This report by IPPR focuses on raising the profile of what it describes as the overlooked problem rural homelessness. The report certainly achieved that goal, gaining media coverage in the Guardian, Independent, the Express and many local new papers. However, fundamentally the report only truly grazes the surface of this complex issue.
It is clearly limited by the lack of existing research on rural homelessness, and it makes clear that more research needs to be done on the topic. Frustratingly, it also makes some errors in its assumptions, and these undermine the reader’s trust while also failing to answer fully its own well-conceived questions.
These questions probe some of the grittiest problems of rural homelessness:
1. What does rural homelessness look like and how is it different to urban homelessness?
2. In what ways do rural areas – both the local authorities and community agencies – work to prevent and relieve homelessness, and what challenges do they face?
3. What could rural areas do, and what examples might they consider, to address homelessness challenges in their communities?
The report is structured around these questions and does goes some way toward answering them, but probably needs more time and resources to explore them in real depth.
The first section provides a statistical comparison of urban and rural homelessness. It highlights the fact that rural homelessness is significant and rising but is also much lower than its urban equivalent. Equally it suggests that under-counting is more likely in rural areas.
The second section focuses on the particular issues face by rural homeless and local authorities in addressing homelessness in a rural context. It covers the lack of affordable housing, distance covered, as well as the likelihood that rural homeless may stay in barns, outbuildings, etc., rather than sleep rough. It also notes that rural homeless people are much more likely to stay with family or friends than their urban equivalents.
The third section identifies some areas of good practice and makes some good high-level recommendations. However, these lack detail and again it feels like more resources and time need to be dedicated to this area of research to really get under its skin. The recommendations in the report cover:
• The need for local and combined authorities to enter into two-way negotiations with central government to develop bespoke devolution deals on housing and planning, with a particular focus on rural needs.
• Central government should develop a new national homelessness strategy, taking the enactment of the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 as its lead. This should include an assessment of homelessness in rural areas.
• All rural areas should explore setting up rural homelessness forums as a place for relevant local bodies and agencies – and neighbouring authorities – to share intelligence and best practice.
• Rural homelessness forums should devise a standard monitoring form through which this information can be collected by services and agencies when individuals who are homeless or at risk of homelessness approach them.
• All local authorities should record the ‘home’ local authority of homeless households during initial homelessness assessments through standardised monitoring forms.
• Local authorities, working through rural homelessness forums, should set up rural community homelessness hubs.
There are some flaws in this piece of research which limit its usefulness. The main issue is that there are some fundamental errors and misunderstandings in the work. One example is the evidence it uses to demonstrate the lack of affordable housing in rural areas. It quotes, and has a nice graph to demonstrate, a 79% decrease in local authority social housing compared to a 51% drop in urban areas. It fails to mention that much of this will be due to transfer of stock to housing associations.
It also fails to mention the full figures for social housing in rural areas or the roles of housing associations at all. With recent statistics demonstrating that housing associations use 21% of their lettings for homeless household, exactly the same level as local authorities, this is a huge error. This means the report does not demonstrate if there is less affordable housing per person in rural areas than in urban. This leads me, as the reader, to mistrust other assumptions and interpretations the author has made.
There is a clear need for more in-depth research in rural housing issues, including homeless issues, in general. This report highlights this, and has done valuable work in raising the profile of the problem, but there is more work to be done.