Manchester City Council is to be commended for an initiative to make a couple of their empty buildings available for rough sleepers over the winter.

The Manchester Evening News reports:

“Hulme library – which closed following the first round of town hall cuts in 2011 – and the former Beech Mount children’s home in Harpurhey will provide overnight shelter from next month.

“In total at least 165 extra beds are being created city-wide as the council pushes homelessness up its list of priorities.

“The former library and children’s home may only be the first of several sites turned into homeless shelters this winter.

“It comes after United stars Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs allowed a group of rough sleepers to remain in their new Stock Exchange hotel until work begins.

“Charities and council officials will point rough sleepers towards the centres – among others – from December. The council is also looking at transport arrangements to get people from the city centre, which sees the greatest numbers, out to the shelters.

“They will be run by a professional homelessness organisation and will include medical, drug, and alcohol and support for those who need it.”

hulmelibrary1Cllr Paul Andrews, executive member for adult health and well-being, said:

“We’ve spent months working on plans to open up empty buildings across the city to make sure nobody has to sleep rough on the streets this winter.

“This is a lengthy process, but we have now identified the first pair which we can open and we’re now continuing to carry out inspections so we can open more empty buildings in other parts of the city.”

“While providing shelter and a roof over their heads is obviously a good start, what’s really important is working with charities, faith groups and our own homelessness services to make sure the right help and support is available to rough sleepers so we can help them make the first steps towards getting off the streets for good.”

Yet, without wishing to be churlish, this does lead to the question of why the Council retains these empty buildings.

Looking at Hulme Library, I can easily imagine that someone buying the site for housing would wish to knock it down and build something more attractive. (It would, after all, be a challenge to build anything less attractive.) For four years, it’s just been sitting, as an empty council-owned building.

The Beech Mont Children’s Home closed in 2012. That was part of an excellent council policy to move towards more foster placements. If children have to remain in the care system, foster placements are greatly preferable to institutional care. But again, why has the building been left empty all this time?

Manchester City Council owns a golf course, a farm, two theatres, four pubs, assorted car parks, and leisure centres. I doubt it represents value for money to retain that municipal empire, even though some revenue doubtless comes in from it. But what is clear is that hoarding empty buildings and surplus land can not make sense.

The Council pays £37 million a year in debt interest. That is money that is not available for services – including help for rough sleepers. Better asset management is needed.

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