What were you doing on 23 December? Perhaps you had already finished for Christmas and were doing some last minute present buying or trundling up the motorway to visit relatives. Or perhaps, like me, you were inhabiting a semi-deserted office and struggling to get much done because the rest of the country had already started its holidays.
No such inertia for our newly elected prime minister though. Boris Johnson was out visiting a rough sleeping shelter and announcing £263m of “new” homelessness funding.
“It cannot be right in the 21st century that people are homeless or having to sleep on our streets,” Mr Johnson declared in a government press release.
“This new funding is going to help councils provide better support to homeless people, and importantly, prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place.”
Alright, governments of the past three decades could have headed off the current housing crisis by ensuring more homes were built, or Mr Johnson could have eased the pressure on local government by setting housing benefit payments at a level which doesn’t leave some councils having to cover the difference with rents to keep families off the street, but, fair’s fair, new cash is never to be sniffed at.
Except, hold on a minute, didn’t councils get around £240m for 2019-20 through the £200m flexible homelessness support grant plus about £40m from various other grants, including new burdens funding for the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 and private rented sector access fund? Erm yes. At best, LGC understands £23m of what has been announced for 2020-21 could be new money.
The next financial year is slightly unusual in that with the 2015-2020 spending review period having come to an end and a new spending review yet to take place, funding has been ‘rolled over’ from 2019-20. So on a very technical level, the £240m is new money in that it had not been announced before, but on the practical level, of will councils have more to spend on homelessness next year than this year, it emphatically is not. While the government did not have to renew the grants, pulling them would have been a funny way to signal the end of austerity.
Plus ça change you might say. New government, same old spin.
But there is another part to this story. This particular announcement gained Mr Johnson prominent and favourable coverage in the London Evening Standard, the paper run by his old mate and former chancellor George Osborne and owned by Alexander Lebedev whose parties the prime minister has reportedly frequently and enthusiastically attended. Back in April, as foreign secretary, he is said to have ditched his security detail to attend a party at Mr Lebedev’s converted Italian castle.
But back to the 23 December. In the government press release Mr Johnson said he saluted the Standard’s campaign and in its leader that day the paper claimed “an extra £260m of support” as a victory for its homelessness campaign, claiming it would “make a big impact — extending services to help people at risk of ending up on the streets”.
So, a paper edited by a former chancellor whose welfare cuts and austerity programme have been a big driver of homelessness runs a campaign to tackle homelessness and claims victory. This is based on the announcement of some new money that is mostly not new money by a prime minister who has known said editor for decades and parties with the paper’s owner.
This is all just hot air if you are a homeless person or a council supporting them – almost exactly nothing has happened.
Will this nonsense never end? Happy weekend.