What do you do with £75 million? You could buy 250 two bedroom flats – even in the centre of Canterbury. The city council has around 2,700 people on its housing waiting list. So 250 flats would make a significant impact on reducing that list but instead of building housing they have decided to spend £75 million…on the Whitefriars shopping centre. Its justification for this is that it will bring in revenue to support the council’s core activities, which face ever greater cuts because the normal source of their money – council tax and government grants – isn’t adequate.
Now I don’t actually have a problem with municipal enterprise, and investing to keep the burden on taxpayers down is obviously a good thing in principle.
This investment, though, ignores the fact that high street retail shopping is facing a massive decline – evidenced every week by closures in shops and restaurants – which might cause anyone sensible to consider whether a 25 year investment is really a good deal. Clearly the people who sold to the council think they can do better elsewhere. Against that, the “affordable” rental income – at 80% of market rates – on 250 flats would be around £1.8 million every year. And you can look at that difference and think the city council made the right decision.
Or you can take the view that it is the council’s responsibility to provide housing and that should take priority, even if the return on the investment is lower – because the return won’t be zero.
Or, even better, that if they can borrow £75 million then they should borrow £150 million, and do both.
Either way, these skewed priorities reflect the reality of our council, also illustrated recently by its decision to give Serco a £300,000 subsidy and to spend over £9 million (borrowed, again) on the West Station car park: they’re far happier to provide for business than for residents.
And that, however you look at it, is obviously wrong.
For the 7th year running official estimates of Rough Sleeper numbers have risen, 2017 rough sleeper count found 4751 people sleeping in the streets on any given night, up 15% year on year.
Surprisingly, Canterbury district seemingly bucked the trend as its rough sleeping figures dropped from 52 to 36 people, but this figure masks a serious flaw in the data set as it only includes those the Council have found and accepted to be rough sleeping that night.
Responding to these figures, Paul Todd, a local activist who works at homeless charity Catching Lives said, “despite the drop, the latest figures at Catching Lives show an increased footfall of 44% with more than 230 people presenting to the service in 2017… to me it shows that the figures are seriously underestimating the actual level of homelessness throughout the district and clearly supports Shelters supposition that homelessness nationally is grossly underreported. Unfortunately as long as local and national governments deliberately play down the true figures then we are no closer to resolving homelessness”.
Shelter’s most recent analysis indicates that 1 in 20 people are homeless nationally, suggesting that locally 7450 don’t have a proper home, that’s without the ‘hidden homeless’ of people who just don’t appear on official records, sofa surfers and so on.
What does this mean for Canterbury residents? It means that a huge number of people living in Canterbury District are inadequately housed and this places additional stresses on already overburdened and underfunded public services. It means that children are not growing up in stable homes which would help them thrive. It means that mental and physical health are more affected as people worry about rent and go without in order to pay ever increasing rents that are expensive to begin with.
Pointing to any single reason for this isn’t helpful but it is fair to say that low wages, high rents, insufficient properly affordable properties and the benefits cap are major contributory factors. However Labour has reacted to the figures by doubling its commitment to securing up to 8,000 homes for rough sleepers.
The Canterbury Labour party is committed to tackling the problem of homelessness in its many forms and to making decent housing a right for everyone.