While doing research for my Maiden Speech, I was shocked by the following statistic: in December 2016, the charity Shelter reported that 600 people in Peterborough were homeless.
My initial surprise was softened, however, by my recollections of going into the centre of town; the numbers of rough sleepers seemed to be on an upward incline. I recalled the case of a gentleman who pitched a tent next to Bourges Boulevard. 2017 is drawing to a close; frost has made its first appearance on windowpanes, mince pies and Christmas trees are starting to emerge. We cannot say it has been a year of progress: the statistics have not improved. As reported in this newspaper, Shelter has said Peterborough is in the top 50 for rates of homelessness in the UK. The number of those without homes has shot up to over 1,000. Peterborough is not the wealthiest city in the UK, but it should disquiet us all that a place that enjoys so many advantages also has so many people without homes.
No doubt, some would like to blame the cuts to local government which are a consequence of austerity policies. No authority could endure year after year of reductions without some impact to services; this needs to be reversed. Nevertheless, I have a number of a questions which I believe should be answered.
Firstly, if there is £15 million to lend for the Fletton Quays development, why isn’t there sufficient cash to solve this problem? Obviously, the council has budgets that it is obliged to cover; nevertheless, Fletton Quays indicates there is at least some leeway, not least to borrow to invest in local infrastructure. Secondly, why was Barnet council permitted to buy properties in Peterborough to ameliorate its housing problems? Following this, I wonder why it took so long for our council to follow Barnet’s lead? Barnet obviously regarded Peterborough homes as a good deal; yet our council continued to put people into temporary accommodation. This led to an overspend of £1 million last year.
Thirdly, why hasn’t all of Peterborough been mobilised to solve this problem? At the very least, the council could work with the local business community and third sector organisations in a concerted effort.
The plight of the homeless should be at the forefront of all our minds. It’s particularly important at Christmas; those of us who adhere to the religious messages of the season are acutely aware that Mary and Joseph found “no room at the inn” and were forced to make do with a stable. In the weeks leading up to the holidays, I will be leading a push to get to grips with this issue; it can’t sit well with anyone who believes in “goodwill to all men” that any are left in the cold.