Observer column: 21 February 2020
It was disappointing to read our MP's comments in her column in the Observer last week criticising Hastings council officers for failing to deal with rough sleeping, using figures for the number of rough sleepers that were over a year out of date. The truth is a little different.
There are 19 rough sleepers on the streets of Hastings, on average for nights in February. That's less than half what it was last year. We've been able to achieve this through Hastings Council's successful bids to the government's Rough Sleeping Initiative and Rapid Rehousing Pathway grants, which we did on behalf of all councils in East Sussex. This achieved a £1.5m grant, which we're grateful for, and has helped reduce rough sleeping across East Sussex, particularly in Hastings and Eastbourne.
We've been able to get rough sleepers off the street and initially into temporary accommodation, and eventually permanent accommodation. This requires a high level of support to tackle addiction and mental health problems, and help former rough sleepers sustain a tenancy. This can be a very intensive and expensive process. The initiative has been very successful - in Hastings alone, a total of 79 rough sleepers were accommodated over the last year, and a further 19 at imminent risk of rough sleeping were kept off the streets.
But this won't end rough sleeping. We need to identify and deal with the problems that lead to rough sleeping before people end up on the street. Since 2010, there have been huge cuts to mental health and addiction support services, primarily through cuts to the county council's funding. But evictions from private rented properties have increased too, through the use of section 21 'no fault' evictions that allow landlords to evict tenants for no reason. Most people evicted though s.21 notices don't end up on the street - but some do.
Another reason for individuals ending up homeless, or rough sleeping, is because they can't find any accommodation they can afford. Many people in work are finding it hard to afford rents in Hastings now. For those out of work, with housing benefits at way below local rents, it's even worse.
So if the government is serious about preventing rough sleeping, it needs to go beyond one-off grants that only treat the symptoms, and properly deal with the underlying causes. We need to reinstate support services for those at risk, and we need much more genuinely affordable housing. That means social rented housing, with adequate grants provided to housing associations and councils to build them. We cannot depend on private developers to do this, as they'll argue that they can't fulfil their obligations to make small contributions to affordable housing because it's 'not viable'. And let's give powers to local authorities to seize all the sites around town that developers have abandoned - there are enough undeveloped sites with planning permissions on them in Hastings to provide 1,500 homes. Developed for genuinely affordable housing, that could make a big contribution to preventing homelessness and rough sleeping.
We need a government, and an MP, who understands these problems, and is prepared to put forward radical solutions. I hope Sally Anne Hart will be prepared to work with Hastings Council to support ideas that will end the scandal of rough sleeping and homelessness, once and for all.
Council Leader's column