Thousands of homeless families drift to the end of the track

Local authorities are now empowered to place homeless people in private rented accommodation, meaning they can be forced out of our cities.

This is a blog about a recent news story, but the background isn’t so recent at all. It starts with a train ride I took out of London on a rainy night five years ago and finally, at the end of the track; a coastal town.

Here’s what I wrote at the time: “A games arcade’s neon lights bleed into the cold mist [...] Beside it there’s a foul-looking chippy and a few desultory tourist shops, all closed. A hill leads away from the seafront. Up here, past rows of huge Victorian houses, most of them with peeling plaster and rotting doors, there’s a small row of shops. A group of children smokes outside an off license. The tattered pub is closed.

“And just off this street, a huge hotel, bigger than the others. It costs £40 a week to stay here, and 200 people do  [...] they have one communal kitchen, which is open for just an hour. A family walks in: mother, father, two small children. They have come from abroad and are seeking asylum. They prepare their food for the evening, then leave. Next, an ex-convict, released after eight years. And after him, a street drinker, a paedophile, a heroin addict, and many more [will] come and go.”

Near the house was a church, and in the basement of the church was one of the most horrific places I have ever seen. It was a charity’s drop-in centre and it was mostly used by heroin addicts, many of whom came from the big house. A sixteen-year-old boy stood outside, smoking a roll up. He was wiry, ghostly pale, and covered in sores. His fingers were brown. He couldn’t sleep, because he was coming down from a heroin hit. Inside, there were dozens more like him - wrecked wraiths of men and women, lurching about in a couple of half-empty living rooms and a communal kitchen.

I remember a middle-aged, anorexic-looking man with thin whisps of blonde hair. He was trying to eat a bowl of pasta, which had no sauce or meat on it. He kept putting the spoon to his mouth, then wrinkling his face in disgust. He tried, and tried, but he just couldn’t eat it. For some reason the image is burned into my memory.

I was there because I’d got into a chat online with a guy who worked for a local charity called the Scrine Foundation. He’d found out I was researching crime, and had invited me down to the end of the line to show me the misery that drug dealers from London were creating. The story was supposed to be about their trade. But I came across an interesting angle. The people to whom they were dealing weren’t local either. They were from various places: according to him, some were from as far afield as London themselves. What was going on?

It was only a few years earlier - with laws passed in 1996 and 1999 - that local authorities were asked to provide accommodation to asylum seekers and other appellants who were considered to be destitute or at risk. The Housing Act 1996 already stated housing authorities should house people within their district “so far as reasonably practicable”.

Nearby councils found various ways round it, and farmed their homeless to places like this town, where accommodation was cheap and there was plenty of room in the old Victorian hotels that had been converted into bedsits and houses in multiple occupation. They could offer to fill every room in a hotel for a lengthy period at a vastly reduced rate, and at the same time could claim they had reduced the number of people living in temporary accommodation. These people would use facilities like doctors and libraries in that area, guaranteeing even more savings.

And the influx of needy people created a chain of supply and demand. It was an area in which 90 per cent of the properties were privately rented, and in which two thirds of households survived on benefits - where property prices were low, and antisocial behaviour high. The high influx wasn’t just families from housing waiting lists - it was of children heading to care homes.

Another Scrine worker told me there were over 100 foster homes in the area, 29 of them on one road - along with with 19 sex offenders. He said: “Children are sent around to foster parents, then aged 18 they’re abandoned, because the parents want a new child to get their weekly payments.”

I didn’t name the area, because I didn’t have the time to go into the story in any more detail, and I didn’t think naming the place would do it any favours. I feel I can now, because there have since been a number of reports on it. It was Cliftonville, in Margate, and it was suffering these problems at the height of the economic boom. What now?
 

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In the years since I visited, the Scrine Foundation lost its funding due to a combination of bad management and a lack of faith from its funders. However, its main day centre in Canterbury has re-opened under a new name (Chasing Lives), and with a new manager, called Terry Gore. I spoke to him about what I’d seen five years ago.

“It’s gone on in one form or another as far back as the early 1990s,” he tells me. “Back then some of the big mental hospitals in London were closed, and the councils resettled the patients in Thanet. It was seen as a place that was on the downslide: you could get cheap accommodation. A friend of mine worked in community mental health but gave it up because he was so overworked - he suddenly spent his entire time moving from client to client giving them depots (slow release medication). Likewise, some of the bigger children’s homes were closed around that time, so they got a lot of referrals from London. And at the same time, local authorities in East Kent would dump a lot of their homeless there.”

Terry tells me about the big house. It was called the Hotel Leslie: “To call it a shithole would be to understate it. Agencies would dump anyone there. Sex offenders came out of prison and they were obliged to register their address, so authorities had to find them a place to live. It meant they could end up being housed in close proximity to children. It got to a point where the local authority had to sit down with all the councils in East Kent and tell them to stop targeting the area.”

The problem was solved, but a new one was looming on the horizon.

The Government’s Localism Act, which came into force this spring, empowered local authorities to place homeless people in private rented accommodation. Previously, people accepted as homeless could wait for a council house, but now they had to accept a private one.

There were obvious problems with this from the outset: the long-term lack of investment in affordable social housing, a mortgage drought that pushed up rents, successive governments’ failure to provide a decent living wage and a cut in local housing allowance that in Liverpool alone meant 21,000 people could only afford 12,000 homes in the city. And so the act’s progress through parliament was accompanied by a series of worrying headlines. Boris Johnson voiced fears of a “Kosovo-style social cleansing”: “The last thing we want to have in our city is a situation such as Paris where the less well-off are pushed out to the suburbs,” he said.

Despite his bombastic language, it seemed he hadn’t gone far enough. In February we heard that Croydon council was looking to send people on its housing list to Hull; in April that Newham council was hoping to move people to Stoke, Westminster to Derby, Waltham Forest to Walsall, while Hammersmith & Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster were working together to consider a proposal from private company Smart Housing Group to house people in Derby and Nottingham.

Grant Shapps, then housing minister, told the Today programme that it was “unfair” and “wrong”. And in response, on 9 November, secondary legislation was brought forward by the Department for Communities and Local Government to ensure that the suitability and location of accommodation are properly considered by Local Authorities when ending the main homelessness duty.

Will it work? Last week Private Eye reported on the first homeless families going through the system: “Many [London councils] are looking to acquire homes in cheaper areas not just in the southeast but as far afield as Nottingham and Manchester. They know they will face legal challenges but, much like the homeless families involved, they say they have no choice.”

The claim was backed up by Guardian research this month which revealed that local authorities in London are preparing to send thousands of homeless families to live in temporary homes outside the capital. Among the many towns in which housing was being required was Margate. It hasn’t seen the last of its settlers.
 

Vacancies signs in the window of a guest house in Margate, Kent. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser