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Case Study: Political initiatives to support the homeless

Watch this interview with Bristol councillor Paul Smith, on how he works to tackle the housing crisis, to improve housing and community services.
There’s always been a tiny number of people on the streets when the welfare system’s been working well. The amount of welfare support, the safety net as some people call it, has had lots of holes ripped in it and the people on the streets are the people very often who’ve fallen through the holes.
They’ve tended to have some sort of catastrophic event in their life which could be that their relationship’s broken down, that they’ve lost their job, that they’ve had a bereavement, maybe they’ve been demobbed from the army while suffering from post-traumatic stress, they’ve had some sort mental health breakdown or physical breakdown, usually more than one of those things at the same time and they just haven’t had the resilience then to deal with that. We have to look at how that benefit system can be reconstructed to ensure that when people get in a difficult position, or parts of their life collapses, there’s enough of a safety net to hold them for the period whilst they get themselves back together.
But there are also fundamental sort of more structural things as well as the welfare system, for instance in this country the amount of social housing, housing for people who’ve got themselves into difficulties, for them to rely on as an alternative, traditionally through councils, but also through housing associations, it’s dropped by over a million since the introduction of the right to buy. over a million homes that would have been there available for people to rent at low levels of rent. We really need a big building program of more of that type of housing.
Because housing is a capital asset which pays back, you know, if you build housing it makes money, we’ve actually decided in Bristol to invest £220 million over the next five years, a lot of which we are borrowing to actually ensure that more rented housing is available for people on low incomes and the trouble is that it’s not an instant solution. It takes a, you know, typically for a housing project from inception to finish is three years, so we’re also having to look at ‘what temporary solutions do we have?’
as well but our main focus is let’s build a lot more council housing, Housing Association housing, to actually ensure that when people flow to us, because there’s nowhere else to go, we can actually rather than putting them in a bed-and-breakfast or some sort of temporary accommodation or even a hotel that we can get them quickly into some sort of permanent accommodation. Because, especially people with children, they need to know where the children are going to go to school, they need to know that they can get them there, they need to know what their community networks are going to be and that only comes from having permanent housing, not through sort of temporary stop-gap housing.
But basically we need more money for the public sector which means greater taxation and the question is whether people are prepared to accept, you know people who are doing quite well, who are in work, whether they’re prepared to accept that actually the state should have more of their money to actually create a more civilised society or whether they feel that they should have more of their money, which you can understand. But then what we see is more people on the streets, more people in crises without proper support and I guess it’s about the extent to what we understand a civilised society to be.
I mean I feel that my role firstly is as a councillor, as a member the cabinet and therefore has a responsibility to deliver things to get the best I can from the money that’s available the resources that are available to me and to use all the levers I can find to get the council and our partners doing the right thing. and sometimes just supporting people to do the right thing that aren’t us, so sometimes it’s the council getting out of the way.
I also feel that it’s also my role to advocate for what I think is the right thing, in a wider national policy context, and to be an advocate for the views which I hold and for the things which I think will make a difference. In terms of the things I’m doing around housing, about getting more housing built within the city, get more social housing built, also work around regulation of the private rented sector, there’s actually enormous cross-party agreement and I feel that I’ve got support pretty much from all of the parties and all of the politicians on the city, I guess until I make a mistake, but at the moment there’s quite a lot of consensus.
I think you know the difference will be, you know people join particular parties because they sign up to the fundamental ideology of those parties and their cultural outlook. When I suggest that we should, for instance, increase taxes, I’m sure that some of my colleague councillors from the Right would probably disagree with that but generally I mean most of what you do in local government is not ideologically driven it’s, you know, what is the most common sense thing to do and if you can persuade people from other parties as well as people from your own party, because there’s lots of different differing views within parties, as long as you can persuade people that what you’re doing is actually the common sense thing, that you can actually take people with you who might otherwise not agree with you politically.

At the time of filming, Paul Smith was a Labour Councillor for Bristol Central Ward and Cabinet Member for Homes & Communities.

Within and beyond his job roles, Paul has worked with several housing-focused groups, such as Bristol Harbourside Forum, the West of England Planning, Housing and Communities Board (PHCB), and HACT (Housing Associations’ Charitable Trust), that uses data to improve housing and community services.

After decades of working for Bristol City Council, Paul took a new role as Group Chief Executive Officer at Elim Housing Association in October 2020.

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