Chesterfield; many of you will know Chesterfield as home to the Crooked Spire and gateway to the Peak District National Park. Some will know it has a proud history of engineering based on the North Derbyshire Coalfield. Eric Varley and Tony Benn represented the town in Parliament in the latter part of the 20th century. Toby Perkins has been the MP for Chesterfield since 2010. In December 2019 the constituency became a little dot of red in a sea of blue just south of Sheffield.
When I became the first woman Leader of Chesterfield Borough Council in 2017 the issue crying out for my attention was the rise in rough sleeping. Whilst the number of rough sleepers was insignificant when compared with London and nearby cities their needs were as complex and the associated anti-social behaviour created a continuous stream of complaints from residents, town centre businesses and visitors. Photos of sleeping bags and other paraphernalia next to the town’s coach station adorned the local press on a weekly basis.
The cause of this was a range of factors coming together. Some of the most common were drug or alcohol dependency, mental health issues or benefit changes, particularly the recent introduction of Universal Credit. We also knew that Chesterfield was attracting rough sleepers who saw it as a safer option than being in some of the surrounding cities. The generosity of local people, giving food, clothing and other items, combined with the lower risk of violence towards them, meant that some rough sleepers specifically came to Chesterfield.
In the same way that there was no one cause, equally there was no one easy solution. One thing clear to me was that, as the new Council Leader, I needed to act. One homeless rough sleeper was one too many. A collaborative approach was needed. So, I approached Hardyal Dhindsa, Derbyshire’s Labour Police and Crime Commissioner, who I knew was tackling a similar problem in Derby. Together with Toby Perkins we set up the Chesterfield Town Centre Summit. This summit, chaired by Hardyal, brought together all the public bodies (e.g. police, Chesterfield Borough and Derbyshire County councils, NHS, Probation…), the voluntary and faith sectors and the business community to tackle all the issues.
The group’s work is focused on three linked areas: Enforcement, Treatment and Support & Campaigning, for instance against government welfare reforms and for strengthening legislation against “legal highs” among other issues which had undoubtedly impacted on the situation on the streets. By working together, the various agencies avoided duplication and identified any areas where support was not currently provided so that both could be addressed.
Our greatest success was the establishment of a Winter Night Shelter co-ordinated by Derby City Mission. Whilst tragic cases of homeless people dying on the streets were being reported daily, every night through the coldest months we were able to offer hot meals, sleeping bags, health checks and conversation. The shelter was hosted by a different church on a fixed rota, so it was not too onerous a commitment for one church’s congregation and volunteers.
Chesterfield Borough Council, alongside two neighbouring districts, supported this work through its funding of voluntary agencies. We built a strong working relationship with local homelessness charity, Pathways, and others who support the hard-to-reach homeless.
Within Chesterfield council itself, our Homelessness Prevention Team works to provide accommodation for anyone who needs it and is a key player in the North Derbyshire Homelessness Forum, which brings together a range of agencies who are working to prevent homelessness and support people who are rough sleeping.
Little did we know when we closed the doors on our second successful year of the shelter’s operation at the beginning of March this year that the collaborative multi-agency working model developed out of the Town Centre Summit and the North Derbyshire Homelessness Forum would serve us so well during the COVID 19 Pandemic in responding to the government’s demand to bring “Everyone In”.
Led by Chesterfield Borough Council’s Homeless team manager, Derbyshire’s councils have brought in 80 people so far (as at beginning of June 2020), with the majority having been placed in hotel accommodation.
Some of those placed have already been found longer term accommodation, and a recovery plan has already been written to deliver intensive support to individuals experiencing overlapping and challenging issues such as offending, drug and alcohol misuse and poor mental health.
Those placed have been given three hot meals a day and it is hoped that, for some, this stability will give them a chance to seek a more permanent change, especially as support to everyone will continue.
We are now at a crossroads because the hotel accommodation, although effective, cannot be retained beyond the end of June 2020.
Chesterfield Borough Council has therefore led on the development of Derbyshire councils’ “Keeping Everyone In” recovery plan, which has now been submitted to the Government. The plan will ensure that we have the resources to re-house as many people as we can on a permanent basis, whilst continuing to offer the necessary essential support.
The rapid collective response right at the start of the pandemic and our transition now to recovery was only possible due to initiatives such as the Town Centre Summit and the long-standing Derbyshire Homelessness Forum.
I would also argue that this type of response is only possible when there is clear, decisive political leadership such as that demonstrated by Derbyshire Police and Crime Commissioner Hardyal Dhindsa, Toby Perkins MP and myself.
Labour leading the way and making a difference to people’s lives.