Calls for firm Central Government leadership on homelessness post COVID-19



New research from Heriot-Watt University and the University of New South Wales, supported by Crisis, cites ‘localism’ as a fundamental driver of homelessness in England over the past 10 years.

A ‘decade of disaster’ has seen all forms of homelessness climb far above 2010 figures.[1]

Writing in the journal Policy & Politics, the researchers argue that the combined impact of social security cuts, housing market pressures and local government funding reductions have been magnified by Central Government’s ‘localism’ agenda that has unfairly pushed responsibility for managing the homelessness consequences of these policies down to cash-strapped councils.

Local authorities and homelessness services face resettling over 5,400 people who are temporarily housed in hotels and other forms of self-contained accommodation as part of the emergency response to COVID-19.  The team urge that now is the time for Central Government to abandon the failed ‘localist’ approach to homelessness and re-commit to a lead role in ensuring there is no revival in street sleeping post-crisis.

The research highlights four reasons why a localised approach to tackling homelessness will always fail: 

  • It diffuses responsibility across a very large number of, often very small, local authorities who may lack any specialist capacity in this field, especially under the pressure of budget cuts.
  • Localised housing and welfare responses, especially in times of budget stringency, can limit help for those without a ‘local connection’.
  • People who are homeless, especially those with complex support needs, are vulnerable to marginalization in decentralised systems.
  • The weakening of the national floor of entitlement-based protection, in favour of locally determined, variable levels of assistance, treats people in the same circumstances differently - a morally unjustifiable approach.

The team highlight the government’s recent announcement of an expert rough sleeping task force, to advise local councils on supporting people into long-term accommodation options once lockdown lifts. The evidence-base, the team urge, shows that Central Government must sustain a grip on homelessness along the lines of the ‘Everyone In’ measures already taken to address COVID-19, with no reversion to the failed ‘localism approach’ when the pandemic abates.

Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick, director of the Institute for Social Policy, Housing, Equalities Research (I-SPHERE) at Heriot-Watt University, said: “It shouldn’t have taken a global pandemic to expose the damage done by a ‘localist’ approach which has failed to meet the fundamental material needs of far too many vulnerable people in England for the past decade. Now that rough sleeping has been being recognised as the national public health emergency that it always has been, we should seize the opportunity to overhaul a failing system.

“The post-COVID period represents a massive challenge for all parties involved in tackling homelessness in England, and Central Government must play its full role alongside local authority and third sector partners who have been left to pick up the pieces over the last decade. ‘Localism’ in this context inappropriately and unfairly places prime responsibility for tackling structurally-driven social problems on local authorities with little leverage over the wider welfare policies and public expenditure decisions that drive homelessness trends.

“Our research provides robust evidence that strong Central Government leadership and accountability is needed to drive positive change on homelessness measures – or even just to stabilise a deteriorating situation. Many local authorities have risen to this impossible challenge in an almost heroic fashion but, post-COVID, Central Government must not be allowed to once again abdicate its responsibility in this arena.”

Matt Downie, Director of Policy and External Affairs at the national homelessness charity Crisis, which funded the research, said: “In March, we saw the Westminster Government bring forward its target to end rough sleeping by 2025 to getting it done within days. With over 5,400 people who were previously sleeping rough or in crowded night shelters now in safe accommodation, it’s been extraordinary to see what can be done when the political will and leadership from Central Government is there.

“The emergency response to coronavirus reinforces the findings of this research, leaving us in no doubt that the experiment with localism and homelessness has failed. We urge the Government to take heed of this. We must not revert back to a fragmented system, with hundreds of different approaches to homelessness taking place across the country, when the pandemic subsides.” 

[1] Ahead of the current crisis, rough sleeping in England was running at a level 140% higher than nine years earlier. Temporary accommodation placements were 65% higher than 2010, while the use of B&B hotels for homeless families had risen well over threefold.


Annie Pugh