Housing is an issue very close to my heart. I volunteer at The Passage, a homeless day centre in central London, and have got to know many homeless people. The reasons are many and varied for homelessness. What has particularly upset me over the years are the number of ex-services people who find themselves sleeping on the streets of London. There are a spate of rather nasty posts on Facebook suggesting that service personell be given priority over refugees in housing decisions. Whilst I understand why many people repost these and sympathise with them, they totally miss the point that the reason for much of this homelessness with service personell is nothing to do with available housing stock. It is because a very high percentage of these fine people are suffering mental disorders such as PSTD. Many find themselves unable to cope with civilian life and as a result find it more comfortable to live on the streets. The key to this is to address the root cause, which is the PSTD and other issues and ensure that anyone at risk of such issues is given the help they require. Sadly, this isn't given and they turn to drink, drugs and a chaotic lifestyle. Many of the refugees that are so vilified, have children and I for one, believe that whatever the story, children must never be allowed to sleep rough. In London, one of the biggest groups suffering homelessness is migrant workers, who suddenly find that when the work dries up, they have nowhere to live.
The problem is made worse by the hundreds of thousands of properties that are lying empty. Many are simply held as investments and others are owned by offshore investors, who have no interest at all in London and who add nothing to our economy. Finally, there are many properties where there are far more bedrooms than needed. I don't agree that a bedroom tax is the way to go. This simply forces people out of their homes. So here is my five point plan.
1. Service personel should receive proper back up services and none should ever "have no one to turn to". As a society, we have a debt to anyone who has seen active service. The MOD needs a strategy to ensure no one falls through the net. Help should be given to find employment opportunities for all servicemen. Help should be given for substance issues and every ex serviceman should get proper help with mental health issues. Most servicemen are resourceful individuals, who given proper help, have a huge contribution to society to give.
2. Refugees with children should also be prioritised. As most have no links with specific areas, they should be helped to settle in areas where there is less pressure on housing. This requires a proper strategy for addressing the issues, such as appropriate employment opportunities and extra cash for schools in these areas to address language issues etc.
3. Migrant workers, who find themselves homeless, should be given help to return to their country of origin. Although some will resent giving "free tickets home" to such people, it is far cheaper than any other solution. I would, however, prevent them from returning to the UK unless this debt is paid.
4. Many elderly people and those who's children have left home, have spare rooms. Local Councils should be encouraged to set up schemes to help these people rent spare rooms. This would bring in cash and for many would easy issues of loneliness. I would raise the tax threshold that people can earn through such lets to £15,000 per year. Councils should be forced to set up register, where people with such space can be matched with people who need a room. Students and key workers should be prioritised.
5. Many are simply sitting on "banked" properties and land. The government could free up much of this by giving the owners a "Capital Gains Tax Holiday" for a limited period. As owners would have a one off chance to make a 40% killing, many would be encouraged to sell. I would make it a stipulation that the sale must be to someone who will actually live there. This would be a huge carrot.
6. A stick is also needed to encourage those who are sitting on "banked land". I would introduce a quadruple rate of council tax on properties empty for more than nine months (with an exemption for major works, where receipts can be verified). I would also ring fence the cash raised to specifically address housing issues.
Of course, the Conservative government are unlikely to adopt any of these measures as none help the super wealthy, who enefit most from escalating property values. It is quite scandalous really, given that nearly all of them will cost the government little. Whilst there is a theoretical loss from a capital gains holiday, most of these properties will not get sold. A friend who knows about such things suggested that if the rate was cut from 40% to 10% for a year, it may actually bring money in. It would also generate economic activity as people decorated and renovated properties.