fits-all approach towards homelessness could not be the solution and that the rural context must be taken into account by politicians.
“Given the difficulties in accessing services and alternative accommodation, the impact could be even more significant for households in rural settings,” it warns. It also called on the government to develop a new national homelessness strategy including an assessment of the scale and nature of rural homelessness.
The tragic Grenfell Tower fire in Westminster has pulled back the curtain on the obscene lack of suitable affordable housing in many towns and cities.
Houses and flats are bought as investments and left empty while thousands of single people and families are in need of a decent affordable place to live.
Now we find it is no better in most small country towns and villages where much of what was once the housing stock for local agricultural and other workers have now become desirable weekend country cottages for town-dwellers, pushing prices far beyond local people’s budgets.
These are twin aspects of the problem that gets worse under a Tory government hell bent on further deregulation to make landlords even richer and tenants even poorer and less secure.
Not until we get a Labour government committed to affordable social housing in town and country will we even start to solve our housing crisis.
No doubt country vicar’s daughter Theresa May with memories of running naughtily through fields of golden wheat will suggest all we can do is pray for a mild winter.
The homeless squaddie surviving in his ex-army tent on the edge of Salisbury Plain certainly deserves a bit more than her prayers but I doubt that he will get it.