The curious tale of Grant Shapps and Dick Whittington

In response to the news last week of a big increase – 23% – in the number of people sleeping on the streets, the Minister chose to emphasise the proportion who are not UK nationals.  He issued a warning to ‘aspiring Dick Whittingtons’ from across the continent not to come to London because ‘the streets of London and our other cities aren’t paved with gold’.

Recent reports show that there is some good work going on with foreign embassies to help foreign nationals who become homeless and wish to repatriate, and some voluntary organisations have launched a pilot ‘Before You Go’ project to help people make an informed choice before travelling to the UK.

The project is no doubt a good thing although I’m not sure if CLG press releases are widely read throughout the world by people aspiring to come to Britain.  When Magyars gather together, the name of Grant Shapps is on everyone’s lips.  Not.  But surely the flow of migrants will not stop because the recession is even worse, even more desperate, in some other countries, therefore we have to have policies to deal with that.  And most foreign nationals on the streets now are not recent arrivals but have lived here for some time before becoming victims of our recession and then homeless.

What intrigues me is Grant Shapps’ emphasis on the issue of foreign nationals rather than the overall increase.  New immigrants usually access jobs and accommodation through friends, relatives or employers.  If, as the voluntary organisations say, the big increase is mainly people from central and eastern Europe, then they are not here illegally, so that is not the issue.  Good thing or not, migrants have a right to be part of the British housing market.  So, could Grant Shapps be up to a diversionary tactic?  As a man who claims that his concern about homelessness and rough sleeping is what brought him into politics, why would he rather talk about foreign nationals being the problem rather than talk about our recession and his failed housing policies?  Or could it be that blaming foreign nationals for everything from the housing crisis to crime plays so well in the right wing press?

A considerably more serious look at the issues of migration and housing policy has just been published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation for the Housing and Migration Network.  It calls for greater consideration to be given to the issue of migrants being housed in the private rented sector.  It acknowledges that most live in fair conditions but that more recent migrants are concentrated in poorer-quality and cheaper dwellings – and ‘it is precisely this part of the sector that is now under extraordinary pressure from many different directions’ including councils discharging their homelessness duties into the sector and people seeking cheaper accommodation because of the cuts in Local Housing Allowance.

The report argues that competition between lower income groups will increasingly cause problems and may push rents up at the lower end of the market.  It makes a series of sensible recommendations for improving the operation of the sector, the quality of lettings, and the relevance of existing services to migrants.  Its plea that the issue of migrants should be taken into account in local houisng strategies deserves to be listened to.

And a final note to Grant Shapps and the press office who write his guff.  In the folk tale, Dick Whittington was of course a successful migrant to London who went on to become Mayor of London.  I think he had a cat, but he was definitely a poor boy who made his fortune by coming to London.  What kind of warning is that?

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