When will the Tories accept that, to end homelessness, you need homes?

Sleeping rough in London. Image: Getty.

A Labour councillor writes...

When it comes to housing, the Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto is scant on detail. But buried deep within there is a clear pledge to “end the blight of rough sleeping by the end of the next Parliament by expanding successful pilots and programmes such as the Rough Sleeping Initiative and Housing First, and working to bring together local services to meet the health and housing needs of people sleeping on the streets”. What’s more, there is a plan to fund all this by “bringing in a stamp duty surcharge on non-UK resident buyers.”

This gives the government 1,535 days to end street homelessness. It is without doubt a worthy ambition. But it’s one that does not acknowledge that government policy over the past decade has caused the number of people bedding down on the streets each night to rocket: in England it spiralled from 1,768 people in Autumn 2010 to 4,677 people in Autumn 2018, according to the government’s own figures

A benefits system that’s becoming impossible to navigate, particularly the cap on local housing allowance that means some areas have quite literally no privately rented homes available to those claiming housing benefit, is causing street homelessness. The fact that so many are denied the help they need because of the callous No Recourse to Public Funds policy also plays its part. 

Amidst all this turmoil, local authorities have tried their best. In Islington we have appointed an in-house Rough Sleeping Coordinator who oversees all of our work, and our outreach team do joint shifts with a range of brilliant partner groups in the borough, including those specialising in help with substance abuse, medical support, and assisting with the specific issues that female rough sleepers face. We were also proud to support local groups in setting up the Hornsey Road Solidarity Homeless Shelter. Local businesses from Hornsey Road Traders Association also provided some money for the initiative. 

We also piloted a Housing First programme with five of our own council homes. Born in New York in the 1990s and rolled out nationally in Finland, Housing First offers an unconditional home to vulnerable rough sleepers together with a package of wrap around support. Most recently, we are proud to be part of the new homeless shelter now operating at the former Holloway Prison Visitors’ Centre. 

But none of this is easy at a time when councils like Islington are dealing with a 70 per cent cut in their core government funding over a decade. So let’s assume just for a moment that in the forthcoming Autumn budget and in budget days to come, that the tap is turned on so that all local authorities have ample funds to spend on homeless outreach and particularly on Housing First programmes. With Housing First the clue is in the name – in order to work it requires a supply of housing. Put simply, the government’s plan does not acknowledge the primary reason for homelessness: a lack of genuinely affordable homes. 

To solve that, we need to build lots more genuinely affordable homes for social rent. Government spending on building new homes actually fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP. The grant that councils can obtain to build new homes generally doesn’t cover any more than a third of the build costs. There is just one mention of council housing in the Conservative manifesto, and it refers to a pledge to maintain the right to buy policy, which continues to decimate the number of council homes available. There is no lack of political will in local authorities to build council homes – but the government needs to stop stacking the system against us.

Without a change in government attitude and policy towards council and social housing, homelessness will continue to rise. But even more concerning is that the government actually seems intent on building even fewer social rent homes. The new flagship First Homes policy suggests that homes for sale discounted by up to £100k will be built through s106 planning agreements. In Islington we have some of the toughest planning policies in the country, requiring all developments of over ten homes to be 50 per cent genuinely affordable, including 35 per cent homes for social rent. 

It’s a policy that we are not afraid to enforce and on the Parkhurst Road case, where a developer tried to argue that they couldn’t comply because they had paid too much for their site, we took it all the way to the High Court and won. A postscript to the judgment sets out that future guidance from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) should make clear that developers shouldn’t seek to mitigate high purchase prices by reducing social housing numbers.

So any forthcoming legislation that requires planning agreements to focus on discounted homes for sale will mean that fewer homes for social rent are built and, ultimately, lead to more homelessness. 

On the available evidence, it would appear that the promise to end rough sleeping is doomed to failure without a fundamental change in the direction of government policy. I am happy to be proved wrong in the next 1,535 days. But it’s time to get a move on. 

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington. 


How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 

Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first

On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them

A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.