Inbox for the new housing minister

Here is an open letter to the next Housing Minister who will take up this most challenging of portfolios after the election.

Dear Minister

Congratulations on your appointment by the Prime Minister.  You will know what a major crisis we are facing in housing, and you will have many competing demands, most coming from loud and powerful voices.  Please may I make a plea that you consider the uncertain future of residents, current and future, of the country’s specialist supported housing schemes?  They are not the loud or the powerful, but how we as a country treat such people is a sign of what kind of society we have.

Previously it was announced that the charges for specialist supported housing would be capped at the level of Local Housing Allowance.  A senior civil servant has said that the reason for using LHA is that it I “already there” and that it “doesn’t cost the government anything to set up”.  He said it wasn’t a great reason but it was the best he had.

LHA was established, originally at the 50the centile for rents paid in the private sector, later reduced to the 30th centile.  LHA rates were subsequently frozen and in areas like Brighton and Hove they probably equate to less than the 10th centile.  For example, the average one bed flat in the city is £971 per month, LHA is £612.08.

Putting aside the fact that the private rented sector is increasingly unaffordable, and the chances of securing social housing is disappearing over the horizon, LHA is a singularly unsuitable tool for setting charges in specialist supported housing.

This is not just my view but one shared by two cross-party committees which have called for these plans to be scrapped.

I believe it is almost unprecedented for the Communities and Local Government Committee and the Work and Pensions Committee to publish a joint report such as this, illustrating how wrong this judgement by the Department for Work and Pensions is.  The Committees have said a “supported housing allowance” should be used instead of the LHA.

In 2011 I wrote an item on my blog in which I warned that the number of rough sleepers, then 37 in Brighton and Hove, would massively increase in the next few years because of a combination of factors. We now have between 140 and 150 in spite of excellent joint working between the City Council and very many third sector organisations.

Should the LHA cap be imposed on specialist supported housing, this number will inevitably increase.

The DWP is consulting on protections for such services, but these will inevitably be bureaucratic and expensive to operate.  A simple supported housing allowance could resolve the matter or, better still, scrap the proposal altogether and provide some reassurance and stability to the most vulnerable in our society who most need reassurance and stability.

Yours sincerely

Andy Winter

Modern Slavery: A hidden crime

(I was sent the following which is such an important issue, not least for homeless and vulnerable people.  Please read it.  All credit for the content must go to Unseen and the Modern Slavery Helpline.)

The “chains” of modern slavery are often invisible. The threats, lies, and mentally abusive techniques used by exploiters make it impossible for victims to leave. Victims may not self-identify. We may encounter them in our daily lives and not realise it. Traffickers often transport the victims to disorient them and to avoid detection.

The UK-wide Modern Slavery Helpline and Resource Centre is a key tool in the UK’s fight against this terrible crime. The Helpline is confidential and operates 24/7, 365 days a year, taking calls from potential victims, members of the public, statutory agencies and businesses. The Helpline is staffed by fully trained specialists who can provide information, advice and guidance on any aspect of modern slavery. The Helpline works with statutory agencies and non-governmental agencies to help safeguard and protect vulnerable women, men and children who are exploited at the hands of others. Through the resource centre, we also work with other agencies and organisations to better understand the nature and scale of modern slavery in the UK.

Since October 2016, the Helpline has taken over 800 calls and made more than 150 police referrals and 30 safeguarding referrals. The Helpline is a central point of contact for anyone wanting to access support, including government-funded support through the National Referral Mechanism.

The following is a list of possible indicators that may indicate a modern slavery situation. The indicators may not be present in all modern slavery cases and are not cumulative. There may be several indicators that suggest that someone may be a victim of modern slavery. These include physical appearance, isolation, poor living conditions, few or no personal effects, restricted freedom of movement, unusual travel times, or they may be reluctant to seek help. More information is provided below.

The individual(s) in question:

  • Is not free to leave or come and go as he/she wishes
  • Is under 18 and is providing commercial sex acts
  • Is unpaid, paid very little, or paid only through tips
  • Works excessively long and/or unusual hours
  • Is transported to and from work
  • Is not allowed breaks or suffers under unusual restrictions at work
  • Owes a large debt and is unable to pay it off
  • Was recruited through false promises concerning the nature and conditions of his/her work
  • High security measures exist in the work and/or living locations (e.g. opaque windows, boarded up windows, bars on windows, barbed wire, security cameras, etc.)

Poor Mental Health or Abnormal Behaviour:

  • Is fearful, anxious, depressed, submissive, tense, or nervous/paranoid
  • Exhibits unusually fearful or anxious behaviour particularly towards the authorities
  • Avoids eye contact
  • Poor physical health
  • Appears malnourished
  • Shows signs of physical and/or sexual abuse, physical restraint, confinement, or torture

Lack of Control:

  • Has few or no personal possessions
  • Is not in control of his/her own money, no financial records, or bank account
  • Is not in control of his/her own identification documents (ID or passport)
  • Is not allowed or able to speak for themselves (a third party may insist on being present and/or translating)

Other:

  • Claims of just visiting and inability to clarify where he/she is staying/address
  • Lack of knowledge of whereabouts and/or do not know what city he/she is in
  • Loss of sense of time
  • Has numerous inconsistencies in his/her story

If you think you have come into contact with a potential victim, call the Modern Slavery Helpline for information, guidance and support on 08000 121 700.

Rod Liddle thinks it’s ok to laugh at those addicted to Spice. I don’t

Last Sunday (9th April 2017), the journalist Rod Liddle had an item in the Sunday Times in which he said pictures of people incapacitated as a result of synthetic cannabinoids were, for him, a “source of amusement”.  I was angry and upset by what he wrote.  Here is the text of the letter I sent which was not published in today’s paper (16th April 2017).

What a sad little item by Rod Liddle regarding synthetic cannabinoids such as Spice. He describes as a “source of amusement” photos of distressed and incapacitated people – “zombified imbecilles” as he calls them.

Your sister paper, The Times, reported the very next day the death of a homeless man in his thirties in Birmingham who had been smoking a synthetic cannabinoid. I don’t find that a “source of amusement”.

At Brighton Housing Trust we see, on a daily basis, the shocking damage done to people, from temporary incapacitation, through extreme mental and physical harm, to death due to synthetic cannabinoids. I don’t find that a “source of amusement”.

I don’t find the sight of a paranoid and terrified youth, and his distressed mother, as she drops him off at our rehab, a “source of amusement”.

Making so-called ‘legal highs’ illegal was a great move by government. We have seen a huge decrease in their use as a result, and society and the individuals adversely affected, becoming a little bit more healthy.

Perhaps Rod Liddle might not find it a source of amusement if someone he loves and cares for was at risk of severe, long term damage and even death due to smoking synthetic cannabinoids. He might become grateful that there are people working in drug rehabs up and down the country helping people to overcome their addictions to synthetic cannabinoid, alcohol and other drugs.

Does Political Tyranny Know No Bounds? Just look at the Greens in Brighton and Hove

From the ultra repressive regime of North Korea to ….. the Green Group on Brighton and Hove City Council. The unacceptable face of political oppression, forcing unwilling individuals to fall into line.

The Greens used to boast that they have no whip, but tonight the Rubicon was crossed. While most councillors were more than happy to don blue and white to show solidarity with Brighton and Hove Albion, one poor councillor was forced to display love and devotion to the Seagulls, much as ordinary folk are required to do in North Korea in praise of the Beloved Leader.

The Seagulls are second in the Championship, one above nearest rivals Huddersfield Town. Just two teams will secure automatic promotion. Will it be Brighton and Hove Albion, or will Huddersfield Town pip them at the post? All City Councillors turned out in blue and white this evening to promote the Albion’s cause. Even Cllr David Gibson, obeying, no doubt, a three line whip.

Cllr Gibson is a life long Huddersfield Town supporter and the photo below (David is second from the right) shows just how happy he feels about wearing the blue and white, a reaction that would have got him executed in North Korea.

A place in Brighton and Hove that is certain to alarm and distress you

There is an area in Brighton best avoided, both day and night. If you don’t you will witness things that will alarm and distress you. I am, of course, referring to the comments that follow articles in the Brighton Argus.

All species of pond life can be found there, and it seems that the more extreme and abusive the comment the more it attracts attention.

I am a big fan of the Argus, but I think that it lets itself down by not moderating more proactively the comments left at the end of articles.

However, some of the more intelligent comments are printed daily on page 11 of the paper. Today (Monday 27th March) there are some interesting comments regarding homelessness.

One comment suggests that the more we do to help homeless people, the more will be attracted to the city. I disagree with this. I have never heard somebody say that they moved to Brighton because it has excellent homelessness services or drug services, etc. They might say they came to Brighton because of the drug scene, the ambience of the city, or that Brighton is a much nicer place than Slough or Hull!

There is a comment that sasylum that Brighton is “a kind and liberal place” and that it appears that we are “rolling out the red mat for beggars”. Another commentator says that you should not give money to beggars. He (I believe he is male) encouraged people to give to charities that help people to get off of the street. I agree with this comment.

A further comment suggests that more tents will appear on the city streets and in parks in the forthcoming weeks. In previous summers we have seen an influx of people to the city although that was not the case last summer when the numbers remained very level with no seasonal spike.

Strong messages are given out by homelessness charities that Brighton is full up and there are not the services or accommodation for people should they arrive in Brighton with nowhere to live.

But if there is to be an increase in rough sleeping, and I suspect that over the next few years there will be notwithstanding the excellent efforts of the City Council and homelessness charities, because of changes to welfare benefit and the most recent decision to deny those between 18 and 21 the automatic right to claim housing benefit.

Housing in Hastings: Universal credit and the 6 week wait for the first payment

(This is the first of five daily items I will be posting this week. My thanks to my colleague Sue Hennell who wrote a briefing paper on which I have drawn for these posts).

Hastings is one of the areas that is now in the ‘full service’ roll out of Universal Credit. BHT’s Hastings Advice Centre has found it is dealing with tenants in rent arrears due to the waiting time for payments to commence.  This can mean that the tenant accrues rent arrears and it can increase existing arrears.  For some clients they have had to wait longer than 6 weeks for their first payment.

While social landlords on the whole are willing to wait for their rent and will arrange a repayment plan for any rent arrears due, many private landlords are not so willing to wait and will serve notice.

This is not just a problem in Hastings, but one that is replicated across the country. The Guardian in January of this year reported:

  • Eight out of 10 social housing tenants moved on to Universal Credit are falling into rent arrears or increasing the level of pre-existing arrears.
  • Families unable to manage the regulation 42-day wait for a first payment are regularly referred to food banks by housing associations or local MPs.
  • Some claimants are waiting as long as 60 days for an initial payment because of processing delays on top of the formal wait.
  • Uncertainty about the system has contributed to a dramatic decline in the number of private landlords willing to take on benefit recipients, even if they are in work.

Private landlords said that without changes they would be reluctant to let to Universal Credit recipients because of the high risk of tenant arrears. Alan Ward, the chairman of the Residential Landlords Association, said: “Landlords are rapidly losing confidence in the system.”

Meanwhile, membership surveys by the National Landlords Association reveal that the number of private landlords willing to let properties to recipients of Universal Credit – or the local housing allowance that predates it – has fallen sharply from 46% in 2010 to 18%.

A question I ask from time to time, where are people going to live if social housing isn’t keeping pace with need (and it is certainly not), and private landlords are less willing to rent to claimants?

If you are facing eviction due to rent arrears, get advice early from one of BHT’s Advice Centres in Hastings, Eastbourne and Brighton, the CAB or another advice centre.

Here are details of the BHT Advice Centres:

Brighton

Eastbourne

Hastings

According to Margaret Thatcher I am a failure ….

Margaret Thatcher once said: “A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus, can count himself as a failure”. I have to plead guilty as charged. I have never learned to drive, not through any inadequacy (although my long legs makes it awkward to get behind the wheel) but through an absence of need or inclination.

I can’t think that it has hindered me much in my life. I might have gone more into the countryside and it might have come in handy when on holiday, but I haven’t really noticed. Not driving has saved me a small fortune. Instead I walk and use buses, as well as the occasional taxi.

I freely confess I am now over the age of 26, so I think a lot of Margaret Thatcher when on a bus (like the time I caught the bus when I was about to have lunch with the Queen….). I am not alone. According to census data from 2011, over a third of households across the city don’t own a car – failures each and everyone of them!.

Cycling to work across Brighton and Hove has doubled between 2001 and 2011. Just under 5% of the population cycle to work. 14% of residents take the bus to work, and over 20% walk to work. Almost 10% of adults cycle at least once a week.  Even the Mayor of the City, Cllr Pete West, cycles to engagements.

In recent weeks I have become a bit obsessed about cycling. I used to cycle everywhere but stopped over 20 years ago when my daughter was an infant when I narrowly missed being killed by a bus turning from Ditchling Road into Oxford Street in Brighton.

My bike has been rusting in the back yard for too long. Yesterday I got it out, pumped up the tires and the thing practically collapsed under me. I need a bicycle because I have accepted a challenge from colleagues to ride 100km on Sunday 25th June as part of BHT’s Around the World Cycling Challenge.

In 12 hours we need as many of you as possible to ride round and round the Preston Park Velodrome so that we clock up 40,075km – equivalent to circumnavigating the earth at the Equator.

Why are we doing this? To raise £25,000 for First Base Day Centre. On days like today, with wind and cold, street homeless people need shelter, and First Base provides that and so much more – showers, clean and dry clothes, hot food, medical care, and much more. Staff at First Base also help people to look at why they are on the street and help them to move into accommodation.

There are three things you can do to help:

  • Sign up to ride yourself – you don’t have to do great distances, every little helps, as the advert says. It costs £10 to participate, £5 concessions and £5 for children under 16. Register via https://www.bht.org.uk/support-us/around-the-world-cycle-challenge-2017/ (Please make sure you do register)
  • Help on the day. Please email my colleague Sara Peskett, and she can let you know how and when you can help.
  • Sponsor me. You can do so here or you can send me a cheque made payable to ‘Brighton Housing Trust’ c/o BHT, 144 London Road, Brighton, BN1 4PH

The Mayor of Brighton and Hove, Cllr Pete West, launching the BHT Around the World Cycle Challenge