This is the time of year when thoughts turn to the less fortunate in society, with homelessness and rough sleeping coming in for particular attention as 2017 draws to a close.
Earlier this year I was privileged to be invited to join a team of talented chefs who prepared the dishes for a charity evening held at the Social Bite restaurant Home in Edinburgh, operated by the entrepreneur and homelessness campaigner Josh Littlejohn.
I am a great admirer of the tireless effort Josh puts into working to alleviate homelessness, something that was brought to national attention just recently with the success of his massive overnight Sleep in the Park held in Princes Street Gardens.
Homeless people are not some breed apart and no one should think “this could never happen to me”. Ironically, many of them once had well-ordered lives which changed for a variety of reasons – eg loss of a career and income, marital or family breakdown, grief, injury or illness.
But I am not a naïve person either. Not all are victims of society, and sometimes drug and alcohol abuse is the catalyst for losing a roof over their heads – often following complaints from neighbours.
I was reminded of this when catching up on a Channel 4 News item which featured the mayor of Greater Manchester, the failed Labour leadership candidate Andy Burnham. He suggested that one of the causes on his patch was the ease with which private landlords could evict tenants with nowhere else to go. In reality, however, any reputable landlord will not take such a course without good reason – usually unpaid rent, damage to property or complaints from adjacent residents.
But I suspect Burnham’s comments were not related purely to the homeless but were part of a wider agenda – ie that private landlords have become an easy target when addressing society’s various ills.
Not enough homes for social rent? It’s all the fault of private landlords snapping up former council houses. A shortage of affordable opportunities for first-time buyers? Why, it’s because so many former owner-occupied properties have been switched to the private rental market. Soaring rents? Again, greedy landlords taking unfair advantage of the law of supply and demand. But is this really the case? Let’s suppose Mrs Thatcher had never been elected and that all those hundreds of thousands of council houses sold to sitting tenants under Right to Buy legislation had remained in municipal hands. And let’s also suppose the buy-to-let phenomenon had never taken place and that the private properties bought by landlords for private letting had remained in the owner-occupied sector. Just how would that fit with accommodating three million recently-arrived immigrants and first-time buyers among the established population unable to raise the deposits currently required by mortgage lenders?
This wouldn’t be just a housing crisis but an economic crisis as well. The CBI and other employer organisations fret about restricted access to EU migrant labour after Brexit but were it not for the private rented sector, Brexit or no Brexit, this point would be irrelevant – because there would not be the facilities to house immigrants in the first place.
Landlords are not, by instinct, particularly altruistic people and I’ve come across a few who could hardly be described as angels. But most are responsible citizens who put much time and effort into their investment and who are now being taxed to the hilt (to an extent whereby there has been a big increase in those thinking of selling up). They may be in the market to turn a profit – and who in business isn’t? – but in doing so it is clear they also address a social need affecting the working population at large.
So, let’s resolve to make a big reduction in homelessness in 2018; but in doing we need to aim at the real causes and not politically- convenient whipping boys.
David Alexander is managing director of DJ Alexander