By Sheila Spencer
Over the last few weeks, we’ve heard lots of big ideas from Eric Pickles: why local councils should not discourage people from allowing others to park in their drives and the very strange idea of allowing some parking on double yellow lines (no suggestion about which places this could apply to or what to do if this causes hazards for others),
But he has saved the best – and the most superfluous, it seems to me – for the housing world. He seems to think that the worst problem we’ve got in housing is bins getting in the way (Govt needs to tackle “the ghastly gauntlet of bin-blighted streets and driveways”). He even goes so far as to lay the blame at the foot of the Labour Government, who says, had policies about bins which “made families’ lives hell”.
There’s plenty of really big stories that I would like Eric Pickles to start making statements about, ones that affect significant numbers of people in rather more profound ways. For a start, picking up the bins theme, Homeless Link and Broadway tell us that a number of homeless people have recently died as a result of sleeping in bins
The risk of death in this way is not a rare occurrence: in every town and city where I have looked into homelessness and rough sleeping, someone has mentioned to me that people are known to sleep in large bins, usually behind shopping centres. They are often at risk of being crushed as the bins are tipped up to be emptied.
Then there’s the number of rough sleepers who get assaulted. Homeless charity Crisis says that compared to the general public, homeless people are 13 times more likely to have experienced violence and 47 times more likely to be victims of theft. The press is full of stories about assaults on rough sleepers; in Cambridge, there were 5 times as many homeless people reported as victims of attack in 2012-13 than in 201-11.
I also wanted to mention the state of some of Britain’s private rented sector accommodation. In my area, it’s not bins left on the pavement that makes me depressed about where I live, it’s the terrible state of repair, cleanliness, and safety that affects not only the tenants but those living around them. With few private tenants staying for longer than the initial shorthold tenancy period, there is little commitment to, or indeed incentive for, tidying up the outside of the place. So collections of old bottles, cans, papers, and letters are all too common on the path just outside the property, and gardens are very rarely looked after. And as well as the common hazards caused by broken steps and gates and letter boxes which trap your fingers, (familiar to all Labour Party canvassers and leafletters), there’s the occasional house with the wood canopy or stone render above the front door, ready to drop onto you as you stand innocently waiting for an answer to your knock.
But for tenants, particularly those in terraced houses divided into flats, some features are much more dangerous. Walking around London, I’ve seen the most frightening-looking electrics outside flats above shops, garden walls leaning over at a terrific angle, almost ready to go, and alleyways between houses full of rubbish.
I’ve just done some research into the private hostels and Bed & Breakfast places that homeless people have to resort to. If you want to hear some of the worst stories, try this Big Issue in the North report , which highlights the huge gap in regulation that results in, as we saw, holes in the ceiling, landings full of old furniture, undecorated rooms, big hostels with no cooking facilities, and places where sexual abuse and drug pushing can be not just allowed but even actively promoted by the managers.
So Eric, how about statements promising to tackle the state of some of disrepair and terrible conditions in the worst of our private rented sector, or doing more to end the tragedy of homelessness? Leave aside the great problem of bins in the middle of footpaths, or the worry of what to do about people being allowed to park in people’s driveways, and put some thought into tackling the real housing crises in our country, why don’t you? There are real blots on the landscape that need your attention.