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Climate crisis posing growing risk to the homeless, UK charities tell ministers

·5-min read

Letter calls for urgent action this winter to help those with no, or inadequate, housing

Homeless people and those in poor housing are at increasing risk from the climate crisis, while suffering the consequences of our dependence on costly fossil fuels, housing charities have warned.

The leaders of three of the UK’s biggest housing charities have written to ministers to call for urgent action for this winter for people facing homelessness, and to improve inadequate housing.

They also want a coherent strategy for the future on how to meet the UK’s net zero emissions target while building the new homes needed around the country.

The chief executive of Shelter, Polly Neate, said: “It’s clear the climate emergency is only making the housing emergency worse. Already, people who are sleeping rough are feeling the awful effects of flooding and heatwaves, while the fossil fuel energy price hike means many people are having to choose between heating their homes or paying their rent.”

She warned: “This winter is going to be a tough one. We urgently need a guarantee, including funding, to get everyone off the streets to protect them from our increasingly extreme weather.”

The first named storm of this winter hit the UK this weekend. Storm Arwen brought winds of almost 100mph to parts of the country.

The letter, seen by the Guardian, and signed by the chiefs of three major housing and homelessness charities – Shelter, Homeless Link and Crisis – is the first time they have jointly intervened with ministers about the climate crisis. They are increasingly concerned about the impacts of extreme weather on the vulnerable, and fear that the opportunity to improve people’s housing while reducing greenhouse gas emissions is being lost.

They cited examples of rough sleepers who had their tents washed away in flash floods this summer, and families in emergency housing who could not stay cool in the summer heatwaves, and now face inflated costs for fossil fuel heating which they cannot afford.

Recalling the recent Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow, where the government promised to spearhead global action on the climate crisis, they wrote: “It is the poorest who are being hit hardest by the climate emergency … We know we need to do what we can now.”

In the letter to Michael Gove, the secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities, and the business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, they called for an urgent review of whether current rough sleeping emergency weather measures were fit for purpose in extreme weather, and for funding for “a new era of climate-resilient and carbon-negative housing offered at a social rent”, showing that reaching net zero could reduce bills and result in better housing.

They suggest a pilot scheme that could demonstrate how better housing that is lower in greenhouse gas emissions could be achieved at reasonable cost for social rents. That would “show how a net zero transition could help the most vulnerable reduce bills and produce better places to live”.

One homeless man from Sheffield, Chris, who was living in a tent while on the street for six months and working in a supermarket, struggled through extreme conditions in Storm Desmond in 2015, nearly losing his tent. He fears that scientific warnings that more extreme weather – including very cold spells as well as heatwaves and storms – will hit as the climate crisis continues mean people such as him will face harsher conditions in future.

He told the Guardian how vulnerable people in that position could be: “I chose to put my tent in an exposed area because at night you are very vulnerable – if you’re in a doorway someone can trap you and do malicious things to you. So you want to be able to see people approaching, but you are then exposed to the elements. It was bitter cold, with a biting wind, my tent was blowing away and I did not have anywhere I could go – it was frightening.”

He is now being supported by Shelter and plans to petition the prime minister to ensure that no one is on the streets this winter.

Between March 2020 and February 2021, the government ensured about 37,000 people were given emergency accommodation, in the Everyone In scheme. But many of those people are now back on the streets and facing a winter of extreme cold and storms.

Rick Henderson, the chief executive of Homeless Link, which represents frontline homeless charities across England, said the problem was worsening: “Periods of extreme weather can be very dangerous for people sleeping rough. As these grow more common, addressing the current emergency weather measures is imperative to make sure they reflect our current environment and keep people as safe as possible.”

The government will not introduce its future homes standard, requiring new homes to be built with adequate insulation and low-carbon heating, until 2025. More than a million homes have been built in recent years with insulation that is well below the standards needed, and without low-carbon heating such as heat pumps, or solar panels and other low-carbon technology. An estimated 1 million more will be built to poor standards before the new standard is introduced, although installing such measures costs only about £5,000 for developers when building new homes, while retrofitting them costs an average of £20,000 for the householder.

A government spokesperson said: “We are building more social housing and taking action to reduce waiting lists, which have fallen by almost 600,000 households since 2010. But we must go further, so we’re investing over £12bn in affordable housing over the next five years – the largest investment in affordable housing in a decade – along with over £2bn in the next three years to tackle rough sleeping and homelessness. Homes built to current standards won’t need extensive retrofitting to reach net zero – and we’re increasing the standards further to reduce emissions from new homes by 31%.”

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