Cllr Ian Lewis is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Wirral Council.
Sadly, it has taken a global pandemic to achieve, in a matter of weeks, what has eluded us for years – namely, safe and secure accommodation for around 15,000 homeless and rough sleepers.
This article is an observation about how these 15,000 people, and others, have, until now, been failed by society – politicians, councils, agencies, and housing associations.
Here in Wirral, a metropolitan borough facing Liverpool across the Mersey, more than 120 homeless people and rough sleepers were, within days, found accommodation following the Government’s “Everyone In” directive.
The staff at Wirral Council, like many others, worked tirelessly with local organisations, such as Wirral YMCA, to find accommodation, often permanent for people who had been left behind.
Whatever the reason for people being homeless – whether it is addiction, mental health, relationship breakdown, or domestic violence – it is the responsibility of all of us, and yes, including Government, ANY Government, to support and help them.
Too often, we forget that it is also the responsibility of those organisations that receive substantial government (i.e. taxpayer) money – housing associations or, as they like to be called nowadays “registered social landlords”. As an observer, and with one or two notable exceptions locally, housing associations have become part of the problem instead of their original purpose, part of the solution.
Housing Associations exist in that shadowy grey area of being neither public nor private, thus avoiding scrutiny from the taxpayer or shareholder. Yes, there are regulators but ensuring compliance is not the same as ensuring value for money or a “positive outcome”.
Glossy annual reports with carefully selected smiling tenants and littered with awards and logos are of little protection if you are sleeping in a doorway in winter.
Not only are housing associations boosted by capital grants from the Government, but their revenue is supported, almost without question, by Housing Benefit or Local Housing Allowance.
In 2005 (under a Labour Government), Wirral’s 13,100 council homes were transferred to a newly established housing association that pledged to be “tenant-led”. We did this because the Council could not afford to bring these properties up to the Decent Homes Standard that was first set out in 2000.
20 years later, and some tenants are still waiting for the most basic improvements – to bathrooms, kitchens or, in the case of flats, communal areas. At the same time, valuable sites now owned by Associations in “up market areas” have been flogged off and tenants removed. Others have used the term “social cleansing”.
Trying to obtain factual, unspun information is almost impossible. In spite of relying on taxpayer support, the Freedom of Information Act does not apply. Nor does the requirement to publish all monthly spending over £500, as we require of councils.
Meanwhile, the most vulnerable are left to get on with it – either on the streets, sofa surfing, or in Houses in Multiple Occupation.
These are the very people which housing associations were established to serve but “too difficult to help or not financially viable”, they say.
Sometimes the big housing associations can be a bit too picky about who they will accommodate –the current Covid 19 situation has possibly forced their hand to be a little more flexible but they do seem to struggle accommodating the highly chaotic tenants we often find have to be temporarily housed, adding to their chaotic situation of disrupted schools, social services, medical support, or family links.
The other key element of the bigger homelessness picture is of course mental health and people being able to access quick interventions and treatments.
Some are waiting years for assessments and endure a lifestyle struggling with their conditions while those around them have to cope with their increasingly chaotic and at times problematic behaviour, left on a waiting list that the Council manages, but cannot tackle, without the goodwill of housing associations and landlords.
So, what’s the answer?
More regulation? Unlikely, and will surely just lead to more or bigger quangos, with yet more trendy logos and topflight salaries for the senior management team.
More Government grants? Probably. But questions should be asked about what the money prior to the pandemic achieved and how it was used.
Ultimately, this is about a roof over their head, with the support services needed to help with poor mental health, addiction, or money management.
Why shouldn’t councils build the homes that are needed? More council homes mean a healthy competition with the housing associations as to who can house the most people, most quickly.
Here in Wirral, the Conservative Group wants the council to re-enter the housing market, using low costs of capital to borrow to build housing – in a way that cuts out the middleman.
This isn’t radical – more new council homes have been built since 2010 than during the previous Labour Government. Why on earth would any Government, let alone a Conservative Government committed to “levelling up”, not embrace that?