The Southend Echo apologises

Page 18 of today's newspaper

Page 18 of today’s newspaper

Where housing benefit really goes

A press release from GMB union last week stated: HUGE PAYMENTS FOR HOUSING BENEFIT IN EAST OF ENGLAND SHOWS LANDLORDS ARE THE REAL WINNERS FROM BRITAIN’S WELFARE SYSTEM. Amongst the statistics that accompanied this release were the following, directly relevant to everyone in south Essex:

• Regis Direct Plc – £725,000 from Southend, £24,000 from Rochford. Donated £7,900 to Conservatives in 2008.
• Thorney Bay Park Ltd – £1.45m from Castle Point. Donated £3,000 to conservatives in 2001.
• Horwood, PACE plc – £596,000 from Southend, £12,500 from Rochford
• Martin & Co – Letting Agents, £3.1m from 20 districts nationally. £484,000 from Southend and £19,000 from Rochford
• Hopson Property Management Ltd – £761,000 from Southend
• The Letting Shop – £136,000 from Colchester and £29,000 from Chelmsford
• Northwood – National lettings Agency getting over £2.3m nationally. £251,000 from Milton Keynes, £162,000 from Chelmsford

I oppose the housing benefit cap because, whatever the intentions, its actual consequence is to drive the poor out of expensive areas. The effects of this are being felt in Southend as Londoners seek to escape over-priced and unaffordable accommodation costs.

Tenants do not get housing benefit – it goes straight to landlords. Despite what some of the headlines may imply, no-one on welfare is being made rich by housing benefit. There are those who are coining it in – the landlords. I think there is a problem here, and the solution is not the cap. The solution lies ultimately in the need for affordable housing, which can only be met with a vigorous house-building program.

There are 16,439 private rented households in Southend-on-Sea. 10,282 (62.5%) are in receipt of housing benefits.

Councillor landlords

Every councillor has to complete a Register of Members’ Interest form. These are stored for inspection online at http://www.southend.gov.uk/downloads/download/794/the_register_of_members_interests.

These forms are completed so as to counter any allegations of bias in our proceedings. (Interests are also separately notified at each meeting for individual agenda items).

I have a particular interest in rental properties – Milton has the highest rental sector of any ward in the borough of Southend-on-Sea.

Anyway, in discussions about landlords, development, HMOs, etc., it is pertinent how the following question is answered: Any land in your authority’s area in which you have a beneficial interest.

The following councillors are multi-property owners:

Independent
Brian Ayling
Marimuthu Velmurugan

Liberal Democrat
Mary Betson (spouse)

Conservative
Maria Caunce
David Garston
Jonathan Garston
Stephen Habermel
Roger Hadley
Georgina Phillips (spouse)
Ian Robertson (spouse)
Lesley Salter

I wanted a response, I got a response; reassurances about policing the homeless

I was quite taken aback by an article in last week’s Yellow Advertiser and I wrote to the Essex Police and Crime Commissioner as a result. My letter is here.

I received this response:

Dear Cllr Ware-Lane
Thank you for drawing my attention to the article in the Yellow Advertiser about homelessness in Southend.
You might want to know that I discussed the matter promptly with the Chief Constable of Essex Police, and I understand that he has written to the editor of the Yellow Advertiser to ensure the position of the force is not misunderstood.
I’ve personally talked with several Southend officers and I know that they have a sympathetic understanding of the challenges of homelessness.
I think it’s important that homeless people are treated respectfully and professionally by police and partner agencies, and I have stated this publicly in my latest blog piece for our website.

http://www.essex.pcc.police.uk/2014/02/working-with-everyone-in-our-communities/

Working with everyone in our communities
I’m very proud to be Police and Crime Commissioner for Essex: we live in a diverse and vibrant county where many different communities and groups live side by side, generally in a spirit of respect and compassion.
There has recently been some publicity about police and partner initiatives working with homeless people in Southend.
People become homeless for a variety of reasons, most often not by choice. Family breakdown, loss of a job, sometimes a mental health problem such as an episode of severe depression or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after military service – there are many factors and types of vulnerability that can lead to a life on the streets. These same factors and others can also lead to the misuse of alcohol and drugs which sometimes can add to the challenges of homelessness.
I am pleased that Essex Police is working closely with Southend Borough Council, the Homeless Action Resource Project (HARP), with charities and mental health associations, and with the Southend Multi-Agency Anti-social behaviour Response Team (SMAART) to provide support to homeless people. Sometimes police officers will need to act to enforce the law or prevent crime from happening, and sometimes officers can and do help individuals find support to improve their lives with partner agencies and charities.
Homeless people often find themselves in vulnerable situations, and can be victims of crime. For those who may be suffering with mental health problems, I note that a pilot project is currently being run across south Essex involving specialist mental health nurses working alongside police officers to provide early support and intervention. I welcome this initiative, and have asked for evidence of its impact to be gathered and compared with the experience in north Essex which is not part of the pilot project.
We live in a great county, where Essex Police and partner agencies are doing their utmost to keep our communities and businesses safe whilst also offering support to some of the most vulnerable amongst us.

——————————-

Thank you again for raising this matter with me.
Yours sincerely
Nick Alston, Police and Crime Commissioner for Essex

My letter to Nick Alston, Essex PCC

I have written to Nick Alston, Police and Crime Commissioner for Essex, following an article in the Yellow Advertiser. Here is what I have written:

Nick

I am a little unsettled by a report in this week’s Southend Yellow Advertiser, which quotes PC Martin Knight. (All vagrants are either ‘druggies or alcoholics’)

Firstly I must put it on record that I consider the Police I encounter in my role as a Southend-on-Sea Borough councillor do an excellent job in difficult circumstances.

I take exception to this report, which seeks to label the homeless as all causing anti-social behaviour and crime.

The quotes in the article are some way from the reality I have seen. All rough sleepers do not have substance abuse issues, although I accept that many do. Whilst some choose the streets live on, the vast majority are there not through choice.

In my experience, albeit limited (and I do defer to experts, like Shelter) there are many reasons for homelessness. Some are poor, some lose their jobs, some are evicted from their homes. Divorce and separation figure amongst the reasons people are forced to sleep rough, as do mental health issues. Some are escaping abuse. It is a far from simple picture, and the glib explanation that all who are vagrant “choose to live on the streets and take drugs and drink alcohol” is misleading. It is also harmful.

Some of the homeless acquire substance issues because of being homeless – it is a symptom of their homelessness rather than the reason. Many rough sleepers encounter violence and articles like this, in my opinion, help legitimise this.

I do receive complaints from residents about begging and anti-social behaviour caused by some in the homeless community, and the Southend Police do a good job in dealing with this. I take a zero-tolerance approach to this. But to label all who are ‘vagrant’ in the way described by PC Knight is plain wrong.

I hope you will be able to tell me that the article misquotes Essex Police. I hope you can also assure me that the Police in Southend will continue to do the fine job in treating the homeless with respect that all deserve. Homelessness is a growing issue, and we should be looking for solutions rather than stigmatising the most vulnerable in our community.

Sincerely

Julian

The bedroom tax in Southend-on-Sea – an update

I have unearthed some more numbers, so I thought it worthwhile to have a recap.

There have been no evictions to date owing to the bedroom tax .

The number of tenants who have moved on a voluntary basis due to the bedroom tax is currently 59.

There have been fourteen cases of people moving owing to the bedroom tax who did so because of rent arrears.

Currently there are 350 SBC tenants impacted on by the bedroom tax.

In terms of the current number of smaller properties available, as at this week these are :

24 bedsits/one bed properties
7 two bed properties

Southend HMO statistics

An inspection of the HMO Licences Register shows the following distribution across the Borough of Southend-on-Sea (number by ward):

25 Milton
15 Kursaal
11 Chalkwell
3 Westborough
2 Leigh
2 Victoria
1 Prittlewell
1 Southchurch
1 Thorpe

There is a total of 61 Houses of Multiple Occupancy in the borough, 40% of which are in my ward. Of course, these are the official figures – I suspect that there are a number of unlicensed HMOs across the borough, and it is anyone’s guess as to the numbers of these.

When I complain about plans for new HMOs in my patch from now on I will be using these statistics to back up my arguments.

A sea of troubles

Last night I paid a visit to Chalkwell Park Methodist Church. It was a listening and learning exercise. I went to see for myself the work of the churches who cater for Southend’s homeless during the cold winter months. There are seven churches who operate a scheme where each has a day in the week allocated, and on this day they feed and allow twenty to thirty of the homeless to have somewhere warm and dry to sleep.

These night shelters may not be literal life savers (although it never ceases to amaze me how the homeless cope with the temperatures at this time of year) but it does offer succour to those in most desperate need.

Every story is unique. Sometimes the homeless are the engineers of their own misfortune, more often they are victim to the cruellest slings and arrows of outrageous misadventure. I have always counted myself as very lucky; I see all sorts of people with setback, mishap, sorrow, or woe visited on them and can easily see myself in a similar situation.

The people I met with last night may not be a representative example of the homeless, my experience here is so limited that I am unable to pass anything resembling an informed opinion. I can say that those I did speak with cover a range of ages (from those in their twenties to those close to pensionable age). I met people from both sexes, people with a history of employment, home ownership, families. I also met people with a history of substance abuse and those with mental health issues. I met those new to homelessness, as well as those with more experience in this area.

There was a number of factors common to all I spoke with. There was an absence of rancour, a wish for help, everyone was articulate, gentle in manner, and grateful that a politician had wanted to listen to their stories, hear of their concerns, and register their thoughts about what could be done.

There was a sense of collective support, of quiet resignation, of gratitude to the churches for what they were doing, and I was always amazed at the matter of fact way they told of how they were made homeless. If I had been ejected from my home on the most spurious of grounds I would have been angry, yet I did not detect this in those for whom this was a part of their story.

My naivety came through when told of how recovery addicts were often given freebies by dealers eager to see them hooked again. I was shocked to hear of assaults and all sorts of indignities visited on those force to sleep on the streets; stories of being kicked by young drunk revellers, being urinated on, having their few possessions stolen, of rape and assault. Of course, some of the homeless can be pretty unpleasant, but then these are often people with mental health conditions who should be being looked after, not left to fend for themselves in the direst of circumstances. The homeless speak of boredom, of being forgotten or ignored, of being at the very bottom rung of society, yet they do look ahead and dream of a return to normalcy (and I accept that for some this will be a pejorative phrase).

I felt humbled, wondered what I could do to help. I also felt guilty; I left the night shelter after just over two hours and returned to my central heated comfort.

A big thank you to Tony, John, Glyn, Vivienne, Geoff, Julie, Darren, Paul, and others whose names I did not manage to record.

December’s Leigh and Westcliff Times article

I wrote the following for the December 17th edition:

I guess at one time I could have been described as an angry young man; now I am just angry. I write this as I hear the news of the death of Nelson Mandela, someone who never lost his ability to be angry at bad things, or his appetite for change. The one thing I think Mr Mandela taught us all was that we must confront prejudice in all its forms. Whilst white on black racism is rare nowadays, I do see other groups being picked out. The traveller community rarely gets an even-handed hearing, and those from Eastern Europe are also being stereotyped. I would hope that everyone would be treated as an individual and not pre-judged because of their ethnicity.

Our great country is still a wealthy one and we are rated sixth or seventh richest amongst all the nations of the world. Yet, today we are seeing increasing numbers of people living in poverty, increasing numbers without a home, and increasing numbers depending on food banks. This is against a backdrop of a society where the wealthiest are getting wealthier. This is not about the politics of envy; I have no truck with this. But it is about the politics of fairness. I do not blame the rich, something has got out of kilter in this country, and it is up to us all to change it. How have we got a place where those on benefits are stigmatised whilst those who avoid paying their taxes are lauded? No-one wants a return to over-aggressive tax regimes, but something has to be done otherwise social cohesion is threatened. We should encourage ambition and reward hard work, just as we should assist those who struggle, suffer bad luck or fall on bad times. There is such a thing as society, and it should be a good society – call it a big society if you like.

Housing issues are always tough ones for councillors. There is a shortage of social housing in the borough, hence the lengthy waiting list. I have spoken with residents who are overcrowded, those who live in unhealthy conditions, and those who are homeless. The homeless number more than those sleeping rough; their number include those temporarily house in hostels and bed and breakfast accommodation as well as those condemned to sofa surfing. The austere times we find ourselves in are affecting almost all of us, and those who subsist on the most meagre of resources are facing difficult decisions. Eat or heat is a real choice for the very poor. This town has some of the poorest and most deprived areas in the region, and these are largely found in or near the town centre. The challenge for me and for other councillors who represent town centre wards is to somehow mend this situation. I have no simple or glib solution other than to say that I will continue to fight for what I see as social justice. I am grateful to the local churches who offer a decent meal and warm shelter to those on the streets during the winter months – an example of the good society in action. I wonder, though, why the council is not playing a bigger role in helping those in the greatest need.

I do not doubt the need for development, there is a shortage of social and affordable housing. However, I do challenge the notion that the town centre wards should bear the greatest burden in this regard. I also wonder why our town has so many empty properties – above regional and national averages. So many empty homes at a time when homelessness is on the rise gives more than a hint at a disconnect somewhere. One wishes that government, either local or national, would step in to reclaim some of the long-tern empty properties and put them to use accommodating the homeless as well as the families stuck in overcrowded homes whilst waiting their turn on a housing list.

The town centre has a large rental sector – 50% of all properties in Milton ward. I see many examples of good landlords; unfortunately I see more examples than I care to of run-down properties and what must come pretty close to squalor. This has consequences beyond what sub-standard living accommodation must do to those who live there. Quite often these properties are not just untidy inside, they are untidy outside with associated collections of rubbish and unwanted furniture and furnishings. These make some areas look quite scruffy and gives me much to deal with.
Aside from the perennial nightmare that is town centre parking, litter is the biggest subject of my postbag. Litter, parking, and overcrowding are all features of a planning regime that appears content to cram the town centre. A cursory glance at planning applications will tell you that more and more flats are being created in the town centre. Whilst I welcome the creation of more accommodation, I am aghast at where this is being sited. The centre of Southend already has high indices of deprivation, levering in yet more residents will only make this bad situation worse.

Two more empty homes

54 Heygate Avenue

54 Heygate Avenue

64 Heygate Avenue

64 Heygate Avenue

64 Heygate Avenue has been empty for three and a half years (at least). Number 54 has been empty for seven years or longer. Both could accommodate the homeless, although both may need some remedial work to bring them up to standard (I have not seen inside of either).

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