Bob Blackman: We have a golden opportunity to repeal the Vagrancy Act – so why the delay?

7 Dec

Bob Blackman is the MP for Harrow East.

In 1935, Winston Churchill co-sponsored a bill to amend Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act, placing new restrictions on the enforcement of the offence of rough sleeping in an effort to prevent it from being used to arrest destitute people with no access to accommodation of any kind and no choice but to sleep rough.

In doing so, Churchill joined a long line of Parliamentarians, notably including William Wilberforce, who have been critical of this loosely drafted piece of legislation first enacted in 1824, which has been used for everything from arresting Spiritualists in the 1940s, to closing down adult art exhibitionsin the 1960s, to allowing police to stop and search young BAME men in the 1970s and 1980s, to arresting streakers at sporting games in the 1990s.

What Churchill recognised in the 1930s remains an issue today; the Vagrancy Act is still being actively used to arrest rough sleepers and people suspected of begging, with 926 prosecutions and 742 convictions for begging in 2019, alongside 183 prosecutions and 140 convictions for general offenses under the Vagrancy Act, including ‘sleeping out’, as highlighted by the House of Commons Library.

In order to be clear, these are not cases involving aggressive begging or anti-social behaviour, both of which are amply covered by measures within the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act of 2014, or indeed cases of fraudulent begging, which can be considered a form of false representation under the Fraud Act (2006).

These are instances where destitute and desperate people were criminalised instead of being connected to support workers, who could have helped them to access the right support to get back on their feet.

In October, when I asked the Prime Minister about repeal of the Vagrancy Act in PMQs, I was glad to receive assurances that he agreed that the time was right to “reconsider the Vagrancy Act”.

Last week, Michael Gove also added his voice to the calls for repeal, when he responded to a question from Nickie Aiken in DLUHC OPQs, with, “ I think the Vagrancy Act has to go”.

It seems everyone agrees that the time is right to finally get rid of this legislation, and as Chairman of the APPG for Ending Homelessness, I agree. I have seen the damage it does, both to community relations and to individuals who can be fined up to £1,000 or given a criminal sentence simply for being homeless and desperate, and I believe there is no reasonable justification for further delay.

A golden opportunity for repeal has arrived this week, provided by my friend and colleague, Lord Best, who previously supported my Homeless Reduction Act through the House of Lords in 2017, helping me to bring about the biggest change to homelessness legislation for 40 years.

He has tabled simple amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to enact this long sought-after repeal, with the cross-party support of Lord Sandhurst QC and Lord Young from the Conservative benches, Baroness Thornhill, the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the Lords, Lord Falconer from the Labour benches and Baroness Bennett representing the Greens.

In order to be clear, the amendments do not attach any unreasonable extra conditions, or seek to expand beyond their remit. They also come with the distinct advantage of costing no extra Government time or public money to enact.

However, so far the responsible Minister in the House of Lords, Baroness Williams, has stated that the Government are minded to block the amendments this week at Report Stage and thus prevent the Vagrancy Act from being repealed.

Naturally it is important to ensure that the police and other enforcement agencies continue to have the powers they need to tackle anti-social behaviour and aggressive begging. That is why the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is a logical place to enact repeal, as part of the overall package of measures to strengthen and clarify the powers available to our police agencies.

It’s also why the Best amendments provide for updates to the guidance related to the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act of 2014, if clarification is needed in relation to best practice responses to rough sleeping and begging specifically.

Frontline police are often under pressure to act, especially when it comes to begging in public spaces. However, the reality is that the Vagrancy Act 1824 only perpetuates the cycle of poverty that leads to begging. It has also been superseded by more modern legislation across the board.

I have already written about the need for the Government to take bold policy actions to meet its commitment to end rough sleeping by 2024. This is one such measure to make an impact, by ending the criminalisation of rough sleeping and non-aggressive begging as a first response, with all the police resources involved and firmly moving towards a system of multi-agency support to actually help people overcome issues like family or relationship breakdown, domestic violence and addictions, all of which can contribute to people becominghomeless.

The time has come to right this historic wrong, and I very much hope that, as the bill enters its Report Stage in the House of Lords this week, the Government will finally back these important amendments, which in turn will allow MPs in the Commons to finally finish the job that Churchill and many others began and repeal the Vagrancy Act once and for all.

Joshua Hitchens: How to end rough sleeping

15 Aug

Joshua Hitchens is a barrister with a practice which incorporates homelessness and social welfare law.

The Government has pledged to end rough sleeping by 2024. This is not the first Government to make such pledges, the Labour Government promised to eliminate rough sleeping by 2012. However, on the back of Covid-19, this Government is uniquely well placed to achieve its target.

The much heralded “Everyone In” initiative placed tens of thousands of rough sleepers into emergency accommodation during the pandemic, most of whom have moved on to permanent accommodation. The scheme is a remarkable success story. Housing officers, civil servants and ministers have worked tirelessly to deliver a scheme which a study in the Lancet suggests prevented tens of thousands of infections. It provides a foundation, which if built upon, could spell the end of rough sleeping on Britain’s streets.

But thousands remain on the streets and, if the Government is to deliver on its target, here is what I think Robert Jenrick, the Communities Secretary needs to do.

1. Make the economic case

During my time as an undergraduate at the LSE, the lecture I remember most vividly was by the economist, Professor Lord Stern. His 2006 review calculated that one per cent of global GDP was required to avert the worst effects of climate change. By contrast, failure to take any action would cost many times this figure. A coherent, clear economic case for meaningful change had a profound effect on policy makers.

A similar economic case must be made for ending rough sleeping. Once increased hospitalisation, early deaths, policing, social care, litigation and other costs of homelessness are factored in, it may be the cost of abolishing street homelessness is entirely offset by the consequential savings to the public purse. Once it is considered that having a home is the foundation of economic activity, allowing you to work, buy goods and become a contributor to the economy, it may well be that the abolition of rough sleeping delivers net returns to the public purse.

A detailed economic study of the abolition of rough sleeping would help Jenrick’s department make a compelling case to the Treasury for much needed cash. Further, it would have a considerable bearing on the funding decisions of hard-pressed local authorities who are primarily responsible for homelessness prevention.

2. Abolish priority need

A local authority only has an obligation to house you if they have reason to believe you are homeless, eligible for assistance and in priority need. You are in priority need if you are pregnant, have children that might live with you, are vulnerable or are homeless because of an emergency or disaster.

People I have represented who have been assessed as not vulnerable include rape victims, torture victims, disabled people and people with mental health conditions. The approach to vulnerability adopted by both the courts and local authorities is too often founded on contorted logic utterly divorced from the realities of those who are rendered homeless.

A local authority determining someone is not in priority need often leads to litigation, which comes at considerable expense to the public purse. Huge sums are spent by local authorities on private contractors such as Now Medical who are asses whether homeless people are vulnerable by reason of their conditions.

The system is costly, inefficient and leads to vulnerable people rough sleeping, this is incompatible with the Government’s aim of abolishing rough sleeping by 2024. The answer is to abolish the requirement of being in priority need. If you are unintentionally homeless and eligible for housing assistance then the State should accommodate you and help you get back on your feet. This may well ultimately save money, but in any event it is the only way the Government’s ambition is going to be realised.

3. Reform the No Recourse to Public Funds rule

No recourse to public funds means precisely that. It applies to most people from overseas who have not obtained indefinite leave to remain, which in most cases takes ten years of continuous lawful residence in the UK. Being NRPF means that you are not entitled to any housing assistance. In short, when the pandemic is over, it means if you find yourself homeless, tough luck. Some may take the view that it is only right that scarce public resources are focused on those who are British or have some other entitlement to benefits and state support. The problem is that the “NRPF” category covers a plethora of people. Some are overstayers or those who have come to the United Kingdom unlawfully. Others are people who have lawfully lived in this country for years, contributed to the exchequer and find themselves on the streets, though no fault of their own, with no avenue of obtaining help.

Those with spousal visas are generally subject to an NRPF condition. If, as happened in a case I was instructed in, your husband abused you to the point where you fear for your life, you would have a difficult choice. If you were rendered homeless by leaving your abusive partner, your local authority would not be able to lawfully provide you with accommodation and there is a risk you would end up on the streets. Too many women in the UK are dependent on charities in these circumstances.

Having a blanket prohibition on helping homeless people with NRPF is wrong. The same draconian rule applies to people in wildly different circumstances this leads to unjust outcomes and makes it impossible to abolish street homelessness.

4. Don’t end Everyone In

Everyone In’s radicalness is in its simplicity. The Government deserves credit for it. If someone is at risk of having to sleep rough, they should be accommodated. We don’t know precisely how many lives this scheme saved throughout Covid-19 as it stopped people catching and spreading the virus. But it also gave the Government the best hope possible of achieving an end to rough sleeping.

Whatever the protestations of the Housing and Communities Department press officers may be, the Government has started to bring the policy to an end. This is a mistake. The policy of accommodating everyone in short term accommodation and then working with local authorities to deliver long term, sustainable and hopefully self-supporting accommodation is the most direct, cost efficient means of ending rough sleeping. The Government shouldn’t squander the head start it has obtained by pulling the plug on the scheme and its funding now.

5. Reform Housing Authorities

In London, there are 32 authorities responsible for homelessness. The status quo leads to unseemly disputes between councils as to who is responsible for a rough sleeper. I was instructed in a case where a council responsible for a child suggested he wasn’t their problem because he was sleeping outside of a MacDonald’s in another Borough.

Responsibility for homelessness in London must be transferred to the Greater London Authority. Homeless people transit through different Boroughs making it unclear who precisely is responsible for them. When one Borough accommodates homeless people in another Borough, complaints regarding funding for public services often crop up. Most importantly, homelessness in London is a deep, strategic challenge which is impossible to address on a piece meal Borough by Borough basis.

– – –

This Government has set itself a bold, historic challenge. It aims, twelve years after the last Government promised to do so, to abolish street homelessness. It has a unique opportunity to achieve this remarkable, laudable aim. The opportunity will be wasted unless the Treasury is generous, and the MHCLG bold in making radical and significant changes to the law and structure of local government.

Adrian Crossley: The Government should be commended for its preventative measures to clamp down on crime

29 Jul

Adrian Crossley is the Head of Addiction & Crime and Joe Shalam is the Head of Financial Inclusion & Housing at the Centre for Social Justice.

This week we’ve already seen a raft of announcements from government on its plans to clamp down on crime. Catching much of the media’s eye was the Prime Minister’s suggestion that people convicted of anti-social behaviour would carry out their community service adorned in fluorescent jackets in the full gaze of the public.

Yet the media furore around the PM’s remarks should not divert us from the other important messages that have emerged on the role of family, housing and work as the most effective routes out of crime.

Yesterday, the Ministries of Justice and Housing made a welcome joint commitment to addressing the drivers of re-offending. After all, prevention is just as important as cure (even if it is harder to soundbite).

Among the host of initiatives highlighted are previous commitments to an extra £80 million for rehab centres and 1,500 more probation officers. But strikingly, the Housing and Justice Secretaries have transcended the walls of their Whitehall departments, coming together to announce a plan to break the cycle of crime and homelessness.

Far too often prison leavers end up on the streets. Ministry of Justice data shows that in 2019-20, of 70,000 individuals released from custody, fewer than half found settled accommodation on release. Data in London shows a conveyor belt of several hundred prison leavers becoming rough sleepers every year, while national data reveals this number to be in the thousands.

And so it is welcome that Government have announced a new scheme providing prison-leavers with “basic” temporary accommodation and improved access to addiction support. This builds on an earlier cross-government initiative to open up employment opportunities for people with convictions, and new plans to recruit at least 1,000 ex-offenders in public roles.

Even so, the barriers prison leavers face to turning their lives around cannot be overstated. CVs are rejected outright. Addiction issues are left untreated. A lack of family contact while inside can leave them isolated from the only support network they have; family breakdown is often the result on release. This not only keeps people trapped in a vicious cycle, but ultimately leads to more victims of crime. Some £18 billion a year is incurred as a cost to the taxpayer as a result of reoffending.

Addiction can drive social breakdown and crime. It is estimated that just under one third of people are in prison for crime related to addiction such as theft or burglary, while the drugs trade is thought to cost the UK some £19 billion a year. This week’s announcement that project ADDER (Addiction, Disruption, Diversion, Enforcement and Recovery) will be expanded with an additional £31 million will be embraced by the communities that will benefit.

There are also signs of a renewed sense of ownership and direction in the Government’s response yesterday to Dame Carol Black’s review of drugs unveiled earlier this month. And Dame Carol’s welcome appointment as an advisor to help the newly formed Combating Drug Unit suggests government is listening. Given that official research shows offenders engaging in treatment commit a third fewer crimes, the benefits to be realised are significant if this strategy is delivered properly.

Similarly, the Government has made an ambitious commitment to end rough sleeping by 2024, but critical to meeting this will be scaling up the successful Housing First pilots across England. International and domestic evidence set out in the recent Centre for Social Justice report Close to Home shows Housing First helping people to break the cycle of homelessness, reduce substance use and anti-social behaviour much more than conventional accommodation programmes. Every pound spent on Housing First saves taxpayers £1.56 as the demands on the state are reduced.

Nevertheless, what we have seen this week is encouraging and indicative of efforts made by the Prime Minister and indeed the cabinet to connect departments on key issues. Indeed, the cross-Whitehall approach is a useful model through which wider social issues – many of which have sadly festered during the last year-and-a-half’s lockdowns – could be addressed by government coming together.

As we approach winter, and as the pandemic continues to bite while much of the emergency support withers away, the Prime Minister would be wise to get ahead of further social breakdown by developing a self-confident poverty strategy. This should similarly unite departments to help people live independently and thrive following the adversity of the last year-and-a-half.

The gaze of the public will no doubt be looking for this too.

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.

Never mind CCTV. A sign should greet Javid in his new office. Saying “Welcome to Hell”.

27 Jun

Some of Sajid Javid’s friends wanted him to return to the Government as Education Secretary.  This might have suited the meritocratic campaigner, whose leadership election pitch was: “I’m in this race because I want to level the playing field, to lower the ladder to everyone”.  And who also has a big interest in skills.

Others believed that he could come back as Foreign Secretary, thus completing an all-Asian line-up in the three great offices of state: Rishi Sunak at the Treasury, Priti Patel at the Home Office…and Javid.  It is just the sort of “eye-catching initiative” that might have found favour in Downing Street.

We wondered if a lower key, lower drama return might come at Work and Pensions, where Javid’s numeracy and Treasury experience would come in useful.  At any rate, there was no shortage of options for slotting The Saj back in – always likely, given the departure of Dominic Cummings, who doesn’t rate him, and the presence of Carrie Symonds, his former Special Adviser.

What neither he nor Boris Johnson may have anticipated was a recall to Health – a move necessitated by Matt Hancock’s defenestration, and the Prime Minister’s determination to keep Cabinet changes to a minimum.

Javid is becoming the John Reid of the Conservative Party, having now served at Cabinet level in the Treasury, the Home Office, the Business Department, Housing and Culture: the man one calls upon to fill a gap or fix a problem.

However, nothing will have prepared him for what he is about to experience.  The CCTV camera that doomed Matt Hancock has apparently been dismantled.  But never mind secret tape in the office – never likely to be a problem, in any event, for this most uxorious of politicians.  Rather, the new Health Secretary should be greeted by a three-word warning sign: “Welcome to Hell”.

Consider the challenges that confront him.

Housing produced the Grenfell horror; the Home Office, Shamima Begum; Business, Tata Steel.  All were one-offs – the equivalent of a jab with a sharpened stick.  The health job, by contrast, brings with it persistent pressure: like being squeezed tight by the coils of a giant python.

First of all, Javid has to establish a position on Covid.  His early hope that restrictions will be lifted “as soon and as quickly as possible” seems immediately to have been gutted by his department.

The odds are that the remaining elements of lockdown will end on July 19, only for pressure for shutdown to return in the autumn as Coronavirus and flu cases climb.  The new Health Secretary’s first task will be to get to grips with the issues.

But it’s after Covid that his problems really begin.  Whether or not Boris Johnson makes an early dash to the polls in the autumn of 2023, health is likely to dominate headlines in 2022, with over five million people waiting for treatment.  Labour won’t be able to help themselves trying to frame the next election as “a referendum on the NHS”.

Javid will find himself on the Today progamme, in the Commons, on the airwaves and in front of Andrew Marr on a regular rather than an occasional basis.  Even in his varied career, he won’t have experienced anything like it.  But making the case for the Conservative record on the NHS will be only the start of the new Health Secretary’s labours.

Read Robert Ede and Sean Philips’ recent piece on this site. (“The Government faces an election run-up monopolised by reports of NHS waiting times and delays”).  As if grappling with the Covid backlog were not enough, Javid faces no fewer than four other major policy challenges, at least three of which require legislation.

First, there is the plan to split up Public Health England into two new bodies – the UK Health Security Agency and the Office for Health Promotion.

Next, there is reform of the Mental Health Act, which will require a draft bill.

Penultimately, there is the NHS and Care Bill, due in this session, which “will provide the framework for a more integrated and joined-up healthcare system in England”.

And finally, there are the Government’s proposals for social care, whenever they emerge.

The third has the potential to rock Javid’s boat and the fourth to wreck it.  Competition and co-operation are the two main drivers of healthcare policy.  And there has been an apostolic succession of competition-based policy from Ken Clarke’s GP fundholding, through Alan Milburn’s partnership with private health care to create new capacity, to Andrew Lansley’s batttered reforms.

The right-wing think tanks will kick back against any attempt to water down competition, and there may be rumbling on the Conservative backbenches.  But if most Tory MPs are onside, as they can reasonably be expected to be, Javid can take opposition on the chin.

Social care is a horse of a different colour.  In opposition, Cameron’s Conservatives wrecked Labour’s potential reforms by labelling them a “death tax”.  In Government, Theresa May’s unprepared, unfloated policy did more than any other to lose her seats in 2017.

On the downside, Javid has no background in a health-related departments.  His recent areas of interests have included the economy after Covid, drawing on his Treasury experience; reducing child sexual abuse; raising the minimum marriage age to 18, and rough sleeping (see his ConservativeHome piece).

The last two campaigns were closely related to his experience at Housing, Communities and Local Government, and its to his credit that he kept going on both.

On the upside, the new Health Secretary knows his way round the Treasury – he is the first to be a former Chancellor, rather than the other way round – which will be invaluable during this testing period ahead.  And since Ministers are necessarily generalists, he is no more disadvantaged taking up the post than any other first-timer.

Javid is about to find himself the most publicised Health Secretary since Lansley.  He will hope that his tenure at health doesn’t end the same way.

Councils challenged to release surplus property to provide new homes

14 Jun

Regular readers will know of my concern with empty municipal garages. There are around 100,000 of them – many of which could be replaced with new homes. But while that is significant, it is merely an example of the potential if a serious effort was made to tackle “state land banking” – the vast amount of unused property being hoarded by the public sector. The Ministry of Defence owns over half a million acres.

The Times recently reported:

“Councils in Britain own commercial or retail buildings that have been empty for more than a year and could be converted into 19,500 homes. They also own 24,000 empty homes that could help ease the housing crisis, according to a report by Habitat for Humanity, a housing charity, and M&G investments…

“Derby was found to have the most vacant council-owned commercial properties, with 51 unused retail units and 73 empty office buildings. Other areas with a high number of empty council-owned commercial properties included Edinburgh, with 114, and Leeds with 101.

“The researchers found that Derby had 473 homeless or vulnerable people in urgent need of housing.

“The councils with the most disused council houses were Southwark in south London, which had 1,021, and Birmingham with 798. In Birmingham there are 2,340 homeless and priority needs people who could be housed in the 5,448 empty privately owned homes and 798 unused council houses.”

The research paper does also considers the private sector – for instance, whether the owners of privately owned empty shops face planning obstacles to obtaining a change of use to turn them into homes. But it does seem extraordinary that so many local authorities simultaneously struggle to cope with providing accommodation for the homeless, while themselves sitting on unused municipal property empires.

Council leaders are quick to blame “austerity” for their difficulties and demand extra funding from the Government. Yet selling these unused assets would raise funds for them – to allow them to reduce debt and thus the burden of their interest payments. They would be able to negotiate with developers a proportion of “social housing” among the new homes being built. But when we talk about “affordable” housing it is important to remember that increasing the supply of private housing is also of relevance.

This is not just in helping more onto the home ownership “ladder” but also in expanding the choice of private rented accommodation to reduce rents. That is also relevant to reducing homelessness. At present local authorities are placing around 100,000 households in temporary accommodation (typically low quality and unsuitable – including bed and breakfast hotels) at a cost of over a billion a year. Why is there such inertia about taking this opportunity to ease this pressure?

It comes as no surprise that the worst offenders are Labour councils. So far as council homes that have been empty for more than 12 months are concerned, those with the highest number are as follows:

  • Southwark 1,021
  • Birmingham 798
  • Camden 748
  • Sheffield 727
  • Gateshead 719
  • Ealing 611
  • Newcastle Upon Tyne 589
  • Newham 535
  • Dudley 528
  • Greenwich 520

The Conservatives gained Dudley from No Overall Control last month. Labour also lost overall control in Sheffield. Otherwise, those are all Labour councils. This is not to suggest that Conservative councils should escape criticism. The full list is here.

Then we have the league table for “the total number of business and/or commercial premises owned by your local authority, that have been empty or vacant for 12 months or more, and of that number, how many have their primary function as retail space, office space, leisure space or other.” The term “other” might include workshops, warehouses or community centres.

  • Derby 173
  • Leeds 101
  • Cheshire West 75
  • Gateshead 55
  • Greenwich 47
  • Sefton 45
  • Rotherham 43
  • Brent 42

Derby is no overall control – though it does have a Conservative leader who I hope might reflect on whether the asset management could be more rigorous. The other councils at the top of the league table are Labour. The full list is here.

According to the latest figures there are 10,510 “households” placed in bed and breakfast hotels. Southwark Council has 218 of them. Tower Hamlets has 432. Ealing 339. Newham 295. Croydon 255. Mostly these will be single people but sometimes families will be placed. With hotel prices in London at around £150 a night per room, putting up a family can cost thousands of pounds a week. The families are miserable and the Council Taxpayer picks up a huge bill. Councils could convert some of their surplus buildings into housing and sell to private landlords on condition that some is made avalaible to be let to the Council as temporary accommodation for an agreed number of years. Why do these councils instead place families in hotels as if there was no alternative?

Certain caveats apply. The report estimates 19,500 new homes could be made available, but that is an extrapolation as not all the councils responded to the Freedom of Information requests. Invariably when bureaucrats are challenged over a specific building they will offer detailed excuses – which may have some validity. For instance, there might be an awful tower block that has been vacated due to structural faults. It might have a hundred flats. But once demolished there could be a larger number of replacement homes on the site – lower rise but higher density. That would be welcome. Though why such tower blocks can stand empty for years – or even decades – before the work is undertaken is rather more questionable.

Congratulations to Habitat for Humanity for gathering his important evidence. I would like to say that it should shame councils into releasing these surplus properties to allow an increase in the housing supply which is desperately needed. I fear that will not happen. What is needed is a legal mechanism that would force the sales to go through. There could be a specified deadline, certain exceptions could apply. An appeal mechanism to the Secretary of State could be allowed. But we really need the auctioneer’s hammer to start coming down. We can not allow this terrible waste of resources to continue. It is not fair on the taxpayer – or on those trapped in overcrowded, overpriced housing.


Luke Stanley: Ending rough sleeping will require building a better understanding of its causes, not just more homes

29 May

Luke Stanley is Policy Adviser to Lord Hague of Richmond and Senior Parliamentary Researcher to Anthony Mangnall MP. He writes in a personal capacity.

“How did this person end up sleeping on the street?” is a question that most of us will have asked ourselves at some point in our lives, walking past homeless people bedding down for the night. While it seems a straightforward question, the underlying factors that result in someone sleeping rough are anything but.

Boris Johnson’s One Nation Conservative Government is making encouraging progress in supporting rough sleepers to rebuild their lives, with street counts down three years in a row.

Their landmark Rough Sleeping Initiative, which funds accommodation and health services for rough sleepers, has been found to reduce rough sleeping by one-third and received a £200 million boost earlier this month.

But if we want to end rough sleeping for good, we need to do more than support existing rough sleepers. We also need to prevent vulnerable people from ever reaching the streets.

Writing for this website last year, Robert Jenrick, the Housing Secretary, rightly described rough sleeping as being “as much a health issue as it is a housing issue”. As with most health issues, the conditions that can eventually result in rough sleeping are far easier to treat, but much harder to detect, in their early stages.

Ramping up early interventions to prevent rough sleeping will require a forensic understanding of the long-term process by which a vulnerable person ends up on the street, a depth of knowledge our society currently lacks.

Existing research suggests there are two broad groups of factors that can contribute to rough sleeping.

First, there are structural problems in our society, such as levels of affordable housing and insecure tenancies. Second, there are individual problems that make certain people more likely to end up on the streets, like poor mental health, addiction, and relationship breakdown.

These often fuel one another, for example, untreated mental health problems fuelling addiction, resulting in vicious cycles that leave people with broken lives, unable to hold down a home.

To try and get a deeper understanding of this issue, the May Government commissioned a Rapid Evidence Assessment of research into the causes of homelessness and rough sleeping. This agreed that both structural and individual problems were factors, but that the latter played a larger role in explaining rough sleeping than it did in other forms of homelessness.

That general conclusion aside, the report highlighted a number of gaps in the evidence base.

First, there is a lack of robust data on the immediate causes of rough sleeping. The report noted that much of the third-party research in this area uses simplistic surveys which have limited use for informed policy making. For example, one such survey had “Asked to leave or evicted” as the top reason for rough sleeping, but sought no information on the context behind this. A greedy landlord increased rent; someone with mental health problems was unable to hold down a job; a gay person was rejected by their bigoted family. Three wildly different scenarios, each of which would be captured as the same by this survey.

Second, and more crucially, there is a lack of evidence on the long-term causes of rough sleeping. As discussed above, many of the individual problems linked to rough sleeping exacerbate one another. Understanding this process is key to improving early interventions and preventing people from becoming rough sleepers.

Ultimately, we can build as many houses as we want, and introduce as many restrictions on landlords as we please, but until we’ve untangled the causes of the chaotic lifestyles that drive vulnerable people onto the streets, we will never end rough sleeping.

This can be achieved through more qualitative ‘pathway’ studies, which seek to map individuals’ journeys into rough sleeping. As the report noted, pathway studies are especially important for designing preventative policies but many use small samples, limiting their usefulness. In their words, more pathway studies, with larger samples, would help us “further understand both interactions between causes and the order of events that can lead to homelessness”.

Third, we need a better understanding of rough sleeping risks for different demographics. The factors behind rough sleeping are complex and affect different people in different ways, rendering one-size-fits-all approaches unhelpful. To its credit, the Government is already undertaking research to better understand the causes of rough sleeping for one specific demographic: gay and trans people.

But going further, the Government could also consider commissioning research to gather robust evidence to plug the first and second gaps on the causes, both short-term and long-term, of rough sleeping. With their landmark ‘Everyone In’ campaign housing over 26,000 rough sleepers and homeless people at risk of sleeping rough, there is a golden opportunity to explore the causes of rough sleeping. For the first time, we have a large number of people with lived experience of rough sleeping in secure accommodation, where they are far more accessible to researchers.

We should seize this opportunity to better understand how to help vulnerable people, use this to develop stronger preventative interventions, and confine rough sleeping to the history books.

Andy Street: My plan to get the West Midlands back on track and unleash our potential

6 Apr

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

In just over a month’s time, the people of the West Midlands go to the polls facing a critical choice.

Over the last four years, the West Midlands began to reclaim its rightful place as an economically successful region, after decades of stagnation and relative decline. Then Covid struck. Now there is much to do to ensure we don’t throw away those years of progress.

The choice facing voters on May 6 is simple: do we accelerate the progress of the last four years, or do we go back to the old failing approach which let down our region for decades?

Today I launch my plan setting out how I intend to get the West Midlands back on track and unleash our potential. I want to use this column to outline its key aims, which are both ambitious and practical.

The strides made by this region since I was elected Mayor on May 4 2017 are borne out by the facts. More than 97,000 new jobs were created in the region overall in the three years before the pandemic, the most of any region outside London. The level of transport investment this year was seven times higher than the year before I became Mayor.

A record-breaking 48,098 homes were built here from 2017-2020, nearly double the 25,000 target set in 2017. Rough sleeping is down 65 per cent since 2017, with 377 homeless people helped through our Housing First scheme. Over £3 billion of new funding was brought in from Government, with no Mayoral precept added to council tax bills.

On top of that, we won backing for Coventry City of Culture, Birmingham Commonwealth Games 2022, the West Midlands 5G testbed, and High Speed 2 to bring investment and jobs.

However, the West Midlands has been hit hard by Coronavirus – and we must act quickly to get back on track. Sectors like retail, hospitality and manufacturing have seen thousands of workers laid off or furloughed.

That’s why my first priority will be to create more than 100,000 new good quality local jobs and training opportunities for local people.

That means securing an electric battery Gigafactory for our region, bringing 4,000 new jobs and protecting thousands more in the automotive industry and supply chain. It means winning every possible contract for local businesses from major regional projects like HS2, the Commonwealth Games and Coventry City of Culture.

I want our region to become the national leader in construction, engineering, life sciences, technology, 5G and other growing industries. And we have already seen announcements to move hundreds of well-paid civil service jobs out of London and into the West Midlands, starting in Wolverhampton and Birmingham – creating local jobs opportunities and boosting the economy.

I have plans to double transport spending. My vision is to build new metro stops across the region, as well as reopening five rail stations in the next three years, while making progress on eighteen other new stations.

Transport will play a key part in my green ambitions too: with plans for a major programme of cycle routes, while the full roll-out of our version of Boris Bikes has already begun.

On the buses, we’ll build on the success of the four-year bus fare freeze, and roll out more hydrogen and electric buses including making Coventry’s fleet all-electric.

On housing, I will build thousands of new homes where they are wanted. That means continuing to drive our successful “brownfield first” approach, with over £400 million of funding to reclaim derelict sites, protecting our Green Belt and green spaces.

Affordable homes are a key component of the plan: I will seek an ambitious Affordable Housing Deal to bring new cash to the region and pioneer our own “Help to Own” scheme to make home owning possible for more people. We will also continue our progress on reducing the numbers of rough sleepers.

On the environment, I will launch a huge programme to retrofit people’s homes with energy efficiency measures to reduce fuel bills and carbon emissions, while investing in nature, from replanting trees to creating a new National Trail for walkers around the Green Belt of the West Midlands. I will work with Government to fund for more initiatives like the Black Country zero carbon hub, to help industry move to green technology.

I will use a business-like approach to tackle the challenges facing the high street. Our town centres have already won over £100 million of Government funding, benefitting places like Brierley Hill, Rowley Regis, Smethwick, West Bromwich, Walsall and Wolverhampton.

City centres like Coventry, town centres like Dudley and village centres like Kingshurst will all benefit from our own major regional investment plan.

I’m backing bids to regenerate iconic local sites like the historic swimming baths in Erdington, the Royalty Cinema in Harborne and Saddlers Quay in Walsall to become community and enterprise hubs, and where distinct areas such as Solihull and Sutton Coldfield have developed their own town centre masterplans, I will use the power of the Mayor’s office to help make their visions become reality.

The heart of my approach as Mayor has been to ensure that every community benefits from the region’s success – localised “levelling up”. That means maximising the benefits of Coventry City of Culture in 2021, the Birmingham Commonwealth Games in 2022 and High Speed 2, with jobs for local people and investment across the region.

It means supporting those who need extra help, for example “designing out” homelessness by addressing its causes. A new Equalities Taskforce will ensure the West Midlands is a great place to live, work and grow up for all our communities. I will work with the Conservative candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner to make our communities safer and get crime down, particularly on the transport network, while providing opportunities for young people so they don’t get drawn into crime.

These are just some of the ambitious plans I am putting to the people of the West Midlands today, as we face a turning point in our region’s story. On May 6, voters in the West Midlands face a choice that will define the future direction of our region.

My message is simple: I have a credible delivery plan to make all of this happen, and a proven track record over the last four years, beating our targets and other city-regions on investment, skills and housing.

My commitment is to secure £10 billion of new investment into the region, from both the Government and private investors, with a clear approach to the Mayor’s role as a regional champion. That means working with Government to make things happen, rather than criticising and grabbing headlines, and then being ignored.

When I was elected the West Midlands’ first mayor, nobody knew what could be achieved by devolution. I am proud of the progress we made in the first four years, but I’m also acutely aware that, as we rebuild after Covid, there is so much more to be done.

This is the region where I grew up. Its values shaped me as a person – that’s why four years ago I decided to stand to be Mayor. Before the pandemic hit, the renewal of the West Midlands was tangible. Today I unveil my plan for the next three years, and I urge the people of the West Midlands to choose me – to get on with the job, get this region back on track and unleash our potential.

Harry Fone: Whip withdrawn on Conservative councillors in Kent – for opposing Council Tax rise

23 Feb

Harry Fone is the Grassroots Campaign Manager for the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

It’s all kicking off in Kent, after a dispute over Council Tax led to two Conservative councillors having the whip withdrawn. The axe was swift to fall after Paul Cooper and Gary Cooke spoke out against a five per cent rates rise.

Delving into Kent County Council’s budget for 2021-22, it seems clear that a smaller increase could have been implemented. Despite everything that has happened in the last twelve months, KCC “is still forecasting a significant underspend in the current year [2020-21], primarily due to the reduced demand for core services”. Furthemore there will be a £14 million increase in general reserves. As I have argued before, surely this is the perfect time to be using the hoards of cash that councils have squirreled away over the years.

Then we get to what I think many will find to be the most egregious part of the budget. Council staff are to be rewarded with a two per cent pay rise, costing Kent households £4.6 million. Given that private sector workers have endured tremendous hardship, and many can only dream of a boost to their pay, this really isn’t a good look for the council. I don’t doubt that KCC employees have worked hard, but their salaries and pensions have been virtually guaranteed this year. Many in the private sector have not been so fortunate.

Defenders of the Council Tax hike will argue that it only equates to a rise of £1.30 a week for a Band D property but that ignores the countless inflation-busting rises households have suffered in recent years. Councils like Kent must try harder to avert these hikes in future.

Slough’s swanky council offices

An inside source at Slough Borough Council recently sent me photos of the authority’s swanky new headquarters. The interior is rather luxurious and looks like an office you would expect to find in Silicon Valley rather than Berkshire. Staff are able to relax in rooms with bean bags, rocking chairs, designer lighting suspended on ropes and even sprawl out on artificial grass carpet if they desire.

Staff need somewhere decent to work but I suspect local residents will be flabbergasted that the council has splashed their hard-earned cash on such ostentatious offices. If the bean bags aren’t comfortable enough, the photos also reveal more seating available in ‘padded pods’ complete with flat screen TVs. My mole informs me that nearly £30,000 was spent on fake plants and even ping pong tables in an attempt to reduce the amount of staff sick days.

Recently the council revealed it had a £10 million black hole in its budget. Worth noting then that the HQ was purchased in 2018 for £39 million and a further £8.5 million spent on refurbishment, with annual running costs of £1.3 million. Given that council tax increased by four per cent last year (Slough has only cut it once in the last 20 years) perhaps authority bosses should consider focusing funds on essential services rather than lavish workspaces and the accompanying accoutrements.

Very accommodating councils

Last Autumn, I sent freedom of information requests to all councils in the UK, asking for a breakdown of their spending on putting up those affected by homelessness in hotels for 2019-20 and 2020-21.

Across all local authorities spending was at least £198 million. Edinburgh had the largest expenditure at just shy of £24 million, followed by Lewisham at £14.7 million. London councils featured prominently in the top ten biggest spenders. As you might expect, spending dramatically increased due to the pandemic. This isn’t unreasonable, but what I have to question is some of the hotel choices by certain councils.

For example, Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council seems to have a penchant for 4-star accommodation. It booked some 855 nights at luxury hotels such as the Basingstoke Country Hotel & Spa, plus Mercure hotels in Newbury and Winchester. Similarly, councils in Stratford-on-Avon, Broxtowe, Doncaster, Eastleigh, Erewash, Greenwich, and Wakefield also opted for high-end stays. Cambridge City Council even forked out public money on £3,381 worth of  “deep cleaning” and a further £203,505 for “on-site security”.

Now, it may well be that these rooms were the best value for money given the options available at the time. But it doesn’t send the right message to taxpayers, who in many cases can barely afford to pay their Council Tax each month, let alone enjoy a stay in a 4-star hotel. Councils must be able to demonstrate that they achieved the best value for money in these instances.

Sajid Javid: Housing First. The scheme that can help us break the cycle of homelessness.

19 Feb

Sajid Javid is a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, and is MP for Bromsgrove.

In the course of any political career there are certain moments that stick with you. The past few years have brought me more than my fair share, however one that will always stand out in my memory was when I first met Wayne.

Wayne has a complex backstory. After leaving the Armed Forces aged 22 he’d spent 30 years sleeping on the streets. Thirty years. On becoming homeless, he began drinking heavily to self-medicate his mental health problems and was soon addicted to heroin and crack.

Outreach teams approached him repeatedly over the years and he’s been in and out of the hostel system. He’s also been in and out of the criminal justice system, managing to accumulate a total of 50 custodial sentences.

The scale of Wayne’s personal crisis made the story he told me about what happened next all the more remarkable.

When we met, he described how he’d moved into a flat through one of the very few “Housing First” schemes available at the time, and sustained his tenancy for 20 months. He’d stopped using drugs, and given up the prolific shoplifting that funded his habit. He’d voted for the first time. He’d even adopted a cat.

The result, Wayne told me, was that he “felt like a part of society for the first time ever”.

Wayne’s background might be shocking, but it’s also tragically familiar. The lives of the most entrenched rough sleepers are frequently marked by early experiences of trauma as well as substance dependency, family breakdown, poor health and sometimes criminality. For this group, the path to stability is treacherous and steep.

“Familiar”, however, does not mean “acceptable”. Nobody should ever have to live on the streets, or feel that they’ve forfeited their place in society. That’s why the Conservative manifesto rightly committed to ending the blight of rough sleeping by the end of this Parliament. This might be an ambitious target, but ambition spurs action and the past 12 months have bolstered my conviction that it can be done.

Right at the start of the pandemic, Robert Jenrick, the Housing Secretary, instructed local authorities to bring everyone in off the streets. This led to more than 30,000 people being provided emergency accommodation in the space of a few weeks, saving hundreds of lives and demonstrating what government can do. For some, this has provided an opportunity to get back on their feet. For others, it’s a short-term solution.

If we want to build on this, we’ll need a comprehensive, long-term plan to turn the tide on rough sleeping. Difficult problems sometimes require drastic solutions, which is why as Housing Secretary I looked at replicating the Housing First model and rolling it out across the country.

The idea was to take the existing “treatment first” policy, and turn it on its head. The state would house rough sleepers facing the most serious challenges – such as mental health issues and addiction – without conditions, save for the willingness to maintain their tenancy. When they felt ready, we would then apply the intensive, personalised support needed to turn their lives around in a more stable environment.

Although this requires a significant investment upfront, similar schemes around the world have demonstrated that it works. I went to see this for myself in Finland, where Housing First is rolled out nationally and rough sleeping has been all but eradicated. Because participants have less contact with homelessness, health and criminal justice services, it saves the taxpayer money in the long run.

When I was Housing Secretary, I persuaded the Treasury to fund three large-scale Housing First pilots in Manchester, Liverpool and the West Midlands. These pilots have already helped more than 550 people off the streets and into permanent homes, with many more to follow. As many as 88 per cent of individuals supported by the pilots have sustained their tenancies, with an independent evaluation showing that those with a history of numerous failed tenancies are now staying put. Put simply, Housing First works.

We must now finish the job.

A national Housing First programme would build on the foundations of the regional pilots, as well as the Government’s efforts to provide accommodation during the pandemic. It’s an opportunity to give some of the most vulnerable people in our country a second chance, and to welcome them back into society.

That’s why I strongly welcome the Centre for Social Justice’s new report, Close to Home, setting out in detail how Housing First could be scaled up from 2,000 to 16,500 places to become a flagship policy for people whose homelessness is compounded by multiple disadvantage. I firmly believe this would be our best shot at breaking the cycle of homelessness by the end of the Parliament.

Four years on from meeting Wayne, I hear from his Housing First support workers that he’s made excellent progress, developing the skills he needs to live independently: “He’s come a long way, and is really proud of where he’s at now – as are we.”

We too have come a long way in addressing rough sleeping since 2017 and we have a great deal to be proud of. But there is still more to do. No one should be forced to sleep on the streets. With programmes like Housing First, they won’t have to.