In the first of two special reports on homelessness in Swindon, CHRIS HUMPHREYS looks at the staggering number of children and families living in temporary accommodation across the town after losing their homes.

THE number of homeless children in Swindon has surged by 162 per cent in the past five years.

Some 415 youngsters are now living in temporary accommodation, shelters, hostels or bed and breakfasts, an increase from 158 in 2012.

While homelessness is most often associated with rough sleeping, a far greater number have lost their homes and are living in emergency facilities, temporary housing, or sofa surfing and in other transient conditions.

Local authorities are the first major line of defence against homelessness, but with finite budgets and resources, there are limits to the numbers they can help.

In reality, it is not enough to be homeless, to qualify for council support you must also meet a strict series of vulnerability criteria.

In Swindon, the number of households falling into that bracket – known as statutorily homeless – has increased by 78 per cent in the past five years, from 202 in 2012 to 361 in 2017.

Of those, more than two thirds include either children or pregnant women.

The recent increase has been blamed on a perfect storm which has seen changes to the benefit system being introduced against the backdrop of a housing market that appears increasingly impenetrable for young people and those on lower incomes.

But Swindon Borough Council has been keen to emphasise that the same trends are being replicated across the country and are not unique to just Swindon.

A spokesman said: “This increase can be down to a number of factors such as relationship breakdowns (violent and non-violent), and loss of private sector accommodation.

“However, despite the rising trend in recent years, our figures for the last quarter were the lowest for some time.”

The council’s own Joint Strategic Needs Assessment from 2015/16 shows that the main reasons for people losing their last stable home were termination of assured shorthold tenancies and parents no longer willing or able to accommodate children.

Where households are identified as at risk, the council tries to make early interventions in a bid to avert homelessness.

However, in recent years, changes to the housing market and the benefits system are making preventative action more difficult.

In 2012, council teams were able to prevent or relieve 584 cases of homelessness in Swindon, last year that figure had fallen by 40 per cent to just 353.

A council spokesman added: “It has become difficult for local authorities to prevent homelessness using the private rented sector as the gap between the market rent and local housing allowance has been widening.

“Landlords are becoming increasingly frustrated with the delay in claiming Universal Credit, which can lead to large arrears, while many landlords are no longer willing to rent to those on benefits.

“A number of landlords are also choosing to sell their properties rather than continue to rent due to changes in tax rules.”

Local housing allowance is set at 30 per cent of the market rental rate, but in 2015 the Chancellor announced that it would be frozen at that level for four years meaning that as rents go up, it becomes less likely that the housing allowance will meet the cost.

North Swindon MP Justin Tomlinson said the government had stepped in to help bridge that gap in some cases but said action had been necessary after housing benefit “spiralled out of control” under Labour.

“This has already saved hardworking taxpayers £6bn,” he said. “We recognise no-one should receive more in housing benefit than a person can earn on an average wage.

“In addition the Government has provided £1bn in discretionary housing payments to help meet the difference in rent where it is felt additional support is needed due to individual circumstances.”

On delays in payment of Universal Credit, he said: “The Government constantly keep the UC process under review.

“It is a benefit with cross-party support.

“Where individuals encounter problems, Jobcentre Plus staff are on hand to help swiftly rectify any problems quickly.

“I am continuing to push for further improvements in Parliament, particularly during the initial registering process.”

Both Mr Tomlinson and South Swindon MP Robert Buckland argued that it was too soon to claim that changes to mortgage tax relief were leading to more buy-to-let landlords deciding to sell up.

On the rise in statutory homelessness more broadly, Mr Buckland said: “The issue of housing supply has been a problem for many years.

“As Swindon continues to grow, then an increase in these numbers will occur although I note recent reductions.

“Some of these figures are due to family breakdowns and changes to living arrangements but also a better identification of housing need by the local authority.

“Changes to buy to let taxation arrangements haven’t fully bedded in yet so it is far too early to assess any impact this may have.”

The Labour group’s spokesman for housing, Emma Bushell, said: “These figures are deeply concerning. The dramatic increase in homelessness across Swindon shows the government’s austerity agenda is forcing the poorest in our society into homelessness.

“Unless something changes, I fear homelessness in Swindon is only going to increase. The Government’s introduction of the Universal Credit scheme has had a big impact on families claiming benefits.

“The council should lobby the government to reform it, as families are falling through the cracks of recent changes to housing benefits.

“Many local residents are struggling to navigate the benefits system and have been left without support for housing costs.

“As a consequence some families are falling into rent arrears and even homelessness.

“The number of children in homeless households is particularly concerning. Such a large number of children locally in temporary housing has to be addressed by the council with the support of the Government.”

Housing campaigners have long been warning of the coming together of forces that would lead to the crisis in homelessness being seen in Swindon. 

Earlier this year, Martin Wicks of the Swindon Housing Action Campaign warned of the very pressure points which have come to exert themselves on households now finding themselves homeless. 

“It is clear that funding for homelessness is insufficient,” he wrote.

“Welfare benefit ‘reforms’ have depleted councils of the resources for funding their homelessness work.

“As a result of benefit cuts, the council receives £45 per week less income for each private sector leasing property than the actual cost of the rent. 

“Budget pressures have also been exacerbated by people of working age on housing benefit being transferred to Universal Credit. 

“The average wait in Swindon for a new claim to be processed and the first payment received, is 10 weeks. 

“During this period the claimant has no housing benefit or local housing allowance. 

“Hence every person on UC is automatically thrown into rent arrears. 

“This is why council rent arrears have increased by more than £400,000 since UC was introduced for all new claimants in December of last year.

“Private sector rents are also increasing at way above the level of wage increases. 

“This has meant that every leased property is costing the council on average £150 to £200 per month above the level of local housing allowance.

“We have a housing crisis which is getting worse year by year. 

“If central government policy continues down the road it has travelled since 2010 then the social consequences will be disastrous.”

  • Tomorrow, we look at how a crisis in social housing is forcing Swindon Council into a costly and potentially unsustainable reliance on the private sector.