The Bristol City Office – what’s it all about?

img-4122Yesterday saw the launch of the Bristol City Office, an idea that has been six years in the making. It’s an idea that seeks to address some of the challenges faced by the public sector, with ever decreasing budgets and reducing powers. It’s about partnership and collaborative governance, bringing organisations, individuals and budgets together to tackle the issues that we have failed to tackle before, where collaboration and joint working are essential, alongside the willingness to be creative and innovative. But why will this approach work when other attempts have failed and how is this different?

I’ve been involved in partnership working in Bristol for about 20 years now, and on the surface this could be seen as just another attempt to work together. I can hear the cynical voices already, questioning why this is needed: haven’t we done this before? not another partnership? more talk and no action, what’s the point? These are all questions I asked myself when I was invited to be involved in developing the concept for this thing called the “city office”. Why would it be any different this time?

This time I think the context is a key factor in why this might just work. For starters we have a different form of governance in the city, a directly elected mayor who can lead this  with greater power and greater visibility. We also have the ‘shadow of austerity’ across the whole of the public sector and local government in particular. The council in Bristol once again faces severe cuts that mean its ability to do anything beyond deliver on statutory services is massively reduced. That’s a big restraint when you are facing big problems in the city that can’t be solved without significant time and resource. We also have a history of partnership working in the city that has delivered change, with business, public and voluntary/community sectors coming together to make things happen. Bringing these elements together, in a new partnership approach, could provide the impetus needed to make a difference. At this meeting, and the one back in July, I saw an energy and positivity in the room that is often lacking. It feels different this time!

But what is this city office, how is it going to work and what will its focus be? 

The concept of the city office is about ‘place-based leadership’ bringing key stakeholders and organisations together from across the city to develop solutions to the issue that matter most, issues that to date we have failed to adequately address. It’s also about learning, experimenting and innovating, about not being too afraid of failure and being brave enough to take risks in order to find that set of solutions that do work. The city office is unique in its aim of changing the way we do things, by working together and applying collective resources to the challenges we face, by taking a truly ‘total place’ approach to city development.

It will operate at both a strategic and tactical level, bringing organisations together on project activities that deliver in the short and medium term as well as focusing on creating a shared vision for the future. The concept of additionally is critical here, all the projects and activity of the city office need to bring with them the ability to provide something extra as a result of working together, after all, why get involved if it will only deliver what you do already? So to begin with, two project task and finish groups have been set up to tackle the issues of homelessness and providing quality work experience to young people.

As current issues go street homelessness is one of those pretty much at the top of the agenda. We’ve seen a massive and visible increase in Bristol over the last few years, from less than 10 on any one night in 2012, to around 100 now (official figures). The reasons why any individual becomes homeless and ends up on the street are varied and often very complex, with many experiencing mental health problems or issues with drug and alcohol use. Solving the problem is complex, providing the accommodation and support services for those with the most complex needs is challenging. It’s certainly an area that needs different organisations to work together differently to provide solutions. It’s not just about providing a home, but for those with the most complex needs a ‘housing first’ approach may well provide the security and support they need to tackle the reasons they became homeless in the first place. Bringing the different agencies together that are involved in providing those services, to work together on an agreed joint approach may just help to provide the right solutions. I talk more about the ‘housing first’ approach in a previous blogpost. Homelessness will be the first issue to be addressed by the city office, with a call to action issued by Golden Key.

In addition to the project activity, the Mayor introduced the idea of a ‘Single Plan for Bristol‘, a strategic level shared vision for the future of the city, in a similar vein to the OneNYC Plan. A bold idea that has the potential to really make a difference to the key challenges we face as a city. It’s where the city office can bring people and organisations together to work collaboratively to set out a long term simple but ambitious vision with measurable and achievable short and medium term targets. It should be about addressing the root causes of problems and providing sustainable solutions, and not ducking the difficult issues. It’s where we can set out how we address the ‘big’ issues, like how we eradicate inequality and poverty in our city, providing something that everyone should be able to sign up to.

There’s a long way to go on developing the city office, how it works and what it does, but so far the signs are good, positive and the potential is definitely there to influence and create change. It’ll be interesting to see how it develops.

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What next for Bristol Housing?

IMG_1624You might wonder what there is left to say about housing in Bristol with all the debate that’s occurred over the last few months? We seem to have had all the main mayoral candidates talking about it, making promises and pledges in their manifestos and statements. We’ve also had it mentioned in media interviews and articles, as well as at hustings meetings across the board. But what about the housing hustings meeting itself, did anything different come up and were there any real solutions to our housing problems?

Overall there seemed to be a lot of common ground, with the five main candidates all agreeing that we need to build more homes and George Ferguson, the current Mayor, saying plans were in place to do just that. The Conservative candidate, Charles Lucas, constantly referred to the need to build more homes, whatever type or sector, just build, seemed to be his main answer to the housing crisis, alongside making it easier for developers to build by relaxing planning regulations – everyone agreed with the first part of this statement! There was also agreement over the need for some form of housing company to enable the council to build more homes, but quite what this looks like and how it will operate is less than clear at the moment.

IMG_1625George Ferguson expressed the view that we need to tear up the rulebook and be more creative. That’s why he’s set up the Bristol Homes Board, bringing partners from all sectors together to tackle Bristol’s housing problem. He also talked a lot about the Devolution Deal and how this would help to address housing issues. I have to say that I’ve read the deal and I still can’t quite see how it will make that much difference, assuming it’s finally approved by all our local councils, but apparently there’s something in there that will help deliver housing.

The Liberal Democrat candidate, Kay Barnard, seemed to have a bit of an issue with council staff and their lack of expertise/experience in certain areas. In answer to several questions she suggested the need for training, as staff at the council simply don’t have the skills to deliver more homes. Other issues she seemed keen on were the idea of creating an arms length company to deliver homes as has been used in Liverpool, Manchester and Sutton (I’ve yet to check what these look like). She also expressed concern that many housing schemes that have been delivered in Bristol have had little affordable housing included as part of the deal, in her words “the planners need to be tougher”.

From Tony Dyer, the Green Party candidate, we had a thoughtful response to many of the issues, with social and affordable housing taking centre stage and the need to build social houses for rent expressed clearly as a priority. Using council owned land to deliver better quality affordable housing was also a key concern, holding onto land and maintaining control a clear way forward (also expressed by Marvin Rees). Tony also mentioned the impact of government policy and how this has made it even harder for council’s to build social housing, at the same time as encouraging loss of council housing through the right to buy. This is why he is in favour of developing a Bristol Housing Company, to protect new and existing stock from being sold off, as well as to help develop new council homes.

Charles Lucas added to his comment about building more homes by flying in the face of national Tory policy and agreeing that this should be across all sectors, including building social housing for rent and increasing the council housing stock in the city. He also made clear that he thought the planning department was under-resourced, and that in order to attract developers into Bristol we need to have a more efficient planning response that makes it easier for developers.

Marvin Rees , the Labour Party candidate, set out his priorities as building more homes, keeping hold of council land and using the increase in value from development to build more homes. Homes and communities are at the top of Marvin’s agenda and he believes this should be an absolute priority now. Marvin also raised the point about choices, with limited budgets choices have to be made about where resources are spent, there’s money  and land that could have been used to deliver more homes but other priorities were clearly more important. Marvin talked about meetings he’d had with organisations who want to invest and build in Bristol but have found it too difficult, so they have gone elsewhere, illustrating the need for a culture change at the council. This claim was refuted by George, who suggested that it used to be an issue, but is less so now. 

All candidates agreed that the council needed to make the best use of council and other publicly owned land to deliver affordable housing in the city. How this is done and how you can break down the very considerable barriers that seem to exist was less clear from the debate. The intention is there, but we also heard from people in the audience involved in community led housing initiatives who have witnessed those barriers first hand, who claim dealing with the council is impossible, slow and ponderous to the extreme. There are communities in Bristol that have identified space for housing through their neighbourhood planning processes, spaces communities are willing to see developed, but which have stalled because of issues over land ownership, planning, and council commitment. What they see instead is the council selling off public land in their areas for private developers to build on with limited input from the community. What they would prefer is community led development, on sites identified by the community, where they have a real say over the type of housing, what it looks like and what facilities are needed alongside it. All these communities want is a commitment from the council to support a different way of doing things. Surely there must be scope for Bristol to do so much more in working with communities to make this happen?

The debate actually started with a question about homelessness which brings us back to why we need to build more homes, particularly affordable and social housing. Tony made the point that it is a disgrace that people sleep on the streets in a city like Bristol and he issued an apology on behalf of all politicians that not enough was being done to prevent homelessness. All candidates agreed it was unacceptable to have rough sleepers, whilst Marvin added to this and made the point that the homeless are not invisible, they do exist and we need to acknowledge that and rethink the way we think about housing. There are places doing more innovative work on homelessness, Bristol could do well to look at other examples of how to tackle the problem.

There was also a discussion about how to make the private rented sector (PRS) work better for people. Most of the candidates agreed with the Ethical Lettings Charter promoted by Acorn as part of their campaign promoting a new more ethical approach to renting a home in Bristol. Marvin talked about the need for a different set of tools to manage this form of housing, tools which are not currently available but are needed in this changing housing market where private rental is becoming increasingly more common. The Acorn campaign was formed because people believed the politicians and decision makers were not doing their job properly, they were not seen to be protecting tenants or using the powers they already have very effectively. Most agreed this should change.

What the housing hustings did illustrate well was that housing is a big issue, it’s an issue lots of people care about and it’s a political issue. On a Friday evening, on a bank holiday weekend, lots of people turned up to listen, heckle and support the discussion on “what next for Bristol housing”. The issues are obvious, the solutions are available, but somehow we’re not quite doing enough to make enough of a difference. The question is who will make that change and make things happen differently? Hopefully, we’ll know more after the election!

Bristol Mayoral Election – What about housing?

CcYfmnsWEAAKjbFWell, we’re almost there, the election is next week. It’s time to decide who will be the next directly elected Mayor of Bristol. With all 70 seats on the Council also up for election it looks set to be an interesting week. Hopefully this time the turnout will be higher and local people will be more engaged in having a say over who governs their city.

Over the last few months I’ve been looking closely at how housing policy has been discussed and debated publicly during the election process. At the beginning of this process it wasn’t clear quite what the political priorities would be and whether or not housing would feature as a key issue. But as time has progressed housing issues have certainly become a big part of the debate. Perhaps not surprising given the very real pressures people are feeling in relation to housing in Bristol.

The Bristol housing market looks something like this:

housing sectors

The statistics below will give you a feel for some of the housing problems Bristol faces:

  • house prices have increased by 29% over the last 10 years
  • private rents in the city increased by an average of 18% in 2015, the highest in the country (alongside Brighton)
  • 28% of privates homes fall beneath the decent homes standard
  • one of the highest increases in homelessness acceptances in the country
  • one of the highest rough sleepers figures in England
  • 2010-2015 only 1490 affordable homes built against need of at least 800/year
  • in the last few of years over 100 council houses per year lost to right to buy
  • in the 12 months prior to March 2014 just over 1200 new homes were delivered in Bristol but only 97 were affordable
  • between 2016-2036 Bristol needs 18,800 needs affordable homes, that’s 940/year

These figures make disturbing reading and really only provide a snapshot of the problem, but are nevertheless useful as background to the debate. I should point out here that the information for this blogpost is drawn solely from publicly available material produced in manifestos, action plans, websites, Facebook pages, hustings meetings and media interviews with the main candidates.

So with all this in mind, what are the mayoral candidates saying about housing? Well, I’ll break it down into 4 main policy areas and take these in turn: overall housing delivery, affordable/social housing, private rented sector, and homelessness, .

Firstly, on overall housing delivery, several of the candidates are making promises to build 8,000 new homes over the next 4 years, that’s 2,000 houses per year of which up to 2,800 will be affordable. This is broadly the commitment made by George Ferguson, Tony Dyer and Marvin Rees, with variations around the numbers of affordable homes (I’ll come back to that later). It is less clear what the Liberal Democrat and Conservative proposals are other than Charles Lucas identifying a priority to build more homes and Kay Barnard highlighting the need to ensure all brownfield sites are developed for new homes. So increasing the number of homes built is a priority for all of the main candidates, but what is missing from much of the discussion is just how they will achieve that. Detailed proposals on the policy changes needed are at this stage largely missing from the public documents. When challenged at some of the hustings meetings candidates have provided more information. In particular, there appears to be some agreement over the need to set up some form of arms length, council owned company to deliver affordable housing projects. Just what this means and how it would work is less clear, but examples are available from other cities where similar proposals have been made using different models, such as the Birmingham Municipal Housing Trust. The point here is about changing the role local councils play in increasing the supply of housing, through partnership and enabling roles rather than as sole deliverers. This was an important recommendation in the Elphicke-House Report produced last year which identified the need for local authorities to take responsibility for making development happen in their area.

The delivery of social and affordable housing also appears to be a priority for all the main candidates, some more explicitly than others. Here the focus is on affordable housing, often with no clear definition of what is meant by affordable, but with some making the distinction between the government’s definition of affordable and what is actually affordable to people in Bristol. There’s a real debate to be had here about what local authorities can actually do to increase the amount of affordable housing delivered in their area. With government policy squarely aimed at encouraging home ownership, the public and social rented sectors have taken a bit of a battering. Add to that the proposed extension of Right to Buy to housing association homes, the relaxation of planning S.106 agreements on affordable housing and the curbs on the ability of councils to borrow money to build new social homes and you begin to see that any commitments here are made with one hand tied behind your back. Just what can local authorities do to make a difference? Some of the suggestions include looking at alternative forms of housing, like self-build and cooperative housing, modular build and pre-fabricated housing, as a means of delivering more affordable housing. There are definitely options for more work in this area. Bristol, once upon a time, led the way in self-build, but has sadly fallen behind many others places now as support from the council has reduced and development has become more competitive. I wrote a piece for the Bristol Cable on alternative housing as an option, you can read it here.

The private rented sector as a provider of housing in Bristol has become ever more important over recent years, now providing 24% of homes in the city. This in itself brings with it a number of concerns and issues, such as security of tenure, affordability and quality of provision. All these are concerns in Bristol, as they are in many other cities and towns, where the need to find cheap, affordable housing drives individuals and families into renting unfit accommodation, living in overcrowded conditions, and living in fear of eviction. There is little control over the Private Rented Sector (PRS) and little the council can do to regulate price and quality, and what control they do have is often not fully implemented. As a result of concerns about PRS provision in certain areas of the city, a trial scheme was implemented in Easton and Lawrence Hill, where discretionary licensing was introduced for landlords. This scheme is being rolled out slowly into other areas of the city, enabling council inspections to ensure minimum standards are being met.

In response to issues highlighted by tenants, Acorn have established an Bristol Ethical Lettings Charter, which Bristol City Council have now supported, but this is still only voluntary. This Charter is a declaration of decency and a statement of intent, to help create a fair, professional and ethical private rental sector, it asks landlords and agents to commit to certain standards of security, cost and quality. George, Tony and Marvin all feature policies on improving the PRS, which include rolling out the Ethical Lettings Charter and introducing a landlord enforcement scheme. These priorities would certainly go some way to addressing the concerns of many tenants in the PRS. Giving voice to those tenants is also important, which is where Marks Out of Tenancy could help with their proposal for a website where you can rate your landlord or letting agent, a sort of TripAdvisor for the PRS.

The final issue for debate is homelessness, an increasing concern in Bristol, with more rough sleepers and declarations of homelessness than other cities outside of London. The response from candidates to the issue has been mixed, some don’t mention it, others identify it as an issue, but have few solutions. The ideas that have been mentioned include bringing empty homes back into use, increasing overall housing provision, providing more emergency shelters and providing more support for those who are homeless. Of course there are no easy solutions, people are homeless and sleeping rough for many different reasons and will need varying levels of support at different times to help them address their problems and issues. For those with complex needs there’s an interesting approach being used in the US and Canada which sees housing as a basic human right and seeks to provide immediate access to permanent housing for homeless people. Starting from that premise removes the need for those who are homeless/sleeping rough to go through support programmes and overcome addiction problems before they access decent housing, it starts with housing first, and has seen some significant success. There are different ways of addressing problems and there are some creative and successful approaches out there if only we would look beyond the norm.

Overall it is clear that housing features as a key priority for many of the mayoral candidates, but to date the level of debate has been disappointing, with few new or different solutions discussed. To some degree this is perhaps to be expected, with local government working within a difficult environment of cuts and central control. It’s also fair to say that most hustings meetings and debates have little time to get into the detail as they try to address a range of big topics with up to 13 candidates! I’m hoping the housing hustings taking place on Friday April 29th will provide a little more of that detailed discussion, where the ideas and solutions can be developed further.

Tackling Homelessness – let’s not reinvent the wheel

homelessIt’s difficult to stand back and watch what is happening with housing policy in England at the moment. The transition of the Housing Bill through the legislative process has been complicated, combative and confusing, with endless amendments and changes made along the way. Indeed we are still waiting to see the final outcome, but whatever happens there will be some fundamental changes to the way we do housing in this country.

Within this debate the plight of the homeless in our cities seems to have been somewhat lost, they are an inevitable consequence of our housing and welfare policy  as well as our inability to build enough homes over many decades. However, there is little by way of concrete policy change or real action to actually make a positive difference in this area. It seems we still need to research the issue and find out why people are homeless and how to help them. To this end, in December 2015 the government launched an inquiry into the causes of homelessness as well as the approaches taken by national and local government to prevent and tackle homelessness. Quite what the inquiry will come up with is unclear at the moment as is whether or not it will make any difference.

Perhaps we should be looking elsewhere to see how homelessness has been tackled successfully? We could learn some important lessons.

There’s an approach called ‘Housing First’ adopted in the US and Canada that starts from the premise that housing is a basic human right. This approach was first used in the early 1980s to provide housing for homeless people with multiple and complex needs. It starts from the basis that once you remove the chaos of homelessness then a person is better able to address and deal with the issues that led them to being homeless in the first place.

“Housing First is a consumer-driven approach that provides immediate access to permanent housing, in addition to flexible, community-based services for people who have experienced homelessness” (Canadian Housing First Toolkit)

It seems to me that this concept and approach is well worth revisiting. Instead of demonising and criminalising homeless people maybe we should be thinking about providing them with secure, permanent accommodation and the support they need to enable recovery and improve wellbeing, so they can re-integrate into society. Rather than making ‘housing readiness’ a condition for the provision on housing, it provides the housing first, alongside the support services, so recovery can take place in a secure environment.

The solution to homelessness has been clear for at least a decade: giving homeless people homes. According to a 2014 paper from the Canadian Homelessness Research Network, it could  actually be cheaper in the long term to provide permanent accommodation for homeless people than continue to support them whilst sleeping rough. The paper suggests that levels of homelessness in Canada come with an annual bill of $7 billion in emergency shelters, social services, health care, and law enforcement and judicial costs. Whilst a comprehensive housing strategy would cost taxpayers far less: $3.75 billion in 2015-16 and $44 billion over a decade.

“Studies have consistently shown that – in practice, and not just in theory – providing people experiencing chronic homelessness with permanent supportive housing saves taxpayers money” (National Alliance to End Homelessness)

Another study in Florida (2014) found that Florida residents pay $31,065 per chronically homeless person every year they live on the streets. However, it would cost taxpayers just $10,051 per homeless person to give them a permanent place to live and services like job training and health care. In Utah (2015), another recent programme was established to end homelessness using the Housing First approach. Here, the cost of providing an apartment and social work for clients in the Housing First program is $11,000 annually, while the average price of hospital visits and jail for street denizens is nearly $17,000 a year. Once more illustrating that taking a more holistic view can save money as well as provide the homes that homeless people need.

The key to these approaches is thinking long term about the issue and across different services, something that doesn’t always happen. Maybe we need to remind ourselves why housing is important? Its a basic human right that sets the tone for our lives – everyone should have the right to a decent home that is affordable, but sadly many don’t.

It is easy to sit back and be critical of the inability of local and national political leaders to take strategic long term decisions. We criticise them for having to be sensitive to electoral cycles and for not tackling the difficult issues. Housing is one of those issues that needs a short, medium and long term plan, where the difficult issues need to be faced head on and where linkages need to be made across service areas.

If we believe that everyone has the right to a decent home, then by restricting housing growth and refusing development we are denying people that right. In a prosperous city such as Bristol it is ridiculous that we have so may people on the housing waiting list; too many people in overcrowded and poor accommodation; and others with nowhere to live at all. So what more can we do to deliver the housing that Bristol desperately needs at a price people can afford and how do we tackle the homelessness issue? Perhaps taking a more creative and innovative approach we could adopt the ‘housing first’ principle that starts from the premise that everyone deserves a decent home. This means a new and different approach that puts people first.

The challenge and complexity of cities

The Bristol Festival of the Future City presented the opportunity to learn more about the complex and challenging issues facing our cities. It was a week long event with many talks, discussions and presentations about a whole range of topics, some familiar, others less so. It was a week where Bristol was bursting at the seams with eminent speakers from across the globe, including academics, journalists, politicians, novelists, poets and commentators, all with something different to contribute.

I attended a number of events during the week, all of which provided insight, interest and challenge. I deliberately chose a mix of events to go to, to broaden my own horizons. I also chose to go and listen to some speakers I hadn’t heard before as well as some I was far more familiar with. There was certainly a lot of choice and on many an occasion I found myself wishing I could be in more than one place at the same time.

Rather than writing about one specific talk, I thought I’d draw out some of the themes that seemed to crop up across discussions and debates around the social policy issues relevant to cities. There were many more talks, covering many other issues about future cities, smart cities and technology, environmental and health issues, which I won’t cover here, as I didn’t attend those events. The themes I draw out are consistent themes that will inevitably be raised when discussing the challenges we face in our cities – the need for vision, city governance, housing and homelessness, and social mobility. I’ll touch on each of these briefly to explore some of the issues that came up and some of the questions that remain unanswered.

When it comes to vision there appears to be an increasing need for policy makers and politicians to think short, medium and long term, in a coherent and coordinated manner. However, whilst we seem well able to think in the moment and make short-term decisions, this is all too frequently done without any reference to the future impact or consequences of those decisions. What is lacking is a process of forward planning and thinking, like the visionaries of the past, who often thought about our cities and urban areas in a more creative and innovative way. As Sir Mark Walport put it in his presentation at the Launch event for the Festival, “thinking about the future can shape the future”. Without that future thinking we risk leaving the growth and development of our cities to an ad hoc, messy process of short termism and disjointed thinking, which leaves us well short of the creativity and innovation that is both needed and possible. The question is, do we have the ability, desire and bravery to unleash the potential of our cities?

The discussion around city governance was perhaps inevitable, particularly given the recent introduction of the Mayoral model in Bristol and recent announcements in other cities of devolution deals with metro mayors and combined authorities being established as the norm. City governance is undoubtedly changing at quite a pace, pushed along by central government to a central agenda, which according to Greg Clark MP, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, is driven by the need to reverse a century of centralisation to ‘return power to every part of our nation’.

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He talked about the devolution deals as having ‘swept away required uniformity’, about a dynamic, competitive process to allow local strengths and local priorities to shine through. Despite this several commentators referred to the similarities and common ground found in many of the deals, with only small differences being identified around local projects amongst an overall uniformity of approach. This suggests, perhaps, that the vision, ambition and big ideas that need to be generated in our cities are not quite there yet. The reality of government processes and bureaucracy appears to be a long way short of some of the rhetoric? What did come across very clear was the notion that English local government structures are becoming very messy. Imagine a process of trying to explain to a group of foreign politicians or students how local government works, what the structure is and who takes decisions, and you might find it takes a very long time. We have unitary, country and district authorities; we have combined authorities with metro mayors to come; we have directly elected mayors running some councils, whilst others are run by leaders and cabinets, others still have reverted to the ‘old style’ committee system. It’s an ad hoc picture with seemingly no real coherence or commitment to a future uniformity.

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Whilst housing is becoming one of the most important issues for our cities to deal with, the changing government agenda is perhaps providing greater restrictions on the options and opportunities for local government to tackle local housing problems, as the emphasis is pushed further and further towards the ultimate goal of home ownership. Despite this, local authorities are left to pick up the pieces of dysfunctional housing markets, and the lack of affordability, lack of supply and lack of choice this creates. In Bristol, and elsewhere, much of the conversation about housing quickly focuses in on a small number of issues that perhaps local government can do something about. Indeed, the Mayor of Bristol, in his State of the City address delivered at the end of the Festival, made reference to Bristol’s housing problem, with solutions based around releasing public land for housing and the increasing problem of homelessness in the city. There are of course many more housing issues that need tackling and a range of solutions that are required to provide decent, affordable homes for those that need them. Solutions that provide real choices, rather than forcing people down a particular route they may not wish to travel. Much of this process of providing solutions and choices is however seemingly out of the hands of local government and instead rests with central government, where social housing for rent is fast becoming a thing of the past, and affordable housing means ‘affordable’ to buy. The question remains about what local government can do to address the very real problems faced in their areas and what scope they have to be creative and innovative about housing solutions.

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A final theme running through many of the debates, as well as the focus of some particular talks, is the issue of social mobility, or social immobility as one speaker termed it. Perhaps unusually, one of the discussions on this issue began with comments about redefining the issue, of the need to talk about social mobility alongside planning, design and transport with an understanding that how poverty is distributed around a city makes a real difference to the functioning of that city. All too often, the people with the least economic stability, living in the greatest poverty, are pushed to the edges of our cities, into peripheral estates, isolated from the wealth of the city. Our perceptions of cities and the way we feel about them are shaped by how we experience them. If our experience is one of isolation, exclusion and poverty, then our perception of the city is likely to be a negative one, where our desire is likely to be one of ‘escaping’ rather than staying. The focus soon shifted to the debate about barriers to social mobility not just being physical or economic, but also psychological, where ‘glass walls’ in people’s own heads stop them making progress. Marvin Rees made the point that to talk about social immobility means we have to talk about the people at the top as well as the people at the bottom, only then can we understand what the problem really is. Social mobility issues were discussed not as an accidental fallout of ‘the system’ but more as a manufactured, institutional part of a system that is needed to make it work, where there are the inevitable winners and losers, but where the starting position is anything but equal. The depressing conclusion to much this discussion was that the lack of social mobility in the UK is a problem that never goes away as the relationship between class and place hasn’t and won’t change, indeed if anything, it’s getting worse.

I thoroughly enjoyed the debates and discussions throughout the week that drew out the challenge and complexity of cities, which sought to provide linkages between and across issues and disciplines, looking to the future for solutions and ideas. The challenge is there to decision makers, policy makers and politicians to have the vision, creativity and bravery to grapple with the issues and develop big ideas and bold visions for the future of our cities.

The invisibility of homelessness

IMG_3362 The emphasis of this post is a bit of a departure from my normal topics, but related in a number of different ways to issues about housing, homelessness and social mobility. It has come about as a result of a number of things that have influenced me over the last few weeks. Some of those influences have been comments made in talks and discussions, whilst others have been the result of me opening my eyes and seeing what is around me. All too frequently we walk around the places we are familiar with without seeing what is right in front of us, without thinking about why something is the way it is.

In the last couple of months I have been to a whole load of talks about housing, mental health, health and wellbeing, social mobility and inequalities. I’ll write elsewhere about some of the consistent policy strands that came through many of these talks, but my focus here is on homelessness and social ‘immobility’.

In one talk I attended the presenter set out the extent to which homelessness has risen in recent years, in Bristol and nationally. The statistics make depressing reading, 90% increase in Bristol in the last 3 years and with the promise of more cuts to services, changes to social rented housing and benefits, this is likely to get worse. Equally shocking is the number of ex-servicemen who are sleeping on our streets, up to 1 in 3 of all homeless according to Crisis. The reasons for this are many and varied but one of the common themes is the feeling of shame associated with being in that position and the reluctance to seek help.

As a result of taking part in all these talks and discussions, about social inequality, homelessness, and poverty I found myself seeing my own city, Bristol, in a different way. I started to reflect once more about how I experience the city compared to others and how I take certain things for granted. On my way to and from some of these talks, at the Watershed in central Bristol, I walked past a young person wrapped up in a sleeping bag with a dog for company, several times. He was sleeping alongside a bar and outside the Bristol Green Capital unit, where hundreds of people must have walked past him all day long, and largely ignored his existence. The irony of the situation was one of the things that made me stop and think – I’d just come from a discussion about homelessness, where we had talked about why people sleep on the streets, frequently don’t ask for help and see themselves outside of society. We talked about our reaction to these people, how we ignore them and fail to even see them. We’d been talking about making Bristol a place for everyone, where opportunity and hope are part of what makes Bristol great. But when confronted with a homeless person, we walk on by, pretending not to see.

This whole debate then reminded me about a situation I found myself in a few years ago in an area of Bristol I know well and have walked through for many years. There was a young man, wrapped in a sleeping bag, sitting on a bench in the freezing cold, just gently asking passers by if they could spare a little cash to help him out. Most people were ignoring him, but then the chap walking along just in front of me stopped and shouted at the man on the bench, berating him for begging and telling him to get a job. The young man (we’ll call him Greg for now) looked stunned and didn’t respond, other people seemed to speed up their walking and move on as quickly as they could. At the time my first inclination was to walk on quickly and ignore this, after all what’s it got to do with me? Then I thought about it some more and I hesitated, then stopped. The shouty man had moved on by then, thankfully. So I sat down next to Greg on the bench and asked him if he was ok (quite possibly a really stupid question), but he responded with a grimace and then a smile, saying that he had been worried things would turn nasty, that he would be attacked and was just glad the shouty man had gone. He thanked me for stopping and was incredibly polite.

We got chatting, I stayed there for well over an hour talking to him (after I’d popped round the corner to get us both a hot drink and a snack). He seemed to want to talk, so I just listened, I was concerned not to ask too many questions but was equally curious about why he was in the situation he was. So, as ‘Greg’ explained to me, he was an ex-serviceman, invalided out with PTSD, his partner had left him and he was alone, without a job and without anywhere to live. He’d tried to get a job but because of the PTSD he found it hard to adapt and fit in sometimes, as he put it, his temper and depression occasionally got the better of him. So he’d come back to Bristol, which is where he’d grown up, and moved around the parks and open spaces, sleeping out most of the time, begging for money to buy food and surviving day to day. He was articulate, intelligent, thoughtful and ashamed of his situation. He blamed no one but himself for this, although he did admit that he thought there should be more support from the armed forces for people like him, at the point when they are discharged as well as later on. All he wanted was a chance – a chance to prove himself again, to get a job, to do something worthwhile, to make him feel proud and valued. It was difficult to get up and walk away from our discussion, to leave him there on the bench, open to abuse but mostly invisible to everyone, but that’s what I had to do in the end.

I often wonder what became of Greg, as I never actually saw him again. The situation left me feeling powerless but also ashamed that we as a city and a country don’t do more to help those who have put their lives on the line for us, and ashamed and disappointed that our automatic response is often to pretend they don’t exist. Behind every homeless person on our streets is a story, often a depressing, sad and complex story. I’ve heard politicians and policy makers say that some of these people don’t want to be helped, as if that is something that excuses from trying. Sorry but I just don’t believe that, no one chooses to live like that, on the streets, in the cold and the rain, at constant risk of violence and abuse. There are many different reasons why people may refuse the help offered, or not feel able to accept or even seek out help. Maybe they just don’t want to be helped in the way we are offering, maybe they need a very different type of help and support, or maybe they just feel we don’t actually care that much or that they’re not worth it?

The challenge for me, and many others, is working out what we can do to help, who are the people that can take the decisions that will prove decisive and life changing for homeless people and how we can raise the profile of this very difficult and complex issue. A good starting point are the many charities that do help homeless people, such as Crisis and Shelter, as well as those that focus on helping ex-servicemen who are having difficulty adjusting to life after the forces, such as Rock2Recovery. But surely more can and should be done?

In a wealthy and prosperous city like Bristol homelessness should be a thing of the past. Instead of which it’s actually increasing, it’s getting worse! We have some excellent charities in Bristol and nationally providing some outstanding services to homeless people and ex-servicemen, but still the problem exists and is increasing. Someone at the Bristol Mayor’s Annual Lecture asked if we could become the first city to ensure no ex-servicemen were left to sleep on our streets. An excellent question and a superb ambition. If anywhere can do it, then surely Bristol can?

The Slow Death of Society

DSCN0159Sometimes the idea for a blogpost comes from some research or information I have just read, other times from something that’s made me angry, or something that’s just topical, in the news and I have a view on it. This blogpost has been bubbling up for a while and is probably a reaction to all these things and may well be less coherent for that!

The title says it all really – the slow death of society – that’s what it feels like at the moment on so many levels. This isn’t just something that has happened since the Coalition Government came to office either, this is something that has been happening since even before Thatcher. Maybe it’s symptomatic of a neo liberal society or maybe we are all too conditioned to things the way they are that we fail to notice? Whatever the reason, there’s been a noticeable change in attitude in my lifetime which seems only to have got worse in recent years – and still I am waiting for the collective response that must surely happen?

When I think about the number of times over the last 10 or so years that I have heard people respond to issues/questions with ‘what’s in it for me?’ I begin to despair, of course we all have an element of self interest and indeed we do need to look after ourselves and our family/friends, but there is a big world beyond that and we seem to care less about it now then we did before, or am I wrong? Maybe I have just spent too long in the wrong places with the wrong people?

A recent example that made me both smile and bury my head in my hands was this whole issue about spikes in doorways to keep homeless people from sleeping there. This caused a massive reaction on social media, with people expressing horror whilst others reacted with stories about why it is necessary and how it is actually designed to help homeless people in the long term. I’m not quite sure where I fit on the scale of reaction but as others have said, this is nothing new, architects, designers and planners have been designing out these kind of spaces and opportunities for years. Talk to anyone involved in planning new open spaces and parks, they’ll tell you how much thought goes into the design of benches and shelters to discourage ‘undesirable’ behaviour, which often seems to include making them so uncomfortable that you wouldn’t sit on them let alone try and sleep there! What is interesting about this is that much of the reaction has focused on the symptom not the cause – which is understandable to a point, but really this is a symptom of a much broader ill. It’s about our changing attitude to the most vulnerable in society, the demonisation of the poor, the jobless, the homeless and the constant reminders that to be acceptable and provide a worthwhile contribution to our society we have to have a job, pay our way and above all, avoid any reliance on the state to support us.

This change has been playing out in our housing system for many years, where the role of the state (councils) in providing and managing housing has been gradually reduced to a residual role for the most difficult households and those in the greatest poverty. Council housing is no longer the tenure of choice for many it is a residual provision for the most needy in society (and a need we are not adequately meeting). We have shifted affordable housing provision, successfully to a point, to Housing Associations, set up to deliver on this very issue. Then, of course, we have gradually eroded their role by reducing the direct funding they receive, so they have to enter into development for profit in order to fund the delivery of affordable housing, or they have to comply with other aspects of government policy that actually make housing less affordable to those that need it. In the meantime, councils have barely been able to build new council houses and more existing council houses have been sold off under the right to buy, so fewer homes are available to those in need, meaning many more are forced into the private rented sector that is barely able to keep up and has issues of its own. In a civilised society, the provision of decent housing has to be a fundamental right, but government seems to have turned its back on this notion, unless you strive for owner occupation, then they’ll help you!

We seem to have become a nation of individuals only interested in looking after ourselves and resisting anything that might impact on our ability to do well. Again, housing is a prime example of this, as soon as we become part of the property owning democracy we also become Nimbys, we will do just about anything to stop development anywhere near us to make sure our property prices are not damaged, irrespective of the consequences for anyone else. The power of those that have, to stop those that haven’t, seems to win out regularly.

Another example is playing out in Bristol at the moment in relation to the fight over Residents Parking Zones. Much of the debate has focused on how the right of car drivers is being curtailed and how this will destroy the economy of the city. Car drivers and businesses have talked about infringement of their rights, of the Mayor being anti-car and how somehow implementing these schemes will make the city a worse place for everyone. Really? Somehow we seem to have lost sight of why the Mayor is implementing these schemes – and yes I accept that his approach and style has not helped with selling these schemes – but the concept has got to right, hasn’t it? We all want a city that is less polluted, where we can walk and cycle in safety, where we can enjoy our neighbourhoods without constant streams of cars searching for parking spaces or parking dangerously, don’t we? We want a city that works for people, that doesn’t remove or hinder people that need to drive but makes it just a little more difficult for those that use it as an easy, cheap option, without considering the alternatives and those that see our neighbourhoods merely as one big car park. I applaud George for standing strong on this, even if I wish he had implemented things slightly differently with greater engagement from the start – the concept is right even if the approach has been difficult!

But it’s not all bad is it? Look at the endless articles/blogs/research about housing, welfare, poverty, there are people that care, there are people that are raising the difficult questions. The problem at the moment seems to be that decision makers are just not listening, or they are but not properly, they snatch at easy ‘solutions’ to pretend they are doing something without any notion that they will have an impact.

What I have noticed is a society of extremes – those that don’t seem to care about anything going on around them and are only interested in themselves, but also those that do care and are trying to do something against a rising tide of indifference. Maybe the Big Society is working because many of the positive things going on are driven by local communities or charities – who set up the food banks to help those that could’t afford to feed their families? Not the government, in fact they spent more time denying they existed or challenging whether or not the people using them really needed to!

In Bristol I have seen much of this local response play out in many different forums and guises – people do care and will support others where they see a need or where they see injustice. There are too many projects to mention but one small but fascinating project that caught my eye is the Incredible Edible Bristol project, providing edible landscapes across the city, in neighbourhoods and the city centre, in parks and derelict spaces. What a brilliant idea to show how easy it is to grow food in a city with access for all. What motivated people to start that project and what motivates all those that help out with their time and money – not self interest that’s for sure.

So maybe things are not all bad, there is some semblance of ‘society’ out there, despite the best endeavours of government to destroy it over the years. We need people to continue to write about these things, we need the media to cover the issues properly but above all we need people to be motivated to do something. A few years ago I was asked to do a Q&A for the Evening Post and one of the questions I was asked was ‘who inspires you?’. My response to this initially surprised a few people, because aside from my personal heroes like Colin Ward, Mo Mowlem and Albert Camus, I mentioned Margaret Thatcher. With this came the caveat that she inspired me to get involved in politics, because I wanted to be part of the political fight against her policies and her notion of the primacy of the individual. That fight still remains, but are enough people motivated to do something? This is perhaps where my despair comes in, we seem to be a society of demotivated individuals who don’t think we can change things, where even bothering to vote is too much effort because it won’t make a difference anyway. I hope I’m wrong!