In a modern, caring and dynamic society it is important that we support those who need help. However, begging and soliciting money in a threatening or intimidating way is becoming a major problem in Chelmsford city centre. Last summer, I and the City Council have received a very high number of complaints about antisocial behaviour, including people approaching lone pedestrians at night and asking for money, using abusive language and sitting beneath cash machines.
I have been listening to the views of those closely involved in Chelmsford including local charities, local Councillors and volunteers as well as the police. I have also spoken to a number of those affected by homelessness themselves. There are clearly many different issues affecting homelessness in Chelmsford and, in some cases, especially where rough sleeping is involved, there are also often mental health or other considerations.
A Multi-Agency Action Plan has recently been drawn up to tackle the kind of anti-social behaviour especially regarding agressive begging and taking drugs.
Across the City Council area there are about 350 cases of people known not to have permanent accommodation which the City Council are helping. The Council has recently published a new “Homelessness Review and Strategy” paper and is consulting on various options for the future.
The strategy includes reducing the reliance on expensive bed and breakfast accommodation and nightly lets and increase the provision of self-contained and cost effective private rented accommodation through private sector lease scheme 'Homes2Lease' and the development of modular housing units.
Earlier this year Essex was selected to be one of the country’s first homelessness prevention trailblazer areas , and Essex County Council will receive nearly £900,000 from central government. Among other things, this funding will support projects to identify individuals at risk of becoming homeless so that action can be taken before that individual becomes homeless.
The Homelessness Reduction Act was passed by Parliament and came into law just before this election. act was the first major piece of legislation in the area since 2002 and was based on an independent review commissioned by Crisis . Act, which has been welcomed by other organisations such as Shelter , places a new duty on local authorities to help prevent the homelessness of all families and single people, regardless of priority need, who are eligible for assistance and threatened with homelessness. Conservative Manifesto aims to halve rough sleeping over the course of the parliament and eliminate it altogether by 2027. To achieve this we will set up a new homelessness reduction taskforce that will focus on prevention and affordable housing, and we will pilot a Housing First approach to tackle rough sleeping.
Delivering more affordable homes is vital if we are to achieve the aims of the Homelessness reduction . Over 304,000 affordable homes have been built in the last six years, more than were built in the last six years of Labour. The average number of affordable homes per year since 2010 has been 50,713 – compared to 42,855 per year under the last Labour Government.
In the UK each authority has to take regular surveys of the numbers of those sleeping rough on the streets. I am told that when the survey was done in Chelmsford in November 2016, in conjunction with other agencies there were 14 people rough sleeping. Some of those sleeping rough are known to have homes. For the coldest months of the year between 1 December and end February overnight shelter is offered to all who wish to engage.
In Chelmsford, the CHESS night shelter offers emergency overnight accommodation throughout the year. This helps many people. To stay at CHESS individuals are asked to co-operate with house rules, including a drug and alcohol ban. I am told that some of those who are sleeping rough in Chelmsford have chosen not to seek accommodation from Chess as they do not wish to follow these rules.
Some of those sleeping rough in Chelmsford have come from other parts of the UK, therefore it is important to also consider what is being done nationally. The Government has set aside a £20 million Rough Sleeping Grant. The Grant will fund 97 local authorities across England, including 48 projects in London. Many schemes are working on No First Night Out projects, identifying those at risk of rough sleeping and preventing them from spending a night on the streets. Other projects are working in multi-agency teams to support those at risk and those with issues such as substance misuse and mental health needs. Furthermore the Government is providing £10 million through new forms of charity investment. These are called Social Impact Bonds and in this case they provide payment by results funding for reducing homelessness. They will help to target the most entrenched rough sleepers and those with the most complex needs, and will fund eight areas to provide targeted and individually tailored support to up to 1,200 individuals.
Some (but not all) of those begging in Chelmsford are not homeless, and are not sleeping rough. Some of these individuals may have mental health problems but, again, this is not necessarily true for all. In August, the Council supported local charity CHESS Homeless' Spare Change or Real Change? campaign, which asked passers-by to volunteer or donate to homelessness charities rather than giving money. Many people who beg often do so to fund an addiction. Money from begging is spent on fuelling the addiction, a vicious cycle which then leads them to beg more and, in some cases, behave aggressively. Even after being housed, some people continue to beg to support drug or alcohol habits.
Chelmsford City Council has introduced a new approach to dealing with antisocial behaviour and nuisance begging in the city centre. The Council will issue Community Protection Warnings to individuals, which may lead to prosecution if antisocial behaviour continues. When someone known to have an addiction is given one of the notices, they will be given the option to avoid further action by signing up to a rehab programme. People begging in Chelmsford have already received verbal warning of the new approach.
Regarding policing, I understand that two new PSCOs are to be introduced to increase community policing in the High Street and Moulsam Street areas. The police are taking further actions and it is important that incidents are reported to the police so that they will continue to prioritise this area. I recently joined the police on patrol in the City Centre and was able to see how they co-ordinate with CCTV operations at the City Council and in High Chelmer. There is more we could do to support our Police and I am working with other Essex MPs on this.