(Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)
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Anyone with their eyes open who works in or visits one of Britain’s largest cities will have noticed the rise in rough sleeping in recent years. Near the National Portrait Gallery, in the heart of the capital’s theatre land, and on busy Tottenham Court Road, or in the centre of Manchester, or in numerous other cities, it is ever more apparent. The bustling high streets of wealthy parts of London outside the centre have also attracted their own itinerant residents in sleeping bags, but in the centre rough sleepers are as commonplace as red buses and George Osborne editorials in the London Evening Standard denouncing Theresa May. When the temperature plummeted last week, many commuters, buttoned up against the icy cold, will have hurried past poor souls bedding down outside Green Park tube station and wondered how they would cope during the night.
The scandalous scenes on our streets shame a civilised society. They also create the conditions for the doom and destruction of Britain’s Conservative party, if they do not wake up and act. Behind the urgency of the human emergency right now the fate of the Tories is a second or third order question, to which I will return later.
Since 2010, rough sleeping in England has more than doubled, according to statistics issued by the Department for Communities and Local Government. In 2010 there were 1,768 rough sleepers recorded in England, with 415 of those in London. In 2016, there were 4,134 rough sleepers in England, with 964 in the capital. New figures are expected early next year.
According to a study published last month by the housing charity Shelter, 307,000 Britons are homeless. Homelessness does not mean sleeping on the streets. Many of those categorised as homeless live in poor temporary accommodation – hostels and bed and breakfast accommodation and the like. The government has introduced the Homelessness Reduction Act, which comes into force in April 2018. The Act is designed to force local authorities to intervene earlier.
The problems of homelessness and rough sleeping are connected, one feeding into the other, obviously, but they are not the same. Both are serious social problems, but there being more than 4,000 Britons out on the streets at night in winter, or at any time of the year, is worse, surely.
What has caused this surge? The changes to the benefits system under the coalition government from 2010, and the strict use of sanctions and withdrawal of benefits, get the blame from campaigners.
The change in drug habits is also a factor, it seems. Spice – synthetic cannabinoids, with their roots in the onetime legal highs that were made illegal -has taken hold among those sleeping rough because it is cheap, much cheaper than alcohol.
Super-strength lager or fortified wine is no longer the poison of choice. That’s why there is rough sleeping aplenty around tube stations in London but not a smell of stale booze. An eco-system of abuse, an evil trade with dealers dispensing Spice, and other drugs, returning to collect payment and dispense beatings, exists yards from busy shops and galleries. Look at the rough sleepers of today as you pass and you will see that their skin tends to be a curious orange tanned colour, thanks to the profusion of those drugs. Visible injuries, deep scars and vivid bruises are very common. That’s the beatings, and fights for territory and control.
What is to be done? Can anything be done? There will always be a large portion of opinion that says that this is all very sad, but it was ever thus. Victorian and Edwardian social campaigners had to contend with scepticism about social ills. Famously, this was the dismissive attitude of the fictional Henry Wilcox, the wealthy Edwardian patriarch at the centre of E.M. Forester’s Howard’s End. We feel sorry for the rough sleepers but there you have it, as Wilcox might say.
Equally, there is a strand of British social conservatism that thinks that at root this is largely a question of self-control and bad behaviour. What message is sent if we are seen to tolerate drug-taking and vagrancy by not making it clear what is right and what is wrong? That it is okay and someone else will always pick up the pieces?
On the centre-left, there is an opposite but equal tendency to deride the role of individual responsibility and to claim that any given ill is down to the government never doing enough. Tony Blair’s way round this was to emphasise that rights come with responsibilities. The government on behalf of us all has duties, but personal agency matters too. It should be noted, however, that homelessness last peaked in 2003-2004 under the Blair government.
But this latest manifestation of an old problem will surely rebound on the Conservatives worst of all, for it is they who have what marketing types might refer to as “serious and potentially fatal brand issues.” The young can’t stand them.
A few years ago Generation Y, born between 1980 and 2000, was described by pollsters as being an interesting ideological blend. They tend to be for self-reliance and hard work. While the entrepreneurial spirit is strong, the emphasis is on social conscience and fairness. That means that a ridiculous row recently about the Tories voting against the idea that animals are sentient went wild on social media. It was pure fake news, but it was believed, because the lie accorded with a great many people’s prejudices about the Tories.
Already, the Tory party is suffering for being perceived as a bunch of heartless rotters and worse. Below the age of 45, Tory voters in the UK are in a minority, the studies suggest. Below the age of 30 hardly anyone will admit to being seen with a Tory, let alone voting for the Conservatives. Those who run focus groups report that the word – Tory – is associated among younger Britons with heartlessness, austerity, arrogance combined with incompetence, and greed. The Tories fail the values and motives test.
That’s unfair, respond core Conservatives. Conservative-minded folk around the country take voluntary work, via churches or other programmes, extremely seriously. The caricature of the heartless or nasty Tory is a hangover from the crude stereotypes of the culture wars of the 1980s. Then a strong leader was admired, by many Tories and floating voters, for the way in which she dealt with epoch-defining challenges, although it went on too long and had side-effects that seemed harsh to all but the most devoted fans.
The homelessness debacle of that decade and the early 1990s became emblematic of that tear in Britain’s social fabric. Indeed, in the miserable cardboard city that sprouted on the South Bank, and in the ranks of rough sleepers on the Strand, were the seeds of electoral disaster for the Conservatives a few years later.
Blair and New Labour majored on sleaze and economic problems, although the economy was growing strongly in 1997. But the glue in the project, the idea to which the traditional left and the centrists of the leadership and millions more besides could adhere to, sharing a common cause, was the notion of the Tories as selfish and uncaring. The wealth creation of the 1980s in the City was contrasted year after year on television and in popular culture with the misery of homelessness a few miles away. It connected.
Heartlessness and unfairness became the dominant critique of the Tories throughout the New Labour years, and David Cameron’s pitch when he ran for the Tory leadership in 2005 was that he understood the criticism and wanted to emphasise a different kind of Conservatism.
When Cameron came to power, after the money ran out, the coalition government he led rightly emphasised welfare reform and the restorative power of work. It was placed alongside his concept of a Big Society, with more volunteering and community responsibility. That was an inherently appealing idea, Burkean in scope and classically Tory, but marketed by his modernising guru Steve Hilton in the most inept manner possible it came to be regarded as mere BS. The Big Society faded away and is now lost to history. In contrast, welfare reform carried on working its way through the system, with too little compensating emphasis on helping the very weakest.
Employment may well be at a record high, but no matter how many jobs an economy creates, there will always be damaged people who struggle to take part or to fit in, whether that is as a result of mental illness, abuse or trauma, addiction, or family breakdown.
Of course the government should attempt to treat the deeper causes, but why not deal more effectively with and help those on the streets now, immediately? Accordingly, Number 10 should make a fuss, a real fuss. Be practical. Convene England’s elected mayors and key council leaders. Haul in the police, if they’re not too busy investigating Conservative politicians alive and deceased. The police might be encouraged to target the dealers and so on. Consult the housing and drugs charities and churches, urgently. Listen, then come up with a well-publicised plan before Christmas and some money to assist as many of the 4,000 plus sleeping rough as possible. Action This Day, as Churchill used to put it. Why not?
If one despairs of Theresa May or her aides ever acting in such a fashion, about, well, anything, the next generation of Conservative MPs, much lauded but as yet untested, need to get a move on. They will be sunk if they cannot convince the rising generations that their motives are decent and their values are sound.
How a civilisation and its leaders respond to the difficult realities of human weakness matters. Thanks to its frontier mentality, the US is a thrusting and dynamic country, but it is extremely tough. There it has become accepted, almost acceptable, in cities such as New York and San Francisco for there to be extraordinary amounts of rough sleeping and crime related to it. Does the UK really want this degrading US approach to become the norm in its cities and large towns? British social attitudes suggest that Britons will not countenance such scenes on our streets for long, and in time they will likely take a dim view of those who failed to fix the problem. So, fix it.