Homelessness: Rough sleeping in Bristol is up over 1200% in five years

Protesters demand the Macmillan government of the early 1960s tackle the country's homelessness problem. Image: Keystone/Getty.

Recently, Keep Bristol Warm relaunched with a new look website to help raise awareness about the city’s growing homelessness problem. “Homelessness [in Bristol] is on the rise for sure,” the group’s founder Gavyn Emery tells me. “More needs to be done at the point of nearly being homeless to stop people actually becoming homeless.

“There is no quick fix, but if Keep Bristol Warm can help while they are on the streets, then at least we are doing our bit to help at there all time low.”

Homelessness – not unlike Boris Johnson – is one of those problems that just won’t go away. In fact, not unlike the former mayor of London, it’s a problem that seems only to be growing over time.

After four years of George Ferguson – until May, Bristol’s elected mayor, and a man seemingly more obsessed with parking than the plight of the homeless – homelessness in the city has increased dramatically. In the last three years alone, the homeless population has increased by 90 per cent.

Councils including Derby, Slough, Kensington and Watford have seen significant decreases in the number of homeless people sleeping rough on their streets. In Bristol, though, the number of registered rough sleepers increased from eight in 2010, to 97 in 2015 – an increase of over 1200 per cent. Some 330 families are now in temporary accommodation.

While Ferguson argued that the solution was to get people working, it’s impossible to ignore the 18 per cent rise in rent that Bristol tenants experienced in 2015 alone. The only British city to suffer higher rent increases was Brighton.

But things may be starting to change for the better. A new cabinet put together by new Labour (though not necessarily New Labour) mayor Marvin Rees has pledged to tackle the city’s housing crisis head on. Councillor Paul Smith, the new cabinet member for homes and communities, says housing will be top of the new administration’s agenda. 

“What we’ve seen is a lot of private landlords wanting to benefit from increased rent levels. To do that, many have pushed out their existing tenants who can’t afford those levels of rent,” Smith explains.

The key, he says, is to increase the supply of affordable housing – but that has been made tremendously more difficult by the Housing and Planning Act. “So, as a cabinet member, I’ve taken all of our land for housing off the market so that we can develop it ourselves, with partners. That way we can ensure affordable renting and social housing as well.”

Smith is also keen to address the fact that 550 of the city’s council properties are currently sitting empty – more than enough to house Bristol’s rough sleeping and homeless populations combined. “We are looking at a program to bring our empty properties back into use – most of them as council housing.

“If they’re empty we aren’t earning any rent on them, we aren’t earning any council tax on them and we are also paying for people to be in temporary accommodation,” he concludes. “Financially, it’s just madness.” 

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Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.