On 20 November Sutton Council debated the subject of homelessness.
This is the text of Richard’s speech.
“During my year as Mayor I was continually struck with admiration for the massive contribution to Sutton made by volunteers. Volunteers for a great range of organisations, and in particular volunteers for organisations like Nightwatch, like the Street Pastors, like Sutton Community Works, and like the food banks, all of whom are dedicated to helping the poorest and most dispossessed in our society.
But I could never escape from a feeling that in a rational and caring society organisations like the food banks and those providing in effect soup kitchens and advice for rough sleepers and those with no resources, like Nightwatch, would not exist. They would have no clients. How is it that in an affluent society like Britain we are such an unequal society that we have people in such poverty that they need food banks to feed themselves and they lose the roof over their heads, reduced at worst to rough sleeping, at best to the local authority finding them emergency bed and breakfast accommodation probably some miles from Sutton.
This would be an entirely academic observation were it not for the fact that this problem is not diminishing, it is increasing. Not just in Sutton, but nationally.
The statistics for Sutton show that in April of 2015 the number of homeless households the Council had placed in temporary accommodation stood at 280, a year later it was 411, last week it stood at 581. But it is not a Sutton problem, it is a national problem. It is everywhere.
As a Councillor I have found increasing casework concerning families given notice to quit and that the Council then has to place in emergency accommodation often miles from their roots, miles from the schools their children attend, miles from their employment in Sutton. In one recent case I dealt with this eviction appeared to be largely because the family had complained to the landlord about the all pervading damp in the flat.
What can be done to turn the tide ? What local authorities and volunteers like Nightwatch can do is no more than picking up the pieces. The Council has the difficult task of finding accommodation. When I was Chair of Planning Committee three years ago one of the decisions we took, controversial at the time and I recollect it was not without opposition, was to convert the Oakleigh home to be a hostel for families in need of emergency accommodation. But we would need many more Oakleighs now just to meet the increase in that need since that time.
The failure here, leading to the problem escalating, is a failure of policy. It is the welfare and housing policies of central Government that are failing to address the problem and leading to its escalation.
I could spend a long time detailing these failures – the bearing down on those already in poverty through the benefits freeze and through changes to support of those unable to work due to disability and illness, the introduction of Universal Credit in a way that is most concerned to save money, the loss of the Council’s stock of social housing due to the right to buy, the decline nationally in the construction of new Council houses and affordable homes, which we are trying to address here in Sutton with our ambitious programme to build the first new Council homes in 30 years. Changes to the Local Housing Allowance. The loopholes in planning law that enable developers such as those who refurbished Northumberland House in my Ward to evade requirements to provide any affordable homes atall. The list goes on. It is part of a war on what my generation cherished as the welfare state.
My colleague Councillor Fivey, who sadly cannot be here tonight, has had discussions with Nightwatch since the organisation was formed and assisted in their obtaining £586.13 from the Council through the Neighbourhood Grant programme to pay for the tent, a gazebo, from which they operate three nights a week in our Ward, providing food and help to rough sleepers and others without resources. Current discussions about the best practical further help for Nightwatch, and other organisations, will continue.
We all support the work of Nightwatch but there is no logic in expressing our support for organisations like Nightwatch while not mentioning what should be done to stop these problems occurring in the first place, which is to change Government policy.”