Many politicians and political commentators regularly use buzzwords such as "reform," "modernisation" and "progress" to demonstrate their relevance to contemporary society and shared desire for change with the electorate. However, within the narrow confines of the neo-liberal consensus, which mainstream politicians have operated in for the last few decades, there is only a limited scope for change. Therefore the space within which the mainstream political parties operate is narrower still, and the use of buzzwords only serves as decoration to the same rehashed policies. As a result, dependent upon which party is in government, certain inevitabilities can be counted upon. Some of these are that the Tories will "reform" the welfare state by cutting benefits to the poorest and most vulnerable and "modernise" social care for struggling families by making it less readily available. All in the name of "progress". But in fact they are just using the policies of the 1980's to bring about the greatest fall in living standards since the 1880's. Such rehashed policies lead to the inevitability that homelessness will increase under a conservative government, and so we can see in North Herts.
Local authorities have a statutory duty to provide accommodation to homeless people that can demonstrate a priority need, i.e. old age, pregnancy, dependent children or mental/physical illness; and are not intentionally homeless, i.e. homeless through an intentional act that inevitably lead to them becoming homeless. Over the last five years we have seen around a 50% increase in the total number of homelessness applications and successful applications in North Herts.
It is common for local authorities to use temporary accommodation to house homeless applicants and families, initially whilst they assess whether they owe them a long term duty, and then whilst they are attempting to find them permanent accommodation. NHDC has 90 units of temporary accommodation, but unfortunately due to the lack of affordable accommodation and increased levels of homelessness those 90 units are no longer enough to meet demand. In order to fulfil their obligations to homeless families, the Council is now using bed and breakfast accommodation. B&B's can only ever be a very short term solution. It is not appropriate accommodation for families. The lack of privacy and personal space has a negative impact on the family unit and affects the education and development of the children. In many cases low income families find their resources depleted further because they have no cooking or storage facilities so have to buy ready cooked food at greater expense. This makes it more difficult for them to move on. In some cases the families have remained in the accommodation for over 5 weeks.
In 2014/2015 the Council spent over £90,000 bed and breakfast accommodation. In the first four months of 2015/2016 over £64,000 was spent. The amount spent has skyrocketed continually since August 2014.
This problem has been out of control for over a year, yet the Tory led council has not taken any action to substantially increase the supply of temporary accommodation. Council documents demonstrate that they reviewed the situation in February this year and put together a strategy to tackle the issue. This strategy has been completely ineffective as demonstrated by the problem escalating further. This was inevitable since none of the measures implemented included investing any money in provision of more temporary accommodation.
The Labour Party therefore put forward a motion to Council that steps be taken to provide more units of temporary accommodation. The purpose of our motion was to increase the stock of temporary accommodation in order that homeless families can live in a more suitable environment whilst they seek permanent accommodation. It also makes economic sense as the cost to the local taxpayer of accommodating people in B&B's is substantial, and would be greatly reduced in the long term by provision of more units.
Sadly the Tories would not accept the wording of the motion and tabled an amendment. The wording substantially changed the motion, firstly to indicate that they were already addressing the problem , and crucially secondly to remove any requirement on the council of actually having to invest in temporary accommodation.
It is clear that under Tory rule homelessness will only get worse. The combination of rehashed national policies such as extending the right to buy, further welfare reform and NHDC policies such as the removal of grants for housing associations and refusal to spend any money on addressing this issue amount to a potent cocktail that could almost be designed to increase homelessness.
The local Labour Party will be monitoring this situation over the next few months, and demanding answers if something is not done to improve the situation.
At the time of writing, despite the attempts of David Cameron to put his fingers in his ears and pull up the drawbridge, it seems possible that the global refugee crisis could put further strain on local housing resources. It is only right and just that in North Herts we play our part in accommodating those displaced by conflict, instability and poverty, from whichever nation and by whichever route they have arrived.
Whatever the future holds, eventually the Tory government and Council will have to realise that the answer to homelessness must include investing in affordable homes.
Cllr. Adrian Smith
Hitchin, Bearton Ward