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Keeping Everyone In

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. 

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Councillor Tricia Gilby</span></strong>
Councillor Tricia Gilby

Tricia Gilby is the first woman Leader of Chesterfield Borough Council and a Labour Councillor for Brimington South.

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Simply complex

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Steve Hilditch</span></strong>
Steve Hilditch

Editor and Founder of Red Brick. Former Head of Policy for Shelter. Select Committee Advisor for Housing and Homelessness. Drafted the first London Mayor’s Housing Strategy under Ken Livingstone.

Hands up if you understand the welfare reforms unveiled yesterday by Iain Duncan Smith.  How can a simplified system be so complex to understand? 

Fortunately the public seem to have a grip and polls show a healthy majority agree with the government’s position.  IDS seems to have pulled off a magic trick.  He will simplify the system into a single Universal Credit by 2013, he has promised to improve substantially the marginal rate (how much people keep from extra earnings taking account of benefit withdrawal), he has promised there will be no cash losers, and he has got the public onside. 

I have little doubt that the golden scenario will begin to unravel with a little more analysis.  Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, Douglas Alexander, pointed out that the ‘no cash loss’ promise did not appear to apply to new claimants, and of course turnover is high.  The Child Poverty Action Group were most concerned about the removal of hardship payments drawing attention to the main difficulty in withdrawing benefits from people who refuse to take jobs – making children suffer for the sins of their parents (Mr Duncan Smith likes to use the word sin). 

The simplicity aim has wide support amongst advisers, including the CAB.  The government claims that Universal Credit “will support people both in and out of work, replacing Working Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit, Housing Benefit, Income Support, income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance and income-related Employment and Support Allowance”.  As always, the devil will be in the detail.  UC will be a basic allowance with “additional elements for children, disability, housing and caring”.  Experience tells me that none of the add-ons will be simple to understand or to calculate.  The devil will also be in implementation.  A welfare system that is widely regarded in the media as soft and open to abuse is simultaneously experienced by users as inflexible, harsh and punitive. 

With 5 jobseekers chasing each job, how DWP implements the system will be hugely important.  There will be much stronger ‘conditionality’ – the new word for punishment – but “conditionality will be responsive to an individual’s circumstances.”  As the housing benefit system has been bedevilled by the complexity of handling changes in circumstance, how can the new system become more responsive?  The answer unfortunately relies on IT.  UC “will be calculated and delivered electronically, automatically adjusting credit payments according to monthly income reported through an upgraded version of the ….. tax system”.  I believe this is the same system that has delivered millions of incorrect tax calculations and hundreds of thousands of incorrect tax credits.  The test will be how DWP responds to many thousands of calls challenging their calculations and the many real errors that will be made.  

The proposal has ambitions that many will agree with – simplicity, the integration of out-of-work and in-work support – but also many dangers and risks for the poorest people in society.  And I have a particular fear about administrative chaos.  We may not be able to start evaluating those risks properly until the Welfare Reform Bill is published in January. 

Quotations from the White Paper, which can be found here:

http://www.dwp.gov.uk/policy/welfare-reform/legislation-and-key-documents/universal-credit/