Phil Taylor is a Conservative activist in Ealing.
There was good news for the government on Thursday that there has been a slight dip in the rough sleeping numbers.
Overall numbers are down two per cent having risen relentlessly for the seven previous years since 2010. Not everyone was gracious in welcoming the news. For instance, you have to read down to the fourth paragraph of this Guardian piece, entitled “Rough sleeping rises in nearly all England’s major cities”, to find out that numbers have fallen.
Of course, the numbers still make for grim reading. 4,677 souls sleeping rough up from 1,768 in 2010 when the counting system was comprehensively revised and improved, a rise of 165 per cent in eight years.
The causes of this rise are not well understood and there are lots of voices out there trying to pin these numbers on poverty, homelessness and/or “austerity”. The details of the report do give some clues as to what the real drivers are.
It is worth comparing the rough sleeping rate by region with regional disposable incomes. The rate of rough sleeping is pretty much inversely proportional to regional wealth.
Is there not an argument that rough sleeping is as much about a wealth pull rather than just a poverty push?
It is hard to argue that poverty drives rough sleeping when our poorest region, the North East, has the lowest rate of rough sleeping and the numbers have only grown 35 per cent in eight years.
The high prevalence of non-UK nationals in these numbers is also considerable evidence of wealth pull. Only 64 per cent of rough sleepers in England self-identify as UK nationals. In London, this factor is much more important. Only 33 per cent self-identify as UK nationals.
Across England last year the number of UK nationals sleeping rough dropped 11 per cent.
In London, the number of UK nationals dropped nine per cent. In fact, if the number of non-UK EU nationals rough sleeping in London had not risen by a massive 87 per cent last year there would have been a huge drop in London. This year almost half (48 per cent) of rough sleepers in London were non-UK EU nationals (not even counting those who refused to give their nationality).There is no good reason why London should host hundreds of non-nationals sleeping rough on our streets.
The 165 per cent rise in numbers overall across England is driven by rises in 150 or so boroughs, towns and cities. Yes, London and the big metropolitan centres, but also seaside towns such as Brighton, Hastings, Isle of Wight, Weymouth, Torbay, Blackpool, Worthing, Christchurch, Great Yarmouth and Scarborough. And university towns such as Oxford and Cambridge. Tourist centres such as Bath, York, Canterbury and Windsor. And many, many well to do towns like Luton, Bedford, Milton Keynes, Swindon, Southampton, Woking, St Albans, Sevenoaks, Wokingham, Stafford, Watford and Basingstoke.
We should ask why people end up on the streets, often begging, and certainly, most have very difficult and chaotic lives. Windsor is an interesting case. It gained notoriety last year as a result of the royal wedding and reporting on the plight of rough sleepers who are very visible on Thames Street adjacent to Windsor Castle which is thronged with tourists all year round. The whole borough of Windsor and Maidenhead only has 11 rough sleepers in the count. Either the borough is failing to find people or practically every rough sleeper in the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead is on Thames Street saying thank you to passers-by as they drop change in their cups.
The annual rough sleeper count statistics we have are a good start but they do not explain rough sleeping behaviour. Clearly visible rough sleeping in wealthy areas is connected with income from begging as much as it is with housing issues. Last year for the first time ever we had some hard numbers on homeless deaths. These showed 32 per cent of deaths were due to drug poisoning and ten per cent due to alcohol-related causes – 42 per cent down to substance misuse. Worryingly the numbers of drug deaths had increased by 52 per cent over the four years 2013 to 2017. Judging by the causes of death of homeless people substance misuse must be a large cause of the chaos that leads to rough sleeping.
Of course, lack of cheap housing must be a factor in rough sleeping but it would not be wise to provide social housing for every non-national who ends up on our streets. Similarly it would probably be unwise to make substance misuse the fast track to social housing. Rough sleeping is a complex problem that didn’t go away under New Labour, contrary to what some may claim. New factors are driving rough sleeping, people from poorer EU states and increasing drug use, and we need to find new answers.