Bob Blackman: The Government can end rough sleeping by 2024 – so long as it takes bold policy action now

23 Jul

Bob Blackman is co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Ending Homelessness and MP for Harrow East.

I am proud to co-chair the All Party Parliamentary Group for Ending Homelessness because we never lose sight of what we are for: it is in our name. We do not want to reduce homelessness or minimise it but end it for good.

If that sounds like too big a challenge then I would ask you to do two things. First, look at what was done in the last year to support people without a home in the pandemic. 37,000 people facing homelessness were provided emergency accommodation, with the Everyone In scheme rolled out in a matter of weeks.

A hotel room is not a home, but that combined effort from government and local services showed what can be achieved through bold policy action. There is no doubt that this saved hundreds of lives and led many people to access support for the first time in many years, or ever in some cases. It showed that no one is beyond help. It showed that if the Government makes the right choices now, it can meet its commitment to end rough sleeping by 2024.

That brings me to the second cause for optimism. If you think that homelessness, and indeed rough sleeping, cannot be ended, I would ask you to read the testimonies of the 65 people experiencing homelessness who contributed to the APPG’s latest report.

Battling multiple issues with mental health, addiction and trauma meant many had been stuck in cycles of homelessness for years. They are what are often referred to as the most entrenched rough sleepers.

But thanks to groundbreaking Housing First pilot schemes, which the Government funded in 2017, many are now not only housed but finally have the stability to address those multiple serious issues. In the words of one of our contributors: “I honestly believe if I wasn’t introduced to Housing First and this programme I wouldn’t be here to tell any story.”

Unlike other homelessness schemes, Housing First does not require people to prove they can live in a normal home by first living in shelters and hostels. Though life-saving for many, for people with the most serious needs this support falls short and can, at best, only manage their homelessness.

With Housing First, people are given access to mainstream housing as soon as possible and provided long-term support to help address their other needs. The 2019 Conservative manifesto made the very welcome commitment to end rough sleeping by the end of this parliamentby expanding successful pilots and programmes such as…Housing First”.

In England, the Government recognised the important role of Housing First back in 2018, when it funded three pilots in Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region and West Midlands. They have been hugely successful, housing 450 people by September last year with 88 per cent of clients sustaining tenancies across the programme and contributing just over half of the total of 2,000 Housing First places we currently have across England.

But despite that success, as it stands, funding for the three pilots is set to end from next year. Failure to fund these programmes beyond this would not just be turning our backs on the progress they have made. It would leave over a thousand people who have been promised open ended support at serious risk of being forced back into homelessness.

That cliff edge is understandably causing considerable uncertainty and apprehension among clients and staff and urgently needs resolving. At the very least, we have urged the Government to commit to funding the three pilots beyond next year.

When reading the experience of Housing First clients, what is most striking is not just the level of support they are offered but the choice and direction they have over their own recovery and route of homelessness. As one client said:

“There was never you must do this or you must do that to get something, only suggestions and encouragement for things that would benefit me and when I made the decision if I wanted to engage with other service I was supported with this.”

Choice does not just help tailor the support, it gives clients ownership of their new life away from homelessness and crucially, the responsibility to make it work. That is very different to hostels, which left another client feeling as if all her life decisions were taken out of her hands.

Housing First has also proven to be especially successful for certain groups of people, including prison leavers, young people and women. Addressing the specific needs of women’s homelessness is vital to meeting the Government’s target of ending rough sleeping by 2024. Evidence has shown that more “traditional homelessness services in supported and temporary accommodation are simply not working for some women. Housing First provides a much-needed alternative to this.

Now is the time to build on the success in Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region and West Midlands to create a National Housing First Programme. The pandemic has brought many people who were experiencing long-term homelessness back in touch with services but for many with the most serious issues, successful schemes like the Rough Sleeper Accommodation Programme will not be enough to keep them off the streets for good.

Before the pandemic it was estimated that we needed to increase Housing First places in England from 2,000 to 16,450, though it is likely to now be higher. The upfront cost of expanding the scheme to meet that need is not cheap, with an annual cost of £150 million for people to receive the support they need to build a life away from homelessness. But the long-term savings are considerable. The Centre of Social Justice estimates that for every £1 spent on Housing First, £1.56 is saved across the criminal justice, health and homelessness sectors.

This investment however, will only be realised if it is backed up by addressing England’s serious lack of affordable housing. With Housing First built on the principle of giving people a home as soon as possible to start their recovery, a lack of appropriate housing has been a major challenge for all three of the pilot regions so addressing this will build even more on the effectiveness of this overall approach.

We should be proud of the efforts made to provide emergency accommodation to people facing homelessness in the last year. But failure to build on that progress could see us go backwards, with people in the most vulnerable situations bearing the brunt of this unravelling.

The Government must start by committing to funding the Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region and West Midlands Housing First pilots and then begin to scale the scheme up across England. It is time to end homelessness, not manage it.

Bob Blackman: Sizewell C is key to taking control of the UK’s energy production – and achieving Net Zero

9 Jul

Bob Blackman is the MP for Harrow East.

This week, tens of millions of people tuned in to England’s Semi Final match against Denmark. At this point, millions of TVs would have been switched on, kettles boiled and pints poured. We all assumed that everything would work perfectly, and we would be able to enjoy the football without anything going wrong.

For our national grid, however, it is at times like this when it truly earns its stripes. Despite a sudden spike in demand for thousands of extra MW of electricity, we will not need to worry about our TVs turning off, drinking a cold tea or forcing down a warm pint.

Over many decades now, we have had a reliable source of electricity that has enabled us to get on with our daily lives. The Three Day Week of 1974 is a distant memory for most and unheard of for others. However, over the next few decades, our electricity usage is set to rise exponentially and thousands of green, clean jobs will be created as we pursue getting to Net Zero by 2050. But, as we electrify more and more of what we use, our grid will come under increasing pressure.

Having a plan to deal with this transition is critical. Many countries around the world are now setting out their ambitions for this change ahead of COP26 later this year.

Now we need to map out a clear pathway for how we get there.

While recent years have seen us invest significantly in forms of renewable energy such as offshore wind, the importance of having a reliable baseload of firm power remains essential to the energy mix. Investing in renewables such as solar and wind is essential to the energy mix, but when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow, where do we turn?

One essential answer is gigawatt nuclear: a zero carbon, continuous, reliable source of firm power. If we are to get to Net Zero it has to be not just a part of, but central to, the energy mix.

However, over the next decade all but one of the UK’s currently operating nuclear power plants will shut down. This is a frightening prospect. Hinkley Point C is the only other under construction, while the Government is in discussions over Sizewell C, the proposed new nuclear plant in Suffolk. If we are serious about getting to Net Zero, it is essential that Sizewell C is built, and that construction starts soon.

New nuclear will allow the UK to take further control of our energy production, reducing our reliance on imports from overseas. While interconnectors, which import this energy, play a vital role in keeping our power switched on, we should be looking at what we can do domestically to build our own firm power supply of clean energy. As we saw with French power supply threats in the Jersey fishing row, it’s important we have control over our power supply.

Moving forward with Sizewell C quickly is the essential next step in the resurgence of an industry that Hinkley Point C has revitalised over the last five years. As a former nuclear supply chain worker, I can testify to the value of the 70,000 highly skilled job opportunities it supports across the UK. The heart of its supply chain will be based in the North West where 65 years ago this year the Queen opened the UK’s first nuclear plant in Calder Hall. The industry is the blueprint for levelling up the UK and for showing British industry at its best.

Not only this but investing in new nuclear has the power to support our Net Zero ambitions. Surplus power and heat can be used to produce hydrogen and power carbon capture. The recent successful Freeport East bid to secure £250,000 of government funding will support a Direct Air Capture project which will help demonstrate the exciting potential of this technology. These projects will also all lay the groundwork for Small Modular Reactors and Advanced Modular Reactors as the supply chain continues to be established, enabling the UK to become a world leading exporter of nuclear technology.

After overwhelming backing not just in the last General Election but at the recent local elections, voters are now expecting to see delivery. Words put into action. Sizewell C is ready to showcase the best of what Britain has to offer – highly skilled jobs across the country which will power us forward on the road to Net Zero and give us control of our own energy.

So, while it won’t have been the first thought in everyone’s minds as they switched on their TVs to watch the footie, we should remain thankful to have an energy system which we don’t even need to think about.

By the way, I rightly guessed 2-0 to us last week when we went head-to-head with Germany so my prediction now? It’s coming home.

Bob Blackman: Voters are understandably wary about planning reforms. Here’s why a street plans scheme is a viable alternative.

22 Jun

Bob Blackman is MP for Harrow East.

I have worked in local politics for over 30 years: 24 as a councillor leading Brent council, or the Conservative grouping there, and 11 as MP. My seat, Harrow East, is about nine miles away from Chesham and Amersham, with two Conservative constituencies in between – one of them the Prime Minister’s own constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip. While Harrow is more suburban than Buckinghamshire, we treasure the fields and green open spaces in the area no less and are no more willing to see them concreted over.

The notion that everyone is Conservative about what they know best is a pretty good summary of the results in the Chesham and Amersham by-election. Given the impression that planning changes would lose them control of development in their green and pleasant land, voters reacted with a protest vote, in good by-election tradition.

This does not mean, however, that locals are opposed to any and every bit of development that happens. Most of my constituents understand that the country needs more homes, and that some development must happen in their area. What they object to is development foisted on them, and which they feel they have no control over. They are worried when even members of our own party say that local democracy will be overruled to force through new development.

The Housing, Communities, and Local Government committee, on which I have sat since 2010, has a Tory majority and yet our report on the upcoming Planning Bill, or at least on those bits of it that have been released to the public or heavily signposted, could be described as “wary”. Many of us do not want to force sprawling new developments on places that cannot cope with them, leaving both new and existing residents badly off in terms of congestion, school places, and access to natural amenity.

The party may find itself at an impasse. We know that the country needs more homes – so people can live closer to the best jobs and afford to buy a home and raise a family. We know that the Conservative Party needs more homes – as homeowners with families always end up being the ones who vote for us. However, if more homes mean building over the landscapes that our voters hold dear, it may risk our core voters in places like Chesham and Amersham turning on us.

I think there’s another way. Earlier this year I contributed to a Policy Exchange paper called Strong Suburbs which outlines an extension to neighbourhood planning called “street plans”. These would allow individual streets, when a large majority of homeowners agree, to give themselves permission to increase the size of their houses. They could add bedrooms for children, granny, or a lodger, or even turn a large semi-detached house into two larger terraced homes. In many areas the value uplift, after building costs, could be several hundred thousand pounds for every homeowner on the street.

There are encouraging signs that this alternative to towers on the skyline, or building over fields, can carry a wide coalition of supporters. Six Tory MPs, including me and my colleague David Simmonds, whose constituency lies directly between mine and Amersham, have endorsed the idea. So has Tony Burton, the key inventor of neighbourhood planning, and chairman of the London branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE). The idea also boasts the support of the London Forum of Amenity and Civic Societies, with more than 100,000 underlying members. Indeed, CPRE’s Hampshire branch recommended the report as part of its submission for the Winchester local plan.

These point the way to a compromise solution on housing, where we make it easier to build, but give local communities the final say, directly, about what goes where. Streets that want to retain their existing character can vote to do so. Those that opt to build more can do that, reaping the benefits, just as many homes opt for more limited loft extensions under the current system. This means that we will be developing places that are already built on and protecting green fields and other natural spaces. Locals always have the final say and cannot have their wishes overridden by the local council or Westminster.

If the idea works, it will be because it gives full control to the local people who are affected most by development. Instead of bearing only the burden of housing, they share in the benefits it delivers, and control the shape and form it takes. If we give power back to communities in this way, we can create a new generation of homeowners, without letting down our most loyal voters.