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.

How I have accidentally destroyed not one but two blogs

Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell, in The Importance of Being Earnest, says, “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”

I have created, and then accidentally destroyed, two relatively successful blogs. The first time was carelessness, the second was a misfortune.

In fact I’ve created three blogs. My cricket blog was hardly read. It was a collection of columns I was commissioned to write for a local magazine. You can read one of my favourite posts from 2011 “My ability as a cricketer is the polar opposite to my love of the game“.

For over four years I wrote another, anonymous, blog on local politics. It was scurrilous and, while I was nice about most people, I did take the proverbial out of everyone.

As a local niche blog it was successful, attracting hundreds and sometimes thousands of readers each day, notwithstanding my regular refrain about “my two regular readers”. (They say a local niche blog is successful if you get one hundred hits a day. If you are writing a blog about Manchester United or cricket in India, if you don’t get 5 million hits a day, you are a failure!)

So what went wrong? I was careless. I used the wrong twitter account when posting something about my daughter and me watching cricket.

The blog only worked when there was some intrigue. I used to hear people speculating as to the identity of ‘The Blogger’. But once my identity was out, I had to kill it off.

Misfortune has all but destroyed this blog. After the general election, and more so after the Grenfell Tower disaster, I wanted greater freedom in what I could write, particularly about politics. As a charity chief executive I have restrictions on what I can say in a work capacity. So I decided to remove reference to my organisation in the name of the blog and in its URL.

What I hadn’t realised was that by changing the user name it destroyed previous traffic generated by google searches. Now if you google, say, “andy winter bht blog” the search results will reveal links to the old URL. But when you click a link you are advised: “andywinterbht.wordpress.com is no longer available. The authors have deleted this site.”

That isn’t totally accurate. The content remains but now at ‘andywinterbn1.wordpress.com‘. The consequence has been catastrophic. Hits on the blog are down 95%! I hope it will recover in time, but the lesson is to create a blog name that is future-proofed so that there is no need to change its name, URL or user name.

Keeping politics out of sport? I think not.

Yesterday, on this blog, I mentioned an argument I once had with the late, great Test Match Special commentator, Christopher Martin Jenkins. I found myself sitting next to him at an event. It was a wonderful two hours, my own private TMS. He was charming and generous with his knowledge of the great game, and great company. I totally ignored the person to my right, to the point of rudeness!

Christopher Martin-Jenkins (right) with his son, Robin, at Arundel, 2008.

But CMJ and I did argue, very courteously, about the naming of the new press centre that was, at the time, being developed in the south stand at the County Ground in Hove. The previous indoor school on the spot where the press centre was being built had been known as the Gilligan Stand.

Arthur Gilligan was a fine cricketer, captain of Sussex and he led England to an Ashes victory over Australia almost 100 years ago. I had been quite vocal, including in a cricket column that I used to write for the lifestyle magazine, that an alternative name needed to be found because Arthur Gilligan, after retiring from cricket, became the deputy to Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists.

Later in life, Gilligan served as MCC president from 1967 to 1968. During his tenure, the MCC was involved in the controversy over the non-selection of Basil D’Oliveira to tour South Africa.

CMJ said that you should not mix sport and politics. As a South African who had supported the sporting boycott of there apartheid regime, I disagreed. When I said that on a recent visit to Berlin I had felt very uncomfortable attending an event at the Hermann Goering Handball Arena, CMJ was appalled. “Surely,” he said, “there is no such place!”. I said that I had never actually been to Berlin and there wasn’t such a venue, but he has just made my point for me.

The press centre was not named after Arthur Gilligan. It was a small, but satisfying, success.

Is it going to be business as usual in housing after the Grenfell Tower fire?

What is the secret of great (timing) comedy? goes the old joke. It works better live than in writing, and it was never actually that funny.

The comments of Paul Hackett, the chief executive of Optivo, who recently became the chair of the G15 – the 15 largest housing associations – said on the appointment of of Alok Sharma as the new housing minister, that he hoped Mr Sharma would continue the “politics of pragmatism” shown by his predecessor in the role, Gavin Barwell.

Alok Sharma MP

He said: “What we would say to Alok Sharma is that Mr Barwell did a really good job as housing minister by forming a really effective and pragmatic relationship with the Greater London Authority and with housing associations and house builders generally.

“I would very much welcome a continuation of that politics of pragmatism. I really believe that Mr Barwell was focused on what works, rather than on ideology and he also recognised the importance of players other than just the volume house builders.”

This is where timing comes in. A couple of days later there was the fire at Grenfell Tower. If anyone thinks that it will be ‘business as usual’ in politics or housing, then they have misjudged the public mood as much as Theresa May has.

Housing associations, and particularly the larger ones, are in danger of attracting the anger of the public who are looking for someone to blame for the housing crisis we are facing. Yes, the housing policies of successive governments, the banks and those who speculate in the housing market will rightly be blamed.

But housing associations themselves need to take a long hard look at themselves in a mirror. Who are they building for? What are the standards in their homes? How isolated have they become from their tenants?

The disaster at Grenfell Tower is the most extreme manifestation of what is wrong with the housing market. The level of rough sleeping, the number of children in bed and breakfast accommodation, the general failure of the housing market as a whole has now reached tipping point.

If the government survives, it cannot be business as usual in housing, although there is nothing about Alok Sharma that inspires any confidence. Barwellian Pragmatism won’t do it. There needs to be a fundamental change in the approach of government.

Housing must once again become where people live, not an investment opportunity, and the housing needs to be safe.

We need council housing, not housing associations whose priorities are stock market flotations. We need social housing, not housing products. We need social rents, not so-called affordable rents.

The government of Theresa May is anything but strong and stable, and looks somewhat weak and feeble. In her speech later today, I hope that she will see the light about housing which was largely absent from the election campaign. It should now dominate the political agenda.

Right to Buy: A Failing Housing Policy

Another day, another story about the crisis in social housing. A Freedom of Information request by the Liberal Democrats to 72 councils has found that more than 12,000 council houses have been sold since 2014 wild just 4,309 built over the same period exposing the reality of the one for one replacement that the government has consistently promised.

Rather than recognizing the idiocy of this policy from a housing point of view, the government seems hell bent on extending it to housing associations, again promising a one for one replacement programme.

What is more, many of the 4,309 homes built have not been like for like replacements, with few being left on social rents.

Experience tells us that up to 40% of homes sold through the Right to Buy end up in the private rented sector charging rents up to four times as much as were charged when let for social purpose.

One wonders whether politicians in government and policy makers live in the smae universe as the rest of us!

We have yet another housing minister, the 15th since 1997

In April I asked on this blog whether by the end of June we would have the fifteenth housing minister since 1997. The answer is yes. The last housing minister, Gavin Barwell, lost his seat on June 8th. Now the MP for Reading West, Alok Sharma, has been appointed as his successor.

Is it a sign of the priority that housing has been within government that this ministerial role was the only one to remain unfilled four days after the election?

Mr Sharma’s record does not inspire confidence. He has supported the bedroom tax, voted consistently for welfare benefit cuts, and has generally supported the government’s previous housing policies that has served the country so badly.

The new minister comes with an interesting track record having never expressed any previous interest in housing policy, an area in which he has no experience. As a constituency MP he has opposed many planning applications for housing.

An interesting choice for the person to lead Britain in tackling its housing crisis. One to inspire confidence? Not in my mind.

(A version of this items appeared on my Vlog on 18 June 2017)