Overly strict enforcement of regulations can lead to homelessness

This is the text of a letter I had published in today’s Brighton Argus (14th April 2017) in response to, and in support of, a letter from Mike Stimpson from the Southern Landlords Association who warned that the uncritical enforcement of regulations would result in an increase in rough sleeping

When someone speaks who has as much housing experience as Mike Stimpson from the Southern Landlords Association, we would be wise to listen. Few individuals have such in-depth knowledge, and he is one of the few landlords who will still accommodate people on the lowest incomes.

In his letter of 13th April 2017 he warns that a consequence of the enforcement of regulations relating to houses in multiple occupation will lead to more people becoming street homeless. We should all sit up and listen.

Regardless of what one might think of housing being provided through private landlords, the reality is that almost four times as many homes are let in this way compared to those provided by the City Council and housing associations. With spiralling house prices, fewer local people will be able to buy in the years ahead. We must work with private landlords to make sure housing need in the city is being met.

At the same time, Cllr Tracey Hill is attempting to ensure that family homes for rent are not lost. She rightly wants to avoid whole areas becoming blighted by studentification with small family homes being turned into accommodation for six or seven students.

Her efforts in this regard are to be applauded and should be seen as a challenge to our two universities where not enough accommodation is provided to houses the ever-increasing student population in the city. Whether we can reverse what already has happened is unlikely.

If there is an issue of a lack of basic amenities, fire risks and overcrowding, then enforcement action should be taken. Enforcement is right in some cases, but not in cases where there is cooperation by the landlords and where standards are marginally below what we would ideally like.

This week I heard of enforcement action being against a property that has been let as four bedsits since the early 1960s. I don’t know the property myself, but the provision of such accommodation is essential for someone’s housing journey. I myself once rented a property which falls beneath current minimum space requirements, but small though it was, it was my home and I was happy there.

The simplest way to avoid council houses for families being lost and becoming houses in multiple occupation is by ending the Right to Buy, and not extending it even further to housing association homes. One in four, and some studies suggest one in three, former council homes are now in the private rented sector charging rents four times greater than the previous council rents. How many of these homes in Brighton and Hove, are now let to students?

Shared housing is all that is affordable for many, and the only form of accommodation for which those under 35 can claim housing benefit. I am a harsh critic of government housing policy, but while it remains as it is, we need to ensure that there is a balanced provision of homes.

We need to get this right, and the City Council could do worse that having a very early meeting with Mike Stimpson to find a way forward.

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.

Remembering Bruno Crosby, 15 years on

bruno-crosbyIt is more than 15 years since Bruno Crosby passed the way.

For those who don’t remember Bruno, he was known as “King of the Squatters”. It is worth remembering that squatting has a noble history in our city with leaders like Bruno, Harry Crowley, and even Lord Steve Bassam.

In the 1970s there were many empty and derelict properties around the city. The squatters movement took them over, did them up, and provided much-needed housing.

It is worth remembering that the housing crisis we are facing today although on unprecedented scale and severity, has been with us for many decades.

Bruno, along with friends, took over a long abandoned house in Argyll Road near Preston Circus, a stones throw away from our container homes development, Richardson’s Yard. They installed electricity and plumbing, and undertook essential works to make it watertight.

Over the years, Bruno was able to establish legal ownership of his home as no owner could be traced.

But he was not interested in it as an investment opportunity. When he died at the age of just 51, he left the proceeds of the sale of his home to two organisations, one being Brighton Housing Trust. He was one of our Board members for several years.

As the Argus reminds us today (10th February 2017): “Bruno coordinated squatting activities in Brighton during the Seventies when the movement was at its height. At one stage, hundreds of squatters were housed across the town in squats he had organised.”

I remember fondly, a man of great passion, great drive, and unswerving principle.

Correcting comments on the Housing White Paper wrongly attributed to me in the Brighton Argus

Today’s edition of the Brighton Argus (9th February 2017) attributed comments to me that were not accurate.  Here is the text of the letter I have sent to correct the record.

“Please may I correct comments attributed to me in Thursday’s paper. I did not say that I was “delighted with the new housing proposals”.  There were one or two proposals that I welcomed, such as abandoning the requirement that 20% of homes in new developments should be Starter Homes.

“I said I felt that much had been promised before publication, but the White Paper itself was a “real disappointment”. I said the promise was akin to the offer of a beautiful beach holiday but the reality turned out to be a damp Tuesday afternoon in September on the Bognor Regis seafront.  I am troubled that that was interpreted as being “delighted” with the proposals.

“I drew your reporters attention to a written statement I had prepared, and spoke to him about the White Paper being a missed opportunity to build council houses so that there was an increased supply of rents that people on medium, low and no income could afford.

“Regarding the Green Belt, I noted that developments will be allowed “in exceptional circumstances” and asked what greater exceptional circumstances are there than a housing crisis on a scale that this country has never known. If it is true that Surrey has more land given over to golf courses than housing, then I won’t weep if some green belt is lost.

“Finally, can I thank you for the kind words about me in your Editorial Comment. They were very generous.”

The state of rough sleeping in Brighton and Hove

(This is the text of my column that first appeared in the Brighton Argus on Saturday 14th January 2017)

img_4847Twenty five years ago, those ending up on the streets were usually care leavers, ex-military, women escaping violence and abuse, people with mental health problems and/or addictions.

Today the picture is almost the same. Only the numbers are greater, and there is a new group: those becoming homeless because of the end of assured shorthold tenancies and the lack of alternative, affordable homes.

There is a perception that the numbers on the streets has grown significantly over the last three years. I don’t believe that to be the case.

The recent count of rough sleepers suggested a 100% increase in their numbers over twelve months. As Cllr. Clare Moonan, who is leading the work in the City Council to end rough sleeping in the city by the end of the decade, said recently, “At first glance, the numbers seems to show a large increase on last year’s estimate. The reality is that we now have a more accurate reflection of the situation in the city.”

She said that the most recent figure of 144 rough sleepers was based on a count compared to 78 people in 2015 which was based on an estimate, not one that we at BHT ever thought was a credible number.

Three years ago the shared information between homelessness organisations in Brighton had the number between 130 and 140. In 2016 the numbers fluctuated between 140 and 150.

Across the country, street homeless people have become more visible and ‘encampments’ have become common place in many prominent streets. This has resulted in increased levels of public concern.

In 2016, around 1,200 men and women presented as street homeless in Brighton and Hove. 45% were local people.

The single greatest cause leading to street homeless is the loss of rented home, either because the landlord has brought a six month tenancy to an end, or the break up of a relationship.

Many of us have personal resources, financial and social, to fall back on so that we don’t become homeless. We might have cash in the bank or credit on a card. We may have friends and family who will help us, putting us up for a while until we sort something out.

But when the goodwill of friends and family has been exhausted, and faced with no alternative, some sleep in cars, others in tents, some in a shop doorway.

Those not from Brighton tell us they come here for many reasons, a memory of a happy childhood holiday, the image of the city as seen on television, or its reputation for night life and, yes, drugs.

I can’t recall anyone ever saying they came to Brighton because we have great homelessness services, even though we do.

If we are seeing twenty or so people ending up on our streets each week, why have we not seen a huge increase in actual rough sleeper numbers? In Brighton and Hove we have excellent services and great co-operation between them, ensuring that as quickly as people end up on the streets, they and others are helped to move away from rough sleeping.

Last year, for example, Brighton Housing Trust’s First Base Day Centre was open for 288 days. We helped 306 individuals to end their rough sleeping.

Then there is the work of others, including the City Council which deserve much credit for their leadership, and many other organisations including the Clocktower Sanctuary, the two YMCAs, Project Anti Freeze, and St Mungo’s.

St Mungo’s was awarded a contract by the City Council in 2015 to deliver a 20% year on year reduction in the number of rough sleepers. As yet, in spite of many successes, the number has, unfortunately, remained stubbornly consistent.

At times like this, when temperatures are at freezing point, there is understandable greater concern about people who are still on the streets. Several churches open their doors during the winter, providing shelter for twenty five rough sleepers each night. During severe weather, BHT is funded to co-ordinate emergency shelters where people can escape the harshest elements.

Throughout the year, there is plenty of support. At First Base, for example, we provide somewhere dry and warm where rough sleepers can get breakfast and lunch, showers and laundry facilities, access to health services and, critically, the assistance to move permanently off the streets.

BHT provides a range of other services, all designed to prevent and end rough sleeping, including the Brighton Advice Centre in Queens Road, specialist mental health accommodation projects, a very successful addiction treatment service, a 52 bed hostel, and services to help people into training and work.

Homelessness can be prevented and it can be ended. But the high cost of housing in the City, and the shortage of new council and other affordable housing, makes that challenge particularly difficult.

Has there been a 100% increase in rough sleeping in Brighton and Hove in the last year?

In the Brighton Argus today (16 December 2016) it is reported that the number of rough sleepers in Brighton and Hove has doubled over the last year.

144 people were counted as sleeping rough on the night of Tuesday, November 8. Last year, the count was 71.

Does this mean that there has been more than a 100% increase? The answer is no. It is my view that there was a great underestimate last year and in previous years, and that rough sleeping numbers have held quite steady for the last three years or so. What has changed is the greater visibility of people sleeping in doorways and elsewhere  throughout the city.

I agree with Councillor Clare Moonan who is quoted in today’s Argus as saying: “At first glance, the number seems to show a large increase on last year’s estimate. The reality is that we now have a more accurate reflection of the situation in the city. This year’s estimate is the most involved and detailed we’ve ever done. We feel that as far as possible we have included all of the rough sleepers on the cities boundaries who are currently not engaging with our mainstream services.

“Understanding the needs of rough sleepers in the city helps us to make sure the right services are in place. Key to this is knowing how many people are in need and where to find them.”

The fact that the number of rough sleepers has remained relatively constant, while not anything to celebrate, it is a recognition of the work that is being done in the city, led by Clare Moonan and the City Council, in partnership with a number of organisations including the Clock Tower Sanctuary, Brighton Housing Trust, Downslink YMCA, Equinox, St Mungo’s, Off the Fence, Sussex Police and others.

If it was not for the efforts of these organisations, the numbers on the street would be much, much higher.

For example, last year BHT’s First Base Day Centre, arguably the main hub for working with rough sleepers in the city, in partnership with other organisations, helped 306 people to move off the streets, that is more than one person for every day that we were open.

The London-based charity, St Mungo’s was awarded a contract last year which included the target of reducing rough sleeping by 20% year on year. While that has not been achieved in the first year of the contract, I am hopeful that the service that they promised will be effective in helping to achieve our shared objectives of ending rough sleeping in the City.

But whether there is one rough sleeper or 144, just one is too many. We need to do everything we can to reduce the number. I still remain hopeful that we can eradicate rough sleeping in one of the richest cities in one of the richest countries in the world.

To support the BHT Christmas Appeal for First Base:

  • Donate through our website
  • Text BHTF50 £(amount) to 70070
  • Send a cheque payable to ‘Brighton Housing Trust’ to 144 London Road, Brighton, BN1 4PH.

Selma Montford – a true servant to Brighton, its architecture and its people

(This is the text of a letter I had published in the Brighton Argus, 30th November 2016)

I am sure that I will not be the only one who wishes to pay tribute to Selma Montford as she steps down from the Brighton Society (Argus, 26 November 2016).

Selma has been an outstanding servant to Brighton and its architectural heritage for almost half a century. Whether you have agreed with her or not (and we have had our disagreements over the years), one cannot but admire her and have total respect for the integrity with which she has fought to preserve the values she holds so dear.

I hope that Brighton and Hove will find a suitable way of recognising her contribution, perhaps by giving her the Freedom of the City although, given what the City has become, it might not be something that Selma would want.

On a more personal note, Selma has long been a supporter of Brighton Housing Trust showing that she cares not just for Brighton’s buildings but also its people, not least the ones with nowhere to live.

Thank you, Selma.