Britain's Rising Rural Homelessness Is A Hidden Crisis Made Worse By Looming Council Bankruptcy

Author: Carin Tunåker

(MENAFN- The Conversation) A number of local councils in England, including Birmingham, Nottingham and Croydon, have effectively declared themselves“bankrupt” in recent years, and many more are at risk . A decade of cuts to local authority budgets and increasing demands on services such as social care are forcing councils to make difficult financial decisions. But it's not just inner-city councils in low-income areas whose threadbare services are overwhelmed.

Last year we published a report on the rising, yet often hidden, problem of rural homelessness. Our findings show how cuts to local funding and services are affecting people and driving a rise in homelessness in the countryside.

We surveyed 157 housing professionals in local authorities across the UK, and interviewed people experiencing homelessness in Herefordshire, Kent, South Cambridgeshire and North Yorkshire. We spoke to people working in foodbanks, support services, housing providers and health care to map a picture of the current situation.

The vast majority – 91% – of our survey respondents told us that homelessness in rural areas had increased over the last five years. And 83% of those said that homelessness has become harder to address in the same period.

National discussions and media depictions of homelessness tend to focus on urban areas. People sleeping rough in cars, horseboxes and church porches, and those sofa surfing or living in insecure accommodation in rural areas, are frequently overlooked.

The number of people sleeping rough in rural areas has increased by 24% in the last year. There is not much other data available on rural homelessness, because it's harder to count. The Rural Homelessness Counts Coalition of charities, which commissioned our research, is working to improve this.

Cuts to services

The funding cuts that have affected local councils for the last ten years have disproportionately impacted rural authorities in relation to homelessness. They receive 65% less funding per head than urban areas for homelessness prevention . The financial strain means rural councils are unable to respond to the growing homelessness problem.

The resources that people experiencing homelessness, and those on the cusp, need to survive are disappearing – and more cuts are on the cards.

Hampshire county council is reducing many services to bare minimum levels. In addition to ending homelessness support, this will involve significant cuts to local bus services – further isolating residents.

Kent county council – which, like Hampshire, is facing bankruptcy – has had no choice but to withdraw its £5 million a year Kent Homeless Connect service, which helped rough sleepers find housing, jobs and health care. Kent charity Porchlight told us they are preparing for a significant loss of homelessness funding from April 2024, and they have had to turn to public donations to keep their hostels open until the end of the year.

The government has pledged an extra £600 million to local councils across England to help deliver key services, but it's unclear if any of this will translate into homelessness funding. And in truth, it is not enough to address the scale of the problem we are facing. It's now up to central government to address the challenges that rural councils are facing.

Read more: One in five councils at risk of 'bankruptcy' – what happens after local authorities run out of money

Isolation in the countryside

The pandemic highlighted the issues facing rural economies. Tourism, hospitality and the leisure industry were been hard hit, and the cost of living crisis has intensified the already high rural premium on food, transport, heating and housing costs.

Those experiencing or at risk of homelessness told us how expensive they found it to eat and travel. They were concerned about widely dispersed or unavailable support services, such as mental health support, food banks and job centres. Many were forced to choose between paying rent, buying food and heating their homes.

Rural homelessness means sleeping in barns and tents, far from services and other support. Shen Stone/Shutterstock

A former civil servant who retired early due to a work-related injury told us that he had been supported by his local authority to find privately rented accommodation in a rural area. His pension, while too high to allow him to qualify for financial assistance, didn't cover the rent. He has resorted to living in his car, driving from one rural car park to another.

A young man told us that while he had found support from a charity to address his substance misuse problems, he was unable to find a suitable place to rent. The much reduced local housing allowance , the state subsidy for housing costs payable to those under 35, meant that he could only rent a room in a shared house, which was not available in his area. Instead, he is living in a tent in the woods.

Private rents in rural areas have increased so much that local housing allowances are insufficient for those on low incomes. According to Bob Barnett, Strategic Housing Officer at Herefordshire council, there is at least 20% shortfall in LHA in the area, meaning people can't afford rent. And options like social housing simply are not available in many rural areas.

The rural housing crisis

This is part of a bigger picture of reduced housing availability, that is especially acute in the countryside, where the market is driven by retirees and second-home owners.

The Campaign for the Protection of Rural England reported in January 2022 that there had been a 1,000% increase in homes listed for short-term lets nationally between 2015 and 2021. And 148,000 homes that could otherwise house local families were available as Airbnb-style lets in September 2021.

A 2022 report by the Country Land and Business Association found that in many rural areas, housing provision has become divorced from the needs of local people and their incomes.

Without a serious commitment from central government to solving the rural housing crisis, homelessness will continue to increase. And without financial support for local authorities, the suffering of those experiencing homelessness will continue to be ignored.

The Conversation


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