A Cambridge City Council’s Community Services Scrutiny Committee on the 15th of January 2009 the council’s homelessness strategy was discussed.
Preventing homelessness, and helping homeless people, particularly those sleeping on the streets, has been something Cambridge City Council has done well over the last few years. Though there have been a few blips, such as the period when the council was offering people one-way tickets out of the city. Statistics on homelessness and on rough sleeping in the city which had shown both to be dropping now show a rise in rough sleepers and a leveling off in the case of homelessness (1,2).
Cllr Blair revealed to the Community Services meeting that the city council offer residents who become homeless in Cambridge emergency bed and breakfast accommodation in Peterborough. She pointed out that this causes great problems, especially for families with children in local schools and for people who have jobs in the city. I agree that this is clearly unacceptable. Council Officer David Greening stated that the problem was finding suitable bed and breakfast accommodation in the city, he said the council had very stringent requirements which bed and breakfast accommodation for homeless people had to meet. The suggestion in the discussion was that this was not primarily about cost. The city council expects to spend £116,110 on emergency B&B accommodation for homeless people in 2008/9.
The council does not make its stringent criteria for bed and breakfast accommodation available on its website. I think it should be an easily accessible document so owners of bed and breakfast accommodation can review the council’s requirements and consider meeting them, and so everyone can look at the council’s requirements and see if they make sense. There are already very stringent safety and amenity (toilets and bathrooms) related requirements for all hotels, so I wonder what is required over and above these by homeless people. I have made a request using the Freedom of Information Act website: whatdotheyknow.com asking for the council’s criteria to be published.
Cllr Blair is a supporter of ensuring those receiving help from public funds for their housing have a higher standard of accommodation than many of those who pay for their accommodation themselves; both here in terms of B&B, and in terms of social housing provision more generally. I have for a long time been campaigning for the council to apply its standards for HMO accommodation to the universities in the city, where many students and staff live in conditions which would not be tolerated by the council for housing the homeless. (The Landlord Information Pack document where this policy is stated is not currently available, I suggest the exemption from enforcement should certainly not be applied to accommodation used all year round by staff and graduate students.)
One requirement which I can see it would make sense to insist upon would be for the B&Bs used by the council to house homeless people to enable residents access to the accommodation during the day. Another would be for those establishments used to house under eighteens some support for residents and CRB checks for staff would be required. There might also be problems of availability, but that could be tackled by the council having a large list of approved B&Bs. A proximity criteria would prevent the approval of accommodation which is too far away from the city.
The city council is committed to reducing the use of bed and breakfast as a form of temporary accommodation, it only uses bed and breakfast in emergency situations and, in line with government targets – for no longer than 6 weeks.
I think that often the people who are homeless are the best placed to make the decision on what they need, and it would make sense for the council to let them decide how they want to use the public money which is being made available for them. It might be the case for example that an individual (or family) would prefer a smaller room with shared facilities in Cambridge over for example larger en-suite accommodation in Peterborough, I think they ought to be free to make that choice.
At the council meeting on the 15th of January the council committed to look again to see if bed and breakfast provision which meets its standards can be found in Cambridge. Even if a general change could not be made, David Greening said that maybe a change specifically for those with children and those in employment could be made.
Directing Resources to Prevent Homelessness
Current economic conditions may lead to more people becoming homeless as a result of losing their jobs and not being able to afford their rent or mortgage. I am concerned that the government is not focusing the help it is offering on the right people. Assisting those buying a house with a mortgage who find themselves unable to keep up payments is directing resources at those with a relatively high net-worth and not those in greatest need. Any assistance for those with such assets should I believe ensure the public investment is protected and recouped, as is the case with the extensions to the mortgage rescue plan announced today. This scheme, which given its current scale will only help a tiny fraction of those in need, has been summarised by the Guardian:
The £200m scheme allows vulnerable households to reduce their monthly mortgage payments by selling a share in their home to a housing association, or to sell the property to the association outright and remain in it as tenants on subsidised rents.
This scheme is better than the state spending its resources paying mortgage interest under the Support for Mortgage Interest (SMI) scheme. Assistance to mortgage holders keeps house prices artificially high, making it more difficult for people to buy houses. We have a major problem with house price inflation in this country, it is that which needs to be tackled. Those taking out loans they can’t afford have been a major cause of both house price inflation and the current financial crisis. Financial education and awareness starting in schools and followed on with good quality advice available to those in need is I think what is needed to tackle the root cause of these problems.
Even given the state of the economy, today at Prime Minister’s Questions, Gordon Brown was talking about Government intervention to improve the availability of loans for people to buy cars with, encouraging people to go out and borrow money to purchase a depreciating asset. For some buying a car to enable them to work, or run a business such loans will make good economic sense, for many others though it won’t. Perhaps by now people will be looking at Gordon Brown promoting yet more reckless borrowing and rather than taking the opportunities he’s presenting they’ll looking at the state his borrowing has left the nation in and resolve to manage their personal finances better than he’s managed the country’s.
The supply of property in the market is also critical to people being able to afford somewhere to live. It has been reported by the Halifax that Cambridge has virtually no long-term empty private homes – at 0.1%.