Urgent Action Needed To Tackle Homelessness Now

Cllr Alan Hall has joined housing campaigners, Shelter by writing to the Prime Minister Boris Johnson calling on the tory Government to take “urgent action to protect people at risk of being on the streets as a result of the pandemic.”

This follows the tragic news that a homeless person sleeping rough at Bell Green, died. In a response to a formal Council Question at Lewisham Council’s meeting held on 25th November 2020, Cllr Alan Hall asked for a review of the case to learn any lessons and for the Coroner to be contacted, if necessary. He received an undertaking that this would be done.

Cllr Alan Hall’s Question is at 57 minutes

Shelter have said that a new lockdown means we need new protections. The Government needs to provided enough support to those who are homeless or threatened by homelessness as a result of the latest lockdown as a matter of urgency.

The full text of the letter is here:

Dear Prime Minister,

Since the announcement of a new national lockdown your government are yet to lay out all the protections needed that will help those threatened by homelessness.

Over the last year, hundreds of thousands of people have lost their jobs, with a rapidly growing number of people also under threat of losing their homes.

Shelter advice services are hearing from more and more people in need of accommodation.

With more bitterly cold weather forecasted, we need you to take urgent action to protect people at risk of being on the streets as a result of the pandemic. We want you to:

• Publish clear guidance to dire councils to provide sage emergency accommodation to everyone at risk of the streets

• Provide financial support to renters to help pay off arrears built up due to COVID-19

• Scrap the benefit cap and review housing benefit rates to ensure people can pay the rent, and to prevent growing rent arrears and eviction

We need urgent action now to help those facing housing issues at this difficult time. Please do everything in your power to ensure everyone have a warm, dry and safe place to live during the pandemic.

Cllr Alan Hall

Join the campaign here

Convoys Wharf Plot 21 – The Plot Thickens

Lewisham Council’s long running planning saga around Convoys Wharf on the Deptford riverside has taken a mysterious twist.

During a webinar event that was held on 1st December 2020, in place of a drop-in consultation event due to Coronavirus restrictions a number of options were put forward for plot 21 of the scheme. This phase of the scheme contains the ‘safeguarded wharf‘ on the River Thames. These included the statements HGV access is not compatible with the residential development proposed and a reference to Lewisham Council and the GLA demands for more housing and the consequential additional affordable housing on the plot.

Looking at the original GLA planning report in 2014, it concludes that the proposed contraction and reconfiguration of the safeguarded wharf at the site is acceptable, and that the proposed wharf location, plot boundary, and associated maximum floorspace quantum would provide a viable, flexible and commercially attractive environment for a range of potential river freight operators. Necessary assurances are in place to secure the appropriate use of the Blue Ribbon Network for construction logistics, and measures to reasonably incentivise uptake of the wharf by one or more suitable operators are to be included within a section 106 legal agreement. Furthermore, subject to the inclusion of planning conditions to protect neighbourhood amenity, GLA officers are satisfied that the potential impacts of the working wharf on sensitive uses could be suitably mitigated.

Deptford Folk lobby for a park

The GLA planners provide quite a contrast to the statements from the planning consultants for the developers.

Interestingly, the local park users group, the Deptford Folk issued a demand for more green space and a new park. In the webinar, the consultants made reference to unlocking the site for housing and affordable housing to include open spaces linking the existing parks together.

However, Lewisham Council’s new Cabinet Member for Housing & Planning, Cllr Paul Bell has issued a new statement on his personal website refuting the claims: “At no point have we lobbied the GLA to put more units on this site. On the contrary, we have been consistently clear to the developer that any planning application for Plot 21 would require a strong planning justification. This has yet to be provided.” But, he does say that the Council has been engaging closely with the developers in order to ensure that local residents are able to have their say on the future of the Convoys Wharf development.

“We have consistently emphasised the importance of proper community engagement throughout this process.” The obvious question is to ask to see the evidence of this great working relationship and an explanation how this misunderstanding could have arisen?

Meanwhile, on 7th October 2020 the Port of London Authority issued a press release saying:

“The UK Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) has confirmed the continued protection of strategic sites for port use on the banks of the Thames in London, after an extensive review process conducted by the Greater London Authority (GLA) and supported by the Port of London Authority (PLA).”

“Wharves on the Thames were first protected in 1997. Since then the initiative has become a well-established feature of planning in the capital and many millions of tonnes of materials have been handled through the sites, keeping countless heavy goods vehicles off London’s congested roads.”

PLA director of planning & environment, James Trimmer went on to say:

“Safeguarding wharves is a key policy for London. The Thames offers an unfettered, low carbon route to move goods and materials in and out of the capital. Confirmation of the continued safeguarding of these sites comes at a time when the river renaissance is stepping up another gear. The established movement of bulk materials is now complemented by the first river parcel service, being operated by DHL, and the planned consolidation of the City markets to Barking will provide a generational opportunity to make more use of the river for light freight. Innovation will continue as we transition to a zero-carbon future.”

The PLA is working with partners including the GLA to secure greater use of the river for moving freight, as set out in Thames Vision development framework launched in July 2016.

In 2019, 4.769 million tonnes of freight were moved between terminals on the Thames, equivalent to more than 200,000 HGV loads.

This is a key action to mitigate the climate emergency in Lewisham, surely?

Newsshopper story is here and a further story, ‘Hutchinson backtracks’ with an apology is here

Housing Campaigners say ‘Waive The Rents’

Cllr Alan Hall has joined housing campaigners calling for Housing Associations to “look long and hard at their original purpose – they should help tenants by waiving rents and service charges as the Covid19 pandemic continues. They must not add to London’s housing crisis as the economic consequences bite.”

Social Housing Action Campaign are calling for Housing Associations to ‘waive the rents’

The Social Housing Action Campaign has had a letter published in the Evening Standard saying that more than half of all eviction notices are served by social landlords (mainly Housing Associations). When evictions are restarted in August, they will become major contributors to London’s housing crisis.

Many housing associations were established as independent, charitable organisations with the purpose to help tackle homelessness, and others to provide homes and care services for specific groups like older people.

SHAC’s Suzanne Muna said: “Even before the pandemic, evictions due to financial difficulties were on the rise. The ‘gig’ economy and Universal Credit among others made it increasingly difficult for families to sustain regular rental payments. Repossession orders were temporarily halted when the courts closed earlier in the year, but many Londoners now fear a wave of eviction notices when they reopen in August. SHAC wants Housing Associations to waive rents and service charges for families struggling due to Covid19.”

The full text of SHAC’s letter in the Evening Standard is here:

Dear Evening Standard

Even before the pandemic, evictions due to financial difficulties were on the rise. The ‘gig’ economy and Universal Credit among others made it increasingly difficult for families to sustain regular rental payments. Repossession orders were temporarily halted when the courts closed earlier in the year, but many Londoners now fear a wave of eviction notices when they reopen in August.

Housing associations (HAs) provide ‘affordable’ rented homes to around 400,000 Londoners, and many more at market rent levels. The common perception of HAs is that they are benign organisations aiming to house those most in need. Unfortunately not.

You might expect an organisation with a social housing mission to use its resources to help those whose income has been hit by the pandemic. But many HAs raised rents and service charges in April despite the income squeeze being experienced by many tenants. Often, those who reported financial difficulties got little more than a referral to debt advice services.

HA executives are hopelessly out of touch. With average chief executive pay rises of 3.6% in 2019 (compared to zero in some cases for the non-executive staff), CEOs like London & Quadrant’s David Montague on a salary of £335,704 cannot identify with the economic struggles of the majority of Londoners.

More than half of all eviction notices are served by social landlords (mainly HAs). When evictions are re-started in August, HAs will thus become major contributors to a new and even more extreme phase in the London housing crisis – unless they fundamentally change their approach.

The Social Housing Action Campaign was set up to bring together tenants from across housing associations. We are calling for HAs to use their vast resources, such as their collective surpluses of over £4bn, to waive rents and service charges for those whose income has reduced as a result of the pandemic.

It is time for HAs to rediscover their social purpose and concentrate on keeping tenants in their homes, instead of adding to a homelessness crisis and passing the problem on to already overburdened local authorities.

Domestic Violence surge

As predicted by the United Nations, the rates of domestic violence have surged with the coronavirus lockdown measures.

The New York Times reports that “there was every reason to believe that the restrictions imposed to keep the virus from spreading would have such an effect,” according to Marianne Hester, a Bristol University sociologist who studies abusive relationships.”

It goes on to say: “hotlines are lighting up with abuse reports, leaving governments trying to address a crisis that experts say they should have seen coming.”

In London, the Victims’ Commissioner has tweeted:

Solace Women’s Aid and the Public Interest Law Centre have written an urgent letter to Robert Jenrick MP, the Secretary of State for Communities, Housing & Local Government calling for “urgent measures…to ensure that those who are at risk of domestic abuse are properly protected and supported during the current outbreak of Covid-19. It is widely acknowledged that during this time of nationwide lockdown, domestic abuse has, and will, increase. We are deeply concerned as to the absence of a robust response from the UK Government regarding this issue.”

The letter has been signed by Trade Unionists and over 15 organisations working in the field. Their key demands include:

  1. Immediately provide a separate emergency fund to Local Authorities to ensure they are able to adequately house survivors of domestic abuse in hotels or other appropriate locations, as has been allocated for rough sleepers. Any such funds must be accessible and appropriate to meet the needs of the diverse range of women fleeing abuse. This demand is in addition to the need for the Government to deliver emergency funding to refuges and guarantee their sustainable long-term funding future
  2. Introduce an urgent statutory instrument to amend the Housing Act 1996 to include within the ‘categories of person in priority need’ those who have had to leave accommodation because of violence or threats of violence from another person, without having to also satisfy the vulnerability criteria and temporarily suspend the eligibility criteria to include those with no recourse to public funds
  3. Introduce a safe system of coordination, developed in conjunction with specialist VAWG providers and with Local Authorities, to allocate hotel spaces alongside specialist support to those deemed in priority need as a result of domestic abuse
  4. Publish clear information for domestic abuse survivors (in the form of targeted adverts on television and social media) to ensure the above is brought to their attention. This communication must be accessible to all communities, including in different languages
  5. Publish guidance for Local Authorities on any new measures and, vitally, on the relaxation of the Government’s guidance on ‘Staying at home and away from others (social distancing)’ to disapply it in cases of domestic abuse
  6. Provide training materials to all Local Authorities to ensure they adequately train their staff on any new policy, procedure and/or guidance
  7. The above actions to be made both accessible and exercisable to all women regardless of their immigration status. In terms of wider concerns relating to No Recourse to Public Funds, we would endorse wider demands made by The Joint Council of the Welfare of
    Immigrants and Project 17, Migrant’s Right Network and Public Interest Law Centre.

The End Violence Against Women Coalition has been briefing saying that predictions on the likelihood of increased domestic abuse, sexual violence, assaults on girls, online abuse and the invisibility of many women and girls during the crisis.

EVAWC calls for abuse experts to feed into the Government’s COBRA planning immediately, emergency funding for the charities which protect and support victims, public awareness campaigns aimed at potential perpetrators and at neighbours/family/friends rather than solely aimed at victims and the abolition of the “no recourse to public funds” rules which stop migrant women accessing refuges.

End Violence Against Women Coalition Director, Sarah Green said:

“We must not get to the end of this public health emergency and look back on it as a period when a ‘secondary’ predictable disaster was allowed to happen.”

Cllr Alan Hall says: “Hotels to be used to take the overspill from refuges. Local Authorities could open up ‘empty properties’ to be used to accommodate those fleeing.

Lewisham Council lists domestic abuse services on its website here

The National Domestic Abuse hotline has seen a 25% increase in calls & online requests for help in past week

During the lockdown there’s also been a daily rise in people going on the helpline website & last wk that figure was up by 150%

The helpline is open 24/7

If you’re in Lewisham, you can call the Athena Service on 0800 112 4052 or email lewishamvawg@refuge.org.uk or visit https://www.refuge.org.uk/our-work/our-services/one-stop-shop-services/athena/

Why are st mungo’s staff striking?

Hundreds of staff at homeless housing charity St Mungo’s took the difficult decision to withdraw their labour after a year long dispute and take strike action last week. The charity’s staff are dedicated and work with some of the most vulnerable homeless people.

St Mungo’s started as a small group of people who decided to do something to help the people they saw sleeping rough on the streets of London. They started by going out, talking to people, offering food and what assistance they could. Today, it is the largest charitable housing association working in the field. This was during the time of ‘Cathy Come Home’, the acclaimed BBC play which sparked a public debate about homelessness in the late 1960s.

The staff want proper sickness pay and procedures and to end the “race to the bottom” on terms and conditions.

Unite regional officer Tabusam Ahmed said: “The last thing our members want is to cause hardship to vulnerable homeless people. But after more than a year of having their demands to be treated more fairly ignored, they’ve had enough.

“This was a resounding vote against a heavy-handed and bullying management style.

“Our members’ demands – that management respect staffing agreements, staff terms and conditions, and end their draconian use of discipline and hostility towards their chosen trade union – are reasonable.

“The time has come for management to negotiate and to rebuild trust.”

A recent Employment Tribunal, Ms Leigh Andrews vs St Mungo’s concluded that victimisation had taken place. It is against this background, that Unite the Union began negotiations and this has led to strike action.

Why St Mungo’s workers are striking

In Lewisham, striking staff and their supporters were invited to demonstrate outside the St Mungo’s New Cross Assessment Centre in the morning. Trade Unionists expressed their solidarity. The BAME Forum of the Deptford Labour Party were present alongside the Lewisham TUC Trades Council and local Councillors.

Lewisham Councillor Alan Hall said: “St Mungo’s workers are on the front line of the housing crisis. If we don’t support them, they can’t support the homeless – this is vital work.”  

“Howard Sinclair the CEO needs to regain the trust of staff as these are the people who built St Mungos.” 

Rallies were held outside Hackney Town Hall and Camden Town Hall later that day where speakers included Jim Kelly, Chair, London Labour Party.

The Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell MP was kept in the Commons due to the coronavirus crisis but he tweeted his solidarity.

GLA disclosure on New Bermondsey Housing Action Zone

Following a Freedom of Information  request the Greater London Authority have disclosed new information in relation to the developer Renewal scheme for Surrey Canal Road or New Bermondsey this area includes land leased by Millwall FC.

The GLA say:

“As you are aware, we originally thought there was no due diligence on the proposal we were working on with Lewisham officers to increase the level of affordable housing, which was referenced in the report you forwarded. However, on further examination of our files we found a report which had been written but not actioned further. We have therefore identified two reports within scope of your request:

• Cushman & Wakefield (C&W) “Scheme Acceleration Commentary”
Transaction 1 & 2 New Bermondsey”

These two reports have been released to the public in a redacted form by the GLA.

The Cushman & Wakefied report can be read  here: GLA Cush 7731_-_lewisham_hz_-_cw_new_bermondsey_unit_acceleration_report_10_11_16_redacted

The Lambert Smith Hampton HAZ Due Diligence report is here: GLA LSH report 7731_-_housing_zones_due_dilligence_-_lb_lewisham_redacted

A document attributed to Lambert Smith Hampton put the whole New Bermondsey scheme on hold when it was discovered during the Compulsory Purchase Order consideration by Lewisham Council on 27th September 2016. This was quite dramatic for local government. A contemporary account in the local newspaper, The Newsshopper is here

On 19th February 2018, the GLA announced that the £20 million Housing Action Zone money was to be withdrawn. A report in the South London Press is here.