Like many in the property industry, I enjoy the creature comforts of a nice home, located in a nice street, set in a nice town, with my nice family, and do not for a moment give a second thought to how fortunate I am. But over the festive break, my wife and I have travelled to various parts of the UK to visit our extended family, and wherever we have travelled I was struck by the sheer number of men and women sleeping rough on our streets.

Just to be clear, I ought to explain that I normally think of myself as being a fully paid up, card carrying capitalist, or so I thought. But you would have to have a heart of stone not to reflect hard about the plight of all of these people that would appear to have no other option but to sleep rough, whilst I (rather ashamedly) return home to adjust my central heating thermostat to accommodate the latest cold snap.

Should I feel guilty? What can be done? Who is responsible? Well, guilt in itself will not put a roof over the heads of people who have clearly (for one reason or another) found themselves to be homeless and/or sleeping rough. Also, the temptation to slip into offering simple platitudes to a complex problem is tempting indeed – but in this instance so obviously misplaced. But, I have to confess to being extremely troubled by what I saw – troubled enough to take to the internet and the SHELTER (housing charity) website in particular, in order to try and get some personal insight into the problem.

What is clear is that homelessness is not a one-dimensional problem, just the manifestation of a number of factors – some more obvious such as drug, alcohol or gambling addiction, and some less visible such as personal debt, mental illness or wrong-doing by private landlords. Sadly, the latest national statistics from the government regarding rough sleeping (that I was able to find) date back to 2015, but below are a few “headlines” to give food for thought :-
In the autumn of 2015 the total number of rough sleepers in England alone was estimated to be 3,570 – which was up by 825 (30%) from autumn of 2014.

London had 940 rough sleepers in autumn of 2015, which was 26% of the national figure.

The number of rough sleepers has increased by 27% in London and 31% in the rest of England since autumn 2014.

Almost certainly the figures that I have listed above are well out of date, and these figures do not include families in temporary accommodation or in desperate need of re-housing. The problem is “managed” (if indeed that is the right term to use) by national and local government, ably assisted by a number of housing charities including Shelter, Centrepoint and The Salvation Army. But ultimately much of the good work carried out by all of these organisations is fundamentally undermined by a chronic shortage of affordable housing across our nation.

This again is a contentious area, as recent research by Pete Jefferys of Shelter’s policy unit found that the UK’s ten biggest house builders were sitting upon up to 14 years of land that could be used for homes (subject to planning) right now. The inference being that major house builders were speculating on house prices rising, by slowing the rate of housing supply – a practice more commonly known as “land banking”.

Shelter’s findings may well have some foundation, but it may surprise some readers to learn that the largest landowners in the UK are principally government agencies/departments such as The Ministry of Defence, The Forestry Commission etc, and bodies such as The Church of England, and The Crown Estate, not to mention large landowners such as the Grosvenor Estate and Network Rail (amongst many others).

So, given that we are a small island with limited housing capacity, how do we tackle the thorny issue of where we build? And in what density? Well, it struck me (after only an hour’s worth of research for this article) that trying to get a long term coordinated response to our lack of affordable housing must be a nightmare. Why? Simple really – there are too many different private/public landowners to negotiate with, with too much self- interest at stake – which is then compounded by over complex planning laws, pressure from environmental groups, and the short termism of successive governments who are incapable ,it would seem, of looking beyond the five year term for which they have been elected.

Speaking personally, I see the wider politics of this situation as being only symbolic of the size of the task at hand, as well as a key indicator of why so little progress has been made on a national basis up until now. But there is some small measure of hope ahead, as Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has recently announced a £50m fund to support women sleeping rough in the capital. In addition, organisations providing specialist support will receive cash as part of the mayor’s £3.15bn Affordable Homes Programme. Furthermore, this announcement comes after P.M. Theresa May revealed plans to “The Big Issue” magazine for a £40m intervention fund to go to councils that are piloting initiatives to tackle the causes of homelessness before people hit “crisis point”.

Such efforts are commendable indeed, but can only be a metaphorical “sticking plaster” over a much larger flesh wound. For if we are to consider ourselves to be a progressive, caring, and above all, civilised nation, then government must begin to undertake the unenviable task of fundamentally tackling the housing shortage – otherwise our collective embarrassment could soon turn into our national shame.

The author of this article is Peter Nicholls, CEO of Ideology Consulting. If you would like to donate money or seek further information on homelessness please email info@shelter.org.uk .