London’s homelessness crisis is a national embarrassment. It's time to act

A rough sleeper in London's West End. Image: Oli Scarff/Getty.

A Labour member of the London Assembly on the capital’s growing homelessness crisis.

Before Christmas, my colleague Jennette Arnold and I joined the St Mungo’s Broadway homelessness team on one of their regular outreach sessions across the London Borough of Islington. It was a very informative experience, and the utter dedication of the people in the sector and the kindness with which they approach their job is always incredibly humbling.

But rough sleeping has been getting worse in London over recent years. In the year before Boris Johnson was elected mayor, around 3,000 people were seen sleeping rough in the capital. This has more than doubled to over 7,500 last year, despite the mayor’s pledge in 2008 to end rough sleeping by the time of the London Olympics.

To a degree, this rise in the recorded number of people sleeping rough is explained by the improved outreach from charities such as St Mungo’s Broadway and others, who have so brilliantly led the response to rough sleeping in this city. But fundamentally, it is recognised that we have seen a major increase in the number of people finding themselves on the street.

When quizzed about the rise in homelessness recently Boris Johnson put blame for his failure to end rough sleeping down to the increase in EU migrants. Look at the figures, though, and while there has been a significant increase in European rough sleepers, at the same time the number of UK nationals sleeping rough on London’s streets has also almost doubled (up 88 per cent) since Boris became mayor.                                                        

It is not just a problem of having too few homes

That meant over 1,500 more British citizens sleeping rough on London’s streets last year compared to when Boris took office. Clearly the mayor would have people believe that the only reason rough sleeping is rising is the EU. That’s just not the case and should be no excuse for Boris’ approach of burying his head in the sand.

Tackling the root causes behind rough sleeping is crucial, but it's not easy. What is instantly obvious when you meet people sleeping rough is that this problem cannot be solved if it is viewed simply through the narrow prism of housing policy. It is not just a problem of having too few homes. The response needs to be multifaceted.

One man we met at a No Second Night Out centre had ended up sleeping rough after he lost his job and was subsequently sanctioned by the benefits office, missed his rent payments and was evicted by his landlord. A political discourse which brands people “benefits scroungers” is contributing to the dehumanisation of people who have fallen on hard times and, yes, who have sometimes made mistakes. But should the price of missing a meeting at a JobCentre appointment really be sleeping on the streets?

Another, a refugee of the oppressive regime in Eritrea, is working, but now lives on the streets. We took him to one of the No Second Night Out Centres, and he is now hopefully on a path to getting permanent accommodation.

We met a number of others, some of which are experiencing drink, drug and mental health problems. People with complex health and social needs require rehabilitation if we truly want to ensure that they are able to reintegrate into society, and fulfil their potential.

While not indicative of most people living on the streets, it is perhaps surprising that a small number have made an active choice to live there. A Romanian man I met works to provide for his wife and four children back home, sleeping on the streets in order to cut down on his outgoings and send more money home. It’s a level of commitment to his family that in some respects is hugely admirable, but ultimately he needs to know that putting himself in such a dangerous situation is not acceptable. The average age of death for a person sleeping rough is just 47 years. Voluntarily putting yourself in such a position is life threatening.

The people we met in just one night demonstrate that there is no typical rough sleeper. Our policy responses have to reflect that.

In my view, the mayor has a mixed record on rough sleeping. Undoubtedly, the No Second Night Out initiative, and the infrastructure that exists to support it, will be Boris’ greatest legacy on homelessness when he steps down in May. It has genuinely been a positive and proactive attempt to tackle the problem.

However, the figures don’t lie, and the action being undertaken by the mayor is clearly insufficient to meet the challenges that we face.

Firstly, while the mayor’s focus is on preventing people spending more than one night on the streets, we have still seen these numbers rising year-on-year – both in terms of people returning to the streets and those living there permanently. Since his target to end rough sleeping by 2012 was so woefully missed, it seems that the determination, leadership and innovation needed to address rough sleeping have drained away from City Hall.

From spending cuts to welfare reform, the mayor has pretty much given wholesale support to government policies that have made the problem much worse. We know that the amount of funding available from the boroughs to support those in housing crisis has fallen dramatically over recent years as this money is now being used to plug gaps in other essential services. This has starved many organisations of essential funding and led to a reduction in bed spaces across the capital.

Cuts to social security entitlements – when interacting with the higher housing costs in London – have also made it more difficult for people to move out of hostels and other supported accommodation and into stable housing, creating a backlog in many services that has made it more difficult to take people off the streets.

While I suspect any mayor would have struggled to drive down the numbers since 2010, Boris Johnson has brought forward some positive measures to deal with a problem while supporting policies that exacerbated it.

We need to take a much more holistic approach to the problem and to enable City Hall and its partners in the boroughs and third sector to take on far greater power to address rough sleeping. We also need to recognise that for many, this will require expensive, difficult and time consuming rehabilitation.

It is also likely that progress will not be linear. We therefore need a social security system that fully respects the different challenges that many face – particularly when it comes to issues such as sanctions and the requirements to seek employment immediately.

There is a stark but unavoidable choice here: either you invest significant funds in addressing the individual, complex needs of people who sleep rough, or you accept that they will probably always be on the streets. I hope we will choose the former.

It’s almost clichéd to say it, but the number of people sleeping rough in London should be considered a national embarrassment. We need City Hall to act, and a mayor who has the political will to tackle rough sleeping.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.

This article was previously published on our sister site, the Staggers.


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:

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: 

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.