Westminster City Council’s proposals for a byelaw to ban soup runs in and around Victoria have provoked controversy and even led to accusations that the council is undermining the Big Society. This could not be further from the truth.
Our real aim is simple. It’s to get vulnerable people off the streets and into the care and accommodation that can start rebuilding their lives with health, education and other practical help. To do this the councils works with and funds charities such as Thames Reach, St Mungo’s and the Passage to work together to achieve this common goal – Big Society in action.
This is working, with official figures showing that the number of rough sleepers in the area has more than halved in recent years. Yet the area around Cathedral Piazza just off Victoria Street, has become a hotspot for soup runs over the last decade. We’ve seen rough sleeping decline from close to 300 to under 100 individuals while the number of soup runs has risen to around 30 per week.
We have tried to work with providers to ensure better co-ordination while the volume and frequency of soup runs in the area has increased. Well meaning people come from all over London, and as far afield as Essex, Kent and Hampshire to deliver food to homeless people from across the capital who converge on Cathedral Piazza. Surely they would be better served by offering local assistance in their own communities?
After years of trying to find a solution satisfactory to residents and the soup run providers alike, it was as a last resort that we decided to consult on the introduction of a byelaw. With the consultation yet to close I still hope to sit down with all parties and agree on a way forward without the need for legislation.
Decrying our proposals as an assault on the Big Society undermines the work that the likes of Look Ahead, Connection at St Martin’s and The Passage do to get people off the streets in Westminster. Day in, day out, night after night, these charities – and their tireless volunteers – go the extra mile to transform the lives of the most vulnerable people in our society. Almost half of those sleeping rough on Westminster’s streets are suffering from very poor mental health, many have substance misuse problems and a large number have urgent medical needs that need attention. Often rough sleepers will have a combination of all three. Even the most partisan of Westminster’s critics would struggle to say that there is an option more preferable than getting people off the streets and into facilities to be helped by trained professionals.
Westminster City Council funds more than a dozen hostels and three day centres most of which are within walking distance of Cathedral Piazza. Day centres help address all health needs, including dentistry and podiatry, provide food and drink and offer advice on housing, training and substance misuse. This is the real alternative to feeding people on the streets: targeted help, professional intervention and a chance to turn lives around. I urge those who want to help London’s homeless to get involved with these services and support the Big Society in Westminster.
As the custodians of central London, we recognise that vulnerable people who feel they have nowhere to turn will often find themselves on our streets. It is for exactly this reason that we invest £9million a year on homelessness provision – more than any other local authority in the country.
The life expectancy of a rough sleeper is just 42. London’s streets are no place for people to live in the 21st century and we fully accept our duty to care for people. As a local authority, we are committed to providing services that improve lives.
For that reason, our aim is a simple one: get people off the streets and engaged with the voluntary services that can help turn their lives around. That is the true spirit of the Big Society and we will always uphold it.