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Burnham’s battle to end rough sleeping by 2020 – can he do it?

Andy Burnham’s pledge to end rough sleeping by 2020 played a large part in the campaign which saw him become the Mayor of Greater Manchester ten months ago. Burnham inherited a growing homelessness and housing crisis which has seen the level of rough sleeping rise 13-fold in Manchester since 2010, with the problem escalating quicker here than in other parts of the country.

The mayor is pulling together a team of committed organisations and implementing unique and experimental strategies to combat homelessness, but he is battling against national government policies that can only increase the rising tide of homelessness across the UK. So the question remains, as we approach his self imposed deadline, can Burnham end rough sleeping in Greater Manchester by 2020?

Burnham’s high profile as a former Labour government minister, along with his sixteen-year tenure as MP for Leigh, were key to his appeal and subsequent . success in a predominantly Labour-voting region. But it is perhaps his pledges to tackle homelessness and the housing crisis which struck a chord with voters increasingly concerned with the visibly rising levels of rough sleeping, or struggling themselves with the myriad issues making up the housing crisis and realising they might be one piece of bad luck away from being homeless.

In February 2017, prior to his election, Burnham told The Meteor if elected mayor he would be donating 15% of his salary to a new mayoral fund dedicated to tackling homelessness, and said:

“…housing will be a top priority for me… A secure place to call home is a basic human need but for thousands of people in Greater Manchester that is something they are having to live without.” He went on to say he would, “work with our councils, voluntary organisations, faith groups and businesses to ensure no one is forced to spend a night on the streets…

“We urgently need to start building more affordable homes, and we need a proper plan for where we build those homes that is sensitive to both the local environment and the needs of local communities.”

Andy Burnham rough sleeping

Andy Burnham doing a walk round of the city centre talking to rough sleepers. Source: Youtube screenshot.

During an emotive hustings in Salford leading up to election day, all the mayoral candidates caught flak from the audience, which contained members of the homeless and squatting communities of the city region. The people of Salford have good reason to be wary of and angered by politicians uttering platitudes. Salford scores highly on levels of deprivation in the UK and they have been harder hit than most by austerity driven cuts to social security and local services. Burnham attempted to assuage the palpable cynicism in the room by solidifying his promises, committing to “an affordable home for everyone, to rent or to own, with no one forced to sleep rough on our streets”. He proposed a five-point plan to deliver that promise:

  1. To build more council and social housing in all ten boroughs of Greater Manchester.
  2. Help more young people onto the housing ladder
  3. Introduce a scheme to regulate unscrupulous private landlords.
  4. Rewrite the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework rebalancing it away from building on green belt sites.
  5. End rough sleeping in GM by 2020.

The hard work begins

Since Burnham’s election on 4 May 2017, his ideas for tackling the rough sleeping problem have emerged and taken shape. His previously announced plans have been filled out with more detail and many completely new initiatives have been announced.

To help fill in these details the Greater Manchester Homelessness Action Network (GMHAN) was conceived to make the region’s response to the housing crisis stronger and more cohesive by incorporating the ideas and initiatives of all the different charities and organisations already tackling the homeless and housing crisis. City Centre Councillor Beth Knowles and MP Ivan Lewis were appointed to lead the work across GM. Burnham recently described the GMHAN as a “a plan people can get behind,” and went on to say we, “need to work towards the same goal, to maximize and pull in the same direction.”

The GMHAN has adopted a ‘Four R’s’ approach (Reduction, Respite, Recovery & Reconnection) and published a 37-point action plan which will be presented to the Greater Manchester Combined Authority by late March 2018 to be agreed upon and adopted.

The pledge to end rough sleeping in GM is qualified by Burnham saying, “by that I mean having enough provision in all communities so that everyone has somewhere to go at night that is safe and secure.” Increasing hostel beds is one main priority where there have already been developments in Manchester, with the aid of the local council, with the opening of three facilities: a winter homelessness shelter in Miles Platting, the 15 bed ‘Stop, Start, Go’ hostel in Cheetham Hill, and the Longford Centre, a 24/7 emergency accommodation centre in Chorlton. But these welcome additions, to capacity still leave many without shelter, Burnham says: “as we know, it’s not enough because of the national trend, and we all need to do more.”

Aided by his mayoral powers over the GM Fire & Rescue Service, Burnham is also pioneering the use of Fire Stations to act as extra temporary shelters for the homeless during freezing weather conditions. Local authorities already have a commitment to provide shelter for rough sleeping people under the Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP), for which the minimum trigger was a forecast of three consecutive nights below freezing. The mayoral team has introduced a new trigger for emergency shelter provision which reduces this trigger to one night below freezing, which they claim is a national first. In total the Mayor’s office say they have made an extra 1000 emergency beds available as part of their cold weather plan.

Homeless people have also been granted free access to identification documents in the Greater Manchester area, so they can now get signed up to a GP without a fixed address. These documents can help them in securing housing and enable quicker access to medical attention while also reducing the strain on overstretched A&E departments.

Andy Burnham rough sleeping

Andy Burnham speaking with Joshua Ennis (who has experienced being homeless) at Centrepoint. Source: The Meteor

The rising tide laps at the Mayor’s feet

The rough sleeping figures released in January showed a rise of 42% across GM in the last year, which outstripped the national figure at 15%. The news was a serious setback to the Mayor’s plan, providing an increasingly steep hill to climb to achieve his goal by 2020. On the day the figures were released Burnham carried out one of his regular tours of the city centre talking to rough sleepers. He then visited Centrepoint in Manchester to talk to young homeless people helped by the charity. He described his walkabouts talking to rough sleepers as a sobering experience:

“I would say it is a humanitarian crisis: people are really suffering, even dying on our streets, so when is the world going to wake up and do something more, particularly when is the government going to do more?… It’s time for a much bigger national debate about what we as a society are going to do to ensure every person has a roof over their head every night; in my view that is a basic human right and it shouldn’t be something people are without in 2018.”

Backlash against the homeless

The rapidly increasing levels of homelessness across the UK are increasing tensions between the homeless community and certain businesses which see begging and rough sleeping as negatively affecting their trade. While local authorities are increasingly concerned about the negative image portrayed of their towns and cities, and their abilities to deal with the problem. In Rochdale a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) has been introduced meaning beggars (many are homeless) can be fined and moved on by police. A Rochdale councillor also suggested similar measures should be introduced in Manchester City Centre. The case of the Conservative leader of Windsor’s local authority demanding the use of legal powers by police to remove homeless people from the area before the royal wedding, brought the growing problem to a national focus. During the Centrepoint visit Burnham’s response to this increasing move to criminalise homeless was:

“I don’t want to see people criminalised on the streets through no fault of their own. But everyone has got to take responsibility for their own actions so if they are threatening other people on the street or intimidating people, that is not acceptable, and that should be dealt with in my view in the normal way. Being homeless doesn’t excuse that behaviour.

“No, I don’t want to see people criminalised – if the police are using tactics that are wrong then of course I will raise those issues. We are not going to adopt the Windsor approach here, let me put it that way; we are adopting the approach of helping people turn their lives around.”

Increasing homelessness in Manchester has also increased the number of squatters, (many of whom identify as homeless) putting a roof over their heads by occupying empty commercial buildings in and around the city centre. The Corner House, the Addy in Hulme and above the BetFred shop off Albert Square, are three recent high profile examples. During evictions from these premises the squatters have made accusations claiming heavy handed behaviour and abuse from the security teams evicting them. The accusations include security guards wearing intimidating balaclavas, saying they are from security firms that do not exist, squatters not being given a chance to regain their possessions (which are dumped in skips), evictions carried out at 4am, and threats of violence towards the squatters.

Burnham made it clear that it was not directly under his control how owners managed their premises, and went on to say:

“Obviously, I would share people’s concerns about people’s belongings being dumped and that kind of thing. That doesn’t feel to me to be acceptable, and I would ask anybody who is employing those organisations, that they think about that and they work to basic humane standards… it is obviously something that they need to give regard to.”

Challenges from government policy

Burnham admits that “the problem is getting worse,” but he claims that Greater Manchester’s response to the problem is getting better. He lays much of the blame at the feet of government, with cuts to local authority budgets and changes to social security being major factors in increasing homelessness.

Manchester City Council has had to make huge cuts to its budget due to the government’s discredited austerity agenda. In 2016-17 the yearly net revenue budget for Manchester stood at £530 million. But from 2011-12 the council has had to cut a staggering total of £336 million from this budget. The 2016-17 budget without these cuts would stand at around £866 million, so the current figure of £530 million is equivalent to a 39% drop in its budget.

The council has had to slash the proposed budgets for many services, including Housing Services. This division of council service provides support for those who are already homeless, including rough sleepers, and provides housing welfare to prevent vulnerable people becoming homeless. For 2009-10 the proposed Housing Services budget for Manchester stood at £67.5 million, which saw a drop of £50 million or 74% to £17.5 million by 2016-17.

The cuts and changes to social security widely acknowledged to be increasing homelessness include the Bedroom Tax, Local Housing Allowance, removal of housing benefit for certain under-21’s, benefit caps, freezes & sanctions and the introduction of Universal Credit.

Citing the government’s apparent refusal to halt the roll-out of Universal Credit, and the removal of housing credit for 18-21 year olds as examples, Burnham said at Centrepoint, “I’m terrified actually… it could be for every one [person] we manage to take off, the government might be putting two more people on the streets.”

Housing First & Finances

Adoption of the Housing First approach is key to Burnham’s plan to end rough sleeping. The innovative approach, proven to be effective in numerous studies, basically gives entrenched rough sleepers a secure tenancy with wrap around support for any issues, such as mental health or substance abuse, that the person may have (see here and here). Initial provision for around 200 people already provided by the mayoral team was recently announced to be expanded to provide housing for up to 500 people across GM.

Delivered by the Greater Manchester Homes Partnership, the Housing First scheme will be funded partly through the use of a £1.8million Social Impact Bond (SIB). These bonds, made available through private finance, only pay back dividends to investors if an agreed level of social impact is achieved, but could potentially cost 25% more than regular payment by results contracts.

The mayor’s Housing First approach got a welcome £7million financial boost from central government, enabling its expansion over the next three years. The money is Manchester’s share of the £28 million promised during the 2017 Autumn Budget to finance Housing First pilots across the UK.

The Mayor’s Homelessness Fund, to which Burnham contributes 15% of his salary has reached more than £135,000 with the help of contributions from concerned organisations and individuals. It has funded a variety of projects including the new shelter in Cheetham Hill. Homelessness Trailblazer funding of £3.8 million has also been secured from central government.

The mayoral funding specifically for combating homelessness adds up to £12.74 million, but this has to be spread over the ten boroughs of GM. This does not compare favorably to the £50 million annual cut (74%) to Housing Services in Manchester, with the nine other authorities in GM also implementing similar cuts to their budgets.

Alleviating the symptoms and treating the cause

Much of Burnham’s work to date has been trying to alleviate the ‘symptoms’ of homelessness by helping homeless people into accommodation. But to ‘cure’ homelessness you have to stop people being kicked out into the streets in the first place, and that includes addressing housing crisis issues.

The number one cause of homelessness in GM and across the UK is now eviction from private rented accommodation, often using Section 21 eviction notices AKA ‘no-fault’ evictions. Burnham has confirmed his commitment to a Greater Manchester Good Landlords scheme, which he acknowledges will be flawed due to being a voluntary scheme, but will at least create a list of landlords prepared to sign up to a set of basic standards and highlight those that will not.

Burnham’s wings are clipped when it comes to many aspects of policy. He cannot force landlords into his scheme, he cannot force the hand of the ten individual council borough leaders needed to approve any GM wide policies he puts forward, and a rift between Burnham and Sir Richard Leese (leader of MCC) has  formed over which strategies are best to tackle housing and homelessness. He also cannot change national government policy but vocally criticises it at every opportunity; something that GM council leaders have failed to do effectively.

Speaking at the recent GMHAN event and highlighting the need for ambitious long-term policies that combat homelessness and the housing crisis, Burnham pointed out that we need a plan that doesn’t just deal with the immediate housing crisis, but one that will also “make a significant change over the decade.”

Both the rewrite of the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (GMSF), a 20 year plan for land use in housing and business, and Burnham’s Town Centre Challenge are examples of this forward thinking.

The challenge puts the decision in the hands of each his local authorities to nominate a town centre, alongside the plans they would like to generate investment and regeneration there, with a view to rolling it out to other town centres once the precedent has been set. Burnham says:

“We need to build a new future for those towns through higher density mixed and affordable housing, with local retail and leisure facilities and supported by transport and digital connectivity.

“There is a massive housing requirement across the city-region and we must have a housing and planning policy which is based on housing need and regeneration, not just the number of units. We need to build the right homes in the right places.”

The GMSF rewrite has been placed in the hands of Paul Dennett, Salford City Mayor, who Burnham has tasked with tackling the housing crisis and ensuring affordable housing is available to all in GM. Dennett is also now responsible for the Greater Manchester Housing Fund, which was an initial £300 million offered to the new GM mayor as part of the devolution deal. The rolling fund, where money is lent out and paid back with interest, came under intense criticism for going to property developers building the pervasive high-rise luxury flats across the city centre region; with desultory amounts of affordable housing built in the developments and endemic avoidance of Section 106 payments, from developers to the councils involved. Dennett says:

“Refocusing the Greater Manchester Housing Fund GMHF as monies are recycled will be critical to building truly affordable housing within Greater Manchester and meeting housing needs.”

Burnham has said on numerous occasions that he wants to change the restrictions on the GMHF which prevent lending to housing associations and councils, to be able to build not just affordable housing (around 80% of market rate) but also social housing (around 60% of market rate), the current stocks of which are increasingly under threat. At Centrepoint the mayor said:

“…in terms of the threat to the existing stock through ‘Right to Buy’, well I’ve raised my concerns about that. I oppose any extension of ‘Right to Buy’ and I think it should be rolled back the other way. So, there is a limit in terms of what I can do, both in terms of the councils what they do, and the government’s got its own policies. But, what I can do, is to help is at a Greater Manchester level to provide incentives to build new homes for social rent… we need many more affordable homes for social rent across Greater Manchester if we are to tackle this crisis of housing and homelessness.”

The mayoral team have taken account of the 27,000 public responses that were received to the first draft of the GMSF, and plan to have the second draft published this June.

Can he do it?

Despite the evident challenges, Burnham remains positive that he will achieve his goal of eliminating rough sleeping by 2020. He told a press conference after the 42% rise in rough sleeping across GM had been announced:

“What I can do is make sure there is enough accommodation in every community so that everyone can have a roof over their head every night, and I think it is entirely possible to do that across Greater Manchester.”

But he is faced with a government that is cutting away huge chunks of local authority budgets, traditionally responsible for housing issues, while handing back scatterings of crumbs in the form of government grants to tackle homelessness.

As Manchester shakes off the icy grip of Siberian weather, there is little doubt that the mayor’s work can reduce the misery of homelessness in GM, and if he does fail to meet his pledge it will not be due to a lack of ideas, planning or effort. His biggest challenge is likely to come from the government-imposed funding cuts that are increasing poverty and contributing to the complex causes of homelessness. Only time will tell if his still-developing strategy will be able to overcome this and eliminate rough sleeping by 2020.

 

James KA Baker

Part of ‘The Meteor Explores: Homelessness in Manchester‘ series. The rest can be reached by clicking here

If you would like to find help for people who are homeless, and see what you can do to help, check out: www.streetsupport.net

Featured image: Youtube screenshot

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