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The surprising homeless crisis in the UK’s market towns

Macclesfield

On a windy afternoon in Macclesfield last winter, NewStart saw two tents billowing outside a shop – a jarring sight on the high street of a relatively affluent market town.

When it comes to homelessness in the UK, much of the focus and outcry has understandably always been on the country’s biggest cities.

Yet market towns across the country have also seen a sharp rise in homelessness. But why has the safety net been removed in these places and what is being done to help?

Fraught with difficulties

One such market town struggling with homelessness is the town of Wellingborough, nestled in the East Midlands county of Northamptonshire.

A growing commuter town, Wellingborough was recently identified by housing charity Shelter as having one of England’s highest homelessness rates, ranking 47th with 1 in 200 of its population homeless, the highest rate in the East Midlands and ahead of larger cities like Bristol.

With local authorities facing the squeeze across the country, Wellingborough is just one place that is relying on community groups to fill in gaps.

Set up in late 2017, the Wellingborough Homeless Forum is a set of community groups and charities working together to help the homeless in the town.

After piloting a roving shelter across five church halls, the forum recently set up its own night shelter in the outbuilding of the private Wellingborough School, able to house up to 12 people a night.

‘That was hard! Fraught with difficulties,’ says Valerie Anslow, Labour councillor on the Borough Council of Wellingborough and chair of Wellingborough Homeless Forum.  ‘Not everybody wants a shelter in their town, do they?’

With limited funds for local charities to compete for, the forum is now considering whether to become a constituted body or come under the auspices of existing organisations such as the Daylight Centre, of which Cllr Anslow is a trustee.

Wellingborough

‘What we’re wanting by constituting is to access additional funds so that it’s not just a sticking plaster like we see the night shelter,’ Anslow said.

Cllr Anslow believes that Wellingborough is struggling for several reasons, with a growing recognition among the public that homelessness is not just rough sleeping but insecure housing too.

Although developments are planned for the edge of the town such as Stanton Cross, which promises 3,650 new homes, they have been slow getting off the ground.

The town has also had to live with the plight of Northamptonshire County Council, which the government gave a £60m bail-out last November after it declared itself effectively insolvent.

After previously looking to outsource its services, the county council has now been forced to make deep cuts for savings, a situation Cllr Anslow profoundly disagrees with.

‘Wellingborough has got a poor income level,’ Anslow said. ‘The sort of jobs we’ve got in this area are really quite low-paid – there isn’t a major industry. It tends to be distribution, zero-hours [contracts], lower-paid work.’

‘If you haven’t got the support of the county council, which we haven’t had, then that causes stresses and strains within families and then problems occur.’

The Borough Council of Wellingborough is doing its best to pick up the slack when it comes to tackling the town’s homelessness problem.

In a statement sent to NewStart, the council said that it has committed over £2.7m to buying temporary accommodation, with four properties already purchased and another six on the way.

It has also applied to the next round of MCHLG’s Rough Sleeping Initiative to fund extra outreach workers and is speaking with housing developers to build more affordable homes.

Yet volunteers for the forum have said the council could be doing more, and Anslow reluctantly concurred.

‘We need some social housing which won’t be sold off again as it was all those years ago – that will be council stock and only council stock,’ she said.

Right properties, right people

While councils such as Wellingborough are struggling with homelessness, others are faring rather better, such as Cheshire East.

As it is proud to point out, Cheshire East – home to market towns such as Macclesfield and Nantwich – has a relatively low rate of homelessness, but still, the rise in recent years has still been noticeable.

‘There is a misconception that homelessness doesn’t happen in leafy Cheshire East, but it does,’ said Karen Carsberg, strategic housing manager of Cheshire East Council.

‘For some people, that’s been quite a shock – when some of the community see people that are sleeping rough and say, “In this day and age this shouldn’t be happening. How can this happen?”’

Last year Cheshire East drew up a homelessness strategy, appointing its first rough sleeping co-ordinator and making beds available in Macclesfield and Crewe.

The council’s strategy has been boosted by government funding, as it received £250,000 from the first round of the Rough Sleeping Initiative Fund last September.

Cheshire East is not a stock-holding authority so, as with Wellingborough, it is reliant on partners such as community groups and faith-based charities to fill in the gaps.

However, rough sleeping in the area is lowering, thanks – the council believes – to the efforts of its rough sleeping team and the investment going into its housing services.

‘There was a recognition by the council that housing is very important, and that if you don’t resolve issues around housing it can have a knock-on effect in social care, in anti-social behaviour, in crime, our public health services,’ Carsberg said.

‘There’s a whole issue if somebody doesn’t actually have a safe place to live and a decent, affordable place to live.’

According to Cllr Ainsley Arnold, the council’s cabinet member for housing, Cheshire East built 655 affordable homes in 2017/18 and aims to make a 30% contribution towards affordable housing – an important measure with many homes in the area prohibitively expensive to buy.

The council has also approved a Local Development Order in Macclesfield to acquire brownfield sites and bring them forward for residential use.

‘We’re looking to get more in-town development for people,’ Cllr Arnold said. ‘It’s getting that mix of properties, and I think that’s the nub of it – it’s to ensure that we have the right properties for the right people.’

The impression Cheshire East hope to give off as a council is a positive one – full of praise for its team on the ground, looking out for new approaches, and coping well with the situation it’s in.

But even though councils are doing good work, there is a sense that they can’t tackle the issue on their own.

The big answer

As homelessness rises across the country, it seems inevitable that help for England’s towns must trickle down from a national level.

Both Carsberg and Anslow say that the Homelessness Reduction Act – which came into force last April – has helped by giving authorities 56 days to help people at risk at homelessness before they find themselves on the streets.

‘I don’t think you’ll ever eradicate homelessness; there’ll always be people that are threatened with homelessness. For us it’s about early intervention,’ Carsberg said.

‘There is … advice, support, assistance, and the earlier we get in, the better chance we have of ensuring that someone doesn’t become homeless.’

When it comes to further changes that can be made, Anslow was clear, making a suggestion that she said drew on her Christian and socialist philosophy.

‘If we want services, those who are able should be paying for them,’ she said. ‘That’s my big answer.’

With the British government paralysed by Brexit, sleeping bags on streets will be a depressingly familiar sight until it can pull itself together to address the issue properly.

And while the attention will fall on the likes of Manchester and London, people will lose their homes in England’s smaller towns, while local authorities quietly pick up the pieces.

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