Former Argus journalist, Neil Vowles, in crystal meth row

Headlines are an art, aimed at attracting readers to an item. They can be clever, funny or informative. My current favourite, from the Stockport Express, is: “Dominatrix won’t go down without a fight”. The headline for this item has brought you here, not least if your name is Neil Vowles!

In an item by Neil, published in Friday’s Brighton Argus, relating to Richardson’s Yard, the Brighton Housing Trust shipping container homes project, it was wrongly suggested that £1,000 of crystal meth had been seized by police at the property ahead of this year’s Pride.

It was an unfortunate blip in Neil’s otherwise excellent standard of reporting. The crystal meth was not seized from any of the shipping container homes at Richardson’s Yard, nor were any of our residents involved. The police raid was at a neighbouring property, not a BHT one.

The error was understandable given that the photographs used by the Argus, which had a reporter on the raid, showed our distinctive shipping container homes in the background.

I am grateful to Neil and the Argus for correcting this in the online edition of the article, and for the correction published today (19th August 2017) in which they apologised to the residents of Richardson’s Yard and to BHT for this error.

It hasn’t, however, tempered the comments in the neanderthal world that is otherwise known as the Comments section on the Argus website.

Neil Vowles left the Argus this week. His departure is a huge loss for the paper. I have enjoyed working with him, and found him thoughtful and with integrity. Like many journalists at the Argus, he has come in for unfair criticism from time to time. There was even an ugly rumour several years ago that he might be the anonymous Brighton Politics Blogger, but I have it from an unimpeachable source that he never stooped that low.

I conclude by thanking Neil for the standard of his reporting, and wish him well in his new role at the University of Sussex. And if I may, one word of advice: keep clear of crystal meth.

An MP whose sense of injustice is very different from what some of his constituents experience

Will Quince

Will Quince, the Member of Parliament for Colchester, tweeted on Saturday: “Just had to pay a parking fine for being 10mins late when in Devon, genuine mistake but caught on ANPR. Is it me or is £54 unreasonable”.

If his £54 parking fine is unreasonable for an honest mistake, perhaps he could say whether he thinks losing your entire income for a week or 4 weeks for an honest mistake like being late for an appointment at Job Centre Plus.

Do MPs really know what is happening to their constituents and the impact policies made and voted for by them are having in the real world? According to PoliticsHome, Ministers don’t. One can just wonder about some MPs.

Can you name the Minister for Homelessness? I couldn’t.

Earlier today I wrote about the prediction that the number of people who are rough sleeping would increase by 76% by 2026, having already doubled since 2010.

I called for the appointment of a Minister for Rough Sleeping who would focus exclusively on the issue and not be reshuffled until the next general election.

I have been reminded by a colleague that there is already a Minister for Homelessness although neither my colleague or I could name her/him. To be honest I didn’t even know there was such a post – clearly the best kept secret in Westminster.

Google told me that it’s the Minister is Marcus Jones, as I am sure you all already knew. Apologies for my ignorance. He is a Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Minister for Local Government) and he is responsible for:

  • Local government policy, including local government reform
  • Local government finances (including local authority sustainability and business rates retention)
  • Adult social care
  • Local government interventions policy and oversight of existing interventions
  • Local government pensions
  • Troubled Families
  • Supported housing
  • Parks and green spaces

And in his spare time he is responsible for homelessness, that is all homelessness which includes the:

  • 9,100 people sleeping rough,
  • 68,300 households sofa surfing
  • 19,300 households living in unsuitable temporary accommodation
  • 37,200 households living in hostels
  • 26,000 households living in other circumstances, including 8,900 households sleeping in tents, cars or on public transport, 12,100 households living in squats, and 5,000 households in women’s refuges or winter night shelters.

I am so reassured that we have a Minister who can give the necessary focus to the issue of rough sleeping.

What’s his name again ….?

Rough sleeping has doubled since 2010, predicted to increase by a further 76%

The stock response from government, local and national, when challenged about a current or impending problem, is to say how much money it is spending to resolve the matter.

This is true about the rough sleeping crisis. The number of people sleeping rough has doubled since 2010, according to a report in the Financial Times in January. And today (10th August 2017), the national charity, Crisis, has forecast that rough sleeping will rise by a further 76% by 2026. (This forecast is based on research conducted on behalf of Crisis by Heriot-Watt University).

A Department for Communities and Local Government spokesman said: “Alongside investing £550 million to 2020 to address the issue, we’re implementing the Homelessness Reduction Act, which will require councils to provide early support to people at risk of becoming homeless. There’s more to do and ministers will set out plans shortly.”

It is easy for someone to quote eye-watering sums but given the track record since 2010 we need something that will inspire confidence. The doubling in rough sleeping numbers is a direct result of government policies. I look forward to the government’s plans being published. The plans need to be more than worthy statements of intent.

The government’s plans need to be SMART. They need to set out specific measures that will be implemented, what difference these measures will make, and when the positive impact will be seen. A vague date like 2026 is no good. Most of the Ministers around today will not even be a footnote in history by 2026.

I would suggest, amongst other things, the following:

  • The appointment of a Minister for Rough Sleeping who will remain in her/his post until the next general election so they can be judged on their record
  • Properly fund local authorities to meet their homelessness duties
  • Reverse the drop in investment for affordable homes, specifically homes that will be made available to homeless households and individuals
  • Reverse the cuts to housing benefit
  • Reintroduce direct housing benefit payments to landlords to build confidence especially in the private rented sector
  • Put funding for homelessness services on a proper footing,

It should shame us all, not least those in power, that rough sleeping numbers have doubled since 2010. Today’s report from Crisis should shame government into urgent action.

Every Vote Matters – Minister for the Constitution visits BHT to discuss registration and voting by homeless people

Chris Skidmore MP (centre) with Simon Hughes (BHT senior manager) and me.

Yesterday (Monday, 7 August), the Minister for the Constitution, Chris Skidmore MP, visited Brighton Housing Trust, as part of his Every Vote Matters tour to hear first hand about the experiences homeless people have faced when voting or registering to vote.

The Minister later visited Blind Veterans UK and Brighton & Hove Speakout. He heard from all three charities about how they raised awareness of participation in the democratic process for the General Election 2017 and what support they provided to residents and clients.

Chris Skidmore, Minister for the Constitution, said: “Brighton Housing Trust, Blind Veterans UK and Brighton and Hove Speakout are fantastic organisations that ensure people experiencing homelessness and those with disabilities feel confident, empowered and remain an active part of their society.

“A big part of this is being able to register to vote and remain a part of our democracy. Today’s visits have helped me understand how we can support vulnerable people to ensure that ours is a truly inclusive democracy.

“Nearly three million applications to register to vote were received online between 18 April and 22 May but there are still under-represented groups we can improve the processes for. Regardless of who you are, or how you vote, every voice matters and we encourage you to register to vote.”

I told the minister that homeless people, especially those who are street homeless, can be multiply excluded. To know that their right to vote is being considered at the highest level in government is a great encouragement. Voting changes things, not always in a way politicians want, but it is at the heart of our democracy. Chris Skidmore showed a deep understanding and awareness of many of the issues we deal with on a daily basis. He was keen to learn how voter registration and voting itself can be maximised amongst people who are often invisible and ignored.

Make Change Count: How You Can Help Rough Sleepers in Brighton and Hove

The Make Change Count campaign, which is being launched today (7th August 2017), seeks to raise awareness about what support is available in the city for people sleeping rough and offering advice on how best to help.

The best way to help someone sleeping rough is through professional help.
Brighton Housing Trust, along with St Mungo’s, Equinox, Nightstop and Project Antifreeze, are highlighting the practical support available all year round in the city and how best to help rough sleepers. The campaign is supported Brighton & Hove City Council and Sussex Police.

Giving money on the street can be counter-productive and lead to people staying in their current situation when more effective help is available. The various charities make sure those in need have hot meals, access to shower facilities, clothing and support from outreach workers to move people away from the street to rebuild their lives.

My colleague, Nikki Homewood, who is BHT’s Director of Services, said: “The Make Change Count campaign is all about getting the right help at the right time for those who are sleeping on our streets. We’re sharing information on how residents can refer people they are concerned about and providing an alternative giving option to donating on the street.

“The campaign aims to help people make informed decisions when giving money or other items to rough sleepers. We are keen to make clear that we’re not telling anyone how they should spend their money, that’s a matter of personal choice.
“We’d like to share the experiences we’ve gained from many years of working with rough sleepers. We know that moving off the streets is a difficult thing to do, no matter how much people want a better standard of living. People sleeping rough are often very vulnerable and have lost confidence to plan for the future because of the circumstances they’re in. Support is needed to help people rebuild their lives.

“We’re keen to all work together to give people the best chance for the future. People understandably want to help those living on the streets, and giving to someone right in front of you is a natural reaction. But there can be better ways to help and we’re asking people to think about how they can really make their change count.”

How you can help:

  • Donate today by texting UMCC17 £3 to 70070
  • Contact Streetlink or on 0300 500 0914 with information about where people are rough sleeping is a way to make sure they are known to support agencies offering professional help. The rough sleeper outreach team, run by St Mungo’s, responds to details given to Streetlink and goes out to see all known rough sleepers in the city. The team discusses a person’s needs, working with them to explore options to try to move them off the streets and into accommodation.

Cllr Clare Moonan, lead councillor for rough sleeping, said: “The Make Change Count campaign can transform and, even save, lives. In Brighton & Hove we have a wide range of services and support designed to help those in need but there is always more we can do to help. Working together, everyone in this caring city really make a difference.”

More information about the Make Change Count charities:

A government-designed system that is creating homelessness and forcing people to use food banks

Research published by Sheffield Hallam University on behalf of the Residential Landlord Association shows that landlords are, increasingly, refusing to let their properties to those under 35. There are a number of reasons for this, not least that the landlord might not get paid on time or at all.

32% of landlords (of the 1,996 questioned) have said that that they have actively reduced lettings to those under 35.

The situation is more acute for those under 35 in receipt of housing benefit or universal credit. Two-thirds of landlords say they are unwilling to let to this group because of a higher risk of rent arrears as payments are delayed through administrative delays and payments are made to the tenant rather than direct to the landlord.

We used to have a system that almost used to work but then some idiot decided that a higher priority would be to prepare claimants for the reality of work by mirroring the conditions of those in work. He (it was a ‘he’) then introduced a system that has been so poor in its design and execution that people are becoming homeless and others reliant on food banks to survive. It takes some sort of genius to drive people into destitution because of his own arrogant, self-belief.

I’m not going to name this person. Choose any name. It could be Iain, perhaps Duncan, or even Mr Smith. Whatever works for you.

Alan Ward, chair of the Residents Landlord Association, said: “We have already held constructive talks with the Government about this and we will keep the situation under review, but there is a need for policymakers to engage further with landlords to consider what more action can be taken to address this decline. Without this many under-35s are likely to struggle to access any accommodation” (my emphasis)

So where will those under 35 live? I challenge any of my Conservative friends, and I have quite a few, to tell me.

And while they are about it, will they say, hand on heart, that they are proud of what the welfare reform agenda is delivering, that it is a strong and stable system…..

And please don’t come up with the twaddle about rescuing the economy crashed by the former government or that there is no magic money tree. There is money there. There wasn’t a problem when the government needed £1 billion for its friends in the DUP.

One simple measure the government could do, and it will cost next to nothing, is to continue making payments direct to landlords. That might, just might, improve confidence.