Tuesday 4 December 2018

Open Letter to Councillor Gabriel Rozenberg concerning Barnet Council Housing Policy with reply

Barnet - Land of opportunity (for developers not the homeless)
Originally posted 27 November 2018 - see below for response from Cllr Rozenberg.

Tonight the Barnet Council Housing Committee meets to discuss its housing strategy. I have been slacking in my blogging efforts, so initially missed this meeting. As a result, I missed the deadline for questions and public submissions. I am rather hoping that the chair and the members are kind enough to at least consider my comments privately and possibly ask  a few questions themselves. For many people in Barnet, it is the biggest problem. The widow of my former business partner has been in temporary Council accomodation, despite having a daughter with special needs and a son with behavioural issues. I have seen first hand how broken the system is.

Sadly like every other aspect of local govt finances, there re huge pressures and I have a degree of sympathy with the dilemma of the council. However I really don't think that those at the bottom of the financial pile should be the ones to suffer. Here are my comments.

I will update you if I get any sort of response from our elected officials.

Dear Councillor Rozenberg (cc Commitee members)

Firstly, I realise that I have missed the deadline for public questions etc. I would however ask that you consider the following points regarding the discussion of rough sleepers. I have considerable experience in this area as a long term volunteer with both The Passage, a homeless day centre in Victoria and the Mill Hill Churches/Homeless Action Barnet night shelter scheme. Had I had the opportunity to read the papers, I would have most certainly asked for the opportunity to address the committee.

There are several aspects of the papers that deeply trouble me. Firstly the following paragraph

"Rough Sleepers
Members asked for an  update regarding rough  sleepers. Officers replied that rough sleepers often had the most complex needs and there was assistance available, such as supported accommodation and assistance with helping them back to work. It was vital not to rush things and to offer the right accommodation and support plan."

There are two aspects of this that must be pointed out. There is a misconception that all rough sleepers are out of work. In actual fact this is not the case, especially with migrant workers. Many of these work, but are not able to secure accomodation, for a whole host of reasons. A specific strategy should be put into place for people in these circumstances. I am also concerned by the statement that "it is vital not to rush things". At this time of year particularly, there is a very real risk to life posed by cold weather to rough sleepers. Finding some sort of emergency accomodation should be a high priority. I would also suggest that in the case of young people and vulnerable people, haste should be of the essence.

My experience at the Passage in particular that the biggest challenge is to "get people into the system". I am concerned that the officers update gives no indication of any sense of urgency and the seriousness of the situation. From a Barnet perspective, my work with The Mill Hill scheme has introduced me to a group of people who generally can be re-integrated into society with the right level of support, which has sadly often been lacking. In Mill Hill specifically, for the period of maybe a couple of years, there was a rough sleeper who regularly begged outside Barclays Bank. His name was Gerald and he was well known to locals. It transpired that he was unable to work due to back issues. Due to the help of locals, he was able to get his back issues resolved and is now back in work and has accomodation. People like Gerald should be helped through more official channels. He is now paying taxes and contributing to society again.

I am also concerned by item H2 which states
"H2 - Transfer of 141 properties acquired by Council for use as affordable temporary accommodation to Opendoor Homes."
Would it be possible to clarify whether these homes will still be available as temporary accomodation? Whilst temporary accomodation is never ideal it is a necessity for the most vulnerable people in Barnet. I am trusting that this lack of clarity is just the wording but would appreciate if this could be clarified.

I am also concerned by item H6. This states

"H6 - Trickle transfer of 950 council homes to Open Door Homes.
Savings achieved as Open Door Homes will pay an annual premium to the council for each property and make use of the assett base to fund the building of more affordable homes."

My understanding is that this transfer of 950 council houses have to be empty to facilitate this transfer. I struggle to understang how we can have empty council housing stock at a time of a housing crisis. I also struggle to understand how this will in any way address the issue of the genuine housing requirements of the poorest Barnet Council residents. Whilst I support measures to increase genuinely affordable accomodation in Barnet for key workers and families, this clearly does nothing to address this. I personally would suggest that a far more robust regime of planning requirements for new builds would be a genuinely effective way of increasing housing provision. A good example of this would be to pressure the Mayor of London to ensure that schemes such as the Pentavia Retail park scheme have genuine social accomodation at the heart of the planning brief.

Whilst I recognise that I have technically missed the deadline for raising these concerns, I sincerely hope that my comments are at least considered by yourself and your fellow committee members. As a local business owner, who directly and indirectly supports over 250 local jobs through my business, I am ever more aware of the issues of finding employees who can afford to live and work in Barnet. Sooner or later this will have a devastating effect on the Barnet economy as businesses simply cannot find staff to do the work to run the businesses. There are sound economic reasons for having a decent mix of housing stock and the situation in Barnet clearly demonstrates that we need a more joined up and holistic approach to provision of housing stock.
Update 4th December

I am pleased to report that Councillor Rozenberg has responded to my email. I am pleased that the chair is happy to issue a serious response to sensible questions. There are a few questions this raises, but for now here is his response without comment.

Dear Roger

Thank you for your email setting out some constructive thoughts in relation to the recent Housing Committee papers.

You make a number of good points around rough sleepers. I take your point that not all rough sleepers are out of work, but it is nonetheless the case that a high proportion are, and we do work hard to get them back into the system where that is the case. This year, Barnet Homes has been awarded £190,556 by the government to reduce rough sleeping in the borough. The award is funding a dedicated Rough Sleeper Coordinator as well as three outreach support workers to help some of the most entrenched rough sleepers.

We recently set out proposals to strengthen our efforts in our draft Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Strategy which is currently out to consultation. We are already seeing the results of this, with two rough sleepers being successfully moved into temporary accommodation and a further two into other forms of accommodation. No rough sleepers should be street homeless during the cold weather as Barnet has also signed up to the Severe Weather Emergency Protocol, co-ordinated by the Greater London Authority, offering temporary accommodation to all rough sleepers should the temperature drop below zero degrees.

You have a query about the transfer of temporary accommodation units to Opendoor Homes (a subsidiary of Barnet Homes, which is owned by the borough). These will indeed remain in use as TA in the future – we will unfortunately continue to have a heavy need for them. You also ask about the proposals to transfer 950 council homes to Opendoor. There are certainly not 950 vacant council homes in Barnet! The proposals under discussion relate to gradual transfer of housing as each property becomes vacant. We will be publishing more detail around these proposals in early 2019. Incidentally our record on turnaround times for vacant social properties is extremely good. I receive monthly statistics on our voids: Barnet Homes regularly averages turnaround times of below two weeks, which is a best in class performance among London boroughs. So we definitely don’t let properties lie vacant for any significant length of time.

At the root of our efforts to deal with homelessness is an urgent need for more mixed tenure housing in Barnet. We want to ensure that as much high quality affordable housing is delivered in the borough as possible, and we will continue to work towards this goal.

Best wishes



---- Don't forget to make a date in your diary for The Barnet Eye Xmas party and Community awards at Mill Hill Rugby Club on Fri 14th December at Mill Hill Rugby Club at 8pm. We really hope you can come down and say Hi. Admission is Free.

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