By Local Democracy Reporter
A LEADING Thurrock councillor has spoken up to say the borough is ‘lucky’ that it does not have the levels of homeless people that neighbouring communities do.
Cllr Barry Johnson, the council’s portfolio holder for housing, was speaking after a government report showed hundred of families across south Essex are living in temporary accommodation despite the introduction of a policy that was supposed to help people on the brink of homelessness.
The figures published by the Government’s housing department show that in Southend 175 families and couples lived in bed and breakfasts, hostels and other types of temporary accommodation during the first three months of the year – including 234 children.
These numbers were even higher in the neighbouring borough of Basildon where 443 families were registered as living in temporary accommodation, among them 564 children.
It comes just over a year after the Government’s Homelessness Reduction Act came into force, a policy that puts more responsibility on local authorities to provide support for people at risk of homelessness.
Data shows that rather than reduce the numbers at risk, they have increased by 29 households in Southend and by 46 in Basildon.
Cllr Kerry Smith, who chairs Basildon’s Housing and Communities Committee, admitted that he was not surprised to see Basildon with number so much higher than neighbouring authorities and said the priority needs to be on building more council homes.
He said: “This council will do everything it can to get the number of council homes up to where they should be. The council has previously just been plodding along when we really should be doing what I am trying to do now, which is step it up several gears and produce the numbers we need.”
Speaking of the Homelessness Reduction Act, he described it as “typical Government legislation introduced to give the appearance it is doing something”. He explained that the council can only do so much to prevent homelessness when there are not enough homes to house people.
Southend Council’s deputy leader, Cllr Ron Woodley, also stressed the need to more council homes.
“We want to build more housing for the people on housing waitlist and I think that is currently at about 1,500 people. This was never going to be fixed overnight but in our tenure we hope to ensure that as many new homes are built for the families in Southend.
“If we could wave a magic wand, we would love to house all of them.”
He went on to outline a range of schemes already underway at the council including £4.3million spent to purchase private properties to be refurbished as council homes, plans for the regeneration of Queensway and future plans to build home on the Gas Works site.
Thurrock Council had fewer families in temporary accommodation with 151 but they were unable to provide details of how much that has changed since the introduction of the Homelessness Reduction Act because the Government said their data was “missing or incomplete”.
Cllr Johnson said: “Anybody forced onto the street is one too many, we are lucky in Thurrock that we don’t have the numbers that some of the other boroughs do.
“We have been placing particular importance on early intervention. We want to prevent and get hold of people before it happens which is why the Homelessness Reduction Act came in – as a council we have to engage with people at an early stage and prevent them from going on the streets.”
Mr Johnson added that he doesn’t think it is possible to say whether the act has been effective in Thurrock at this stage but said it does put an emphasis on the correct issue – prevention.
Castle Point Council reported the lowest number of families in temporary accommodation in the region, with 119.
Polly Neate, chief executive of homelessness charity Shelter, said: “While the housing crisis is out of the spotlight, families with young children are trapped in grim temporary accommodation like bed and breakfasts and shipping containers, and young people feel the damaging effects of growing up in a housing emergency.
“Cripplingly expensive private rents, frozen housing benefits, and lengthy waiting lists for social homes are pushing people to the sharp edge of a housing emergency which won’t go away without genuinely affordable homes.”