Observer column: 06 October 2017
Preventing A Rough Future
A couple of weeks ago, I participated in the 'Big Sleep' event on the Stade Open Space, to raise money for Seaview, a local charity that helps rough sleepers. By getting sponsored to spend the night in a cardboard box on the Stade, we raised £23,000 for Seaview, which will help them continue to provide their essential services.
Of course, sleeping in a cardboard box in a secure compound, with coffee, soup, and even live music, can give only the vaguest flavour of what it's really like to sleep rough, every night. The number of rough sleepers nationally has increased dramatically across the country, particularly in coastal towns. In Hastings, numbers have increased tenfold since 2010.
In the past, rough sleeping most often resulted from relationship breakdown or untreated mental health problems. But increasingly, it's because of benefit sanctions or a simple lack of genuinely affordable housing. And for those sleeping rough, it's increasingly hard to get back into secure accommodation, because rents are above the amount paid in housing benefit, making even the most basic private rented accommodation unaffordable.
Regeneration has made Hastings more attractive to developers. But while more housing is needed, simply encouraging private developers to build more houses won't solve the problem. That might bring price down a little, but home ownership remains a distant dream for most, especially younger, people in Hastings. For many, it's becoming increasingly difficult to find even a rented home they can afford, even for those in full-time employment. The council has a policy that a quarter of all housing developments must be social rented housing, but developers can ignore that if they claim it makes their scheme 'unaffordable'. So little social rented housing is now being built.
So we need to be cautious about the impact of regeneration. We cannot, and indeed would not want to, prevent economic regeneration in our town. The improvements to Hastings over the last few years, from the reopened pier to the thriving arts and cultural economy to the rejuvenated seafront, have led to more money coming into town, more jobs, and more prosperity, as well as a town that feels more vibrant, more exciting, and more forward-looking. But as Jeremy Corbyn warned in his speech to the Labour Party conference, we must ensure that regeneration doesn't mean gentrification, we must make sure that local people, especially young people and those from the more deprived parts of town, fully benefit from this process.
At present, councils have little control over this. We can use planning policies, other agreements with developers, and bids into targeted funding schemes, to try to bring benefits for those who would otherwise miss out. But we need more powers, and a properly funded public sector, to make sure regeneration truly benefits everyone. We need to be able to build council houses again, we need to be able to require employers to provide apprenticeships linked to our local college that lead to rewarding, skilled jobs, and we need to be able to control rents in private sector housing.
We can achieve this. We could provide decent, affordable housing. We could guarantee a promising future for our young people, with a rewarding job and a secure home. And we could make rough sleeping a distant memory. But we need radical national policies, and an end to austerity, to achieve it.
Council Leader's column