A LEADING member of West Berkshire Council has refuted the claim that the level of homelessness within the district is worse than other parts of the country.
Executive member for planning, housing and leisure Hilary Cole (Con, Chieveley) instead praised the council for its “proactive” approach in battling the problem and defended its efforts in ensuring its severe weather emergency protocol (SWEP) was instigated regularly.
It comes after the Homeless And Rough Sleepers Report 2018, published by Healthwatch West Berkshire (HWWB) last week, revealed “an unprecedented rise” in the number of people sleeping rough in the district.
In a full council meeting last week, Newbury Green Party chairman Steve Masters challenged the council to accept that the level of homelessness within West Berkshire was “unacceptable”, given the district’s prosperous and economically active nature.
According to Government figures, the number of rough sleepers nationally is on average 0.2 per 1,000 households.
This is 50 per cent higher in West Berkshire, where the rate is 0.31 per 1,000 households.
Mrs Cole cited this figure in her response to Mr Masters, adding that the rate of rough sleepers had risen by a third in West Berkshire since 2016.
The deputy council leader also summarised a number of initiatives that the authority already had in place to tackle the issue.
These included the council’s Making Every Adult Matter (MEAM) project, a multi-agency group in partnership with Thames Valley Police that works to identify the reasons for people sleeping rough and the council’s funded outreach worker at the Two Saints hostel in Newbury.
Mrs Cole also stressed the council was concentrating its efforts on prevention, citing the enactment of the Homeless Reduction Act, which will place a legal duty on councils to prevent people becoming homeless.
“It’s also timely that the Homeless Reduction Act 2017 will be implemented in April 2018, with the aim of preventing homelessness in the first place,” said Mrs Cole.
“As a result of this act, the council is proposing at the next council meeting to approve significant resources to support this act.
“It is therefore anticipated that rough sleeping will also be tackled by early intervention.”
Mr Masters praised Mrs Cole for repeating the figures in HWWB’s report, but argued she had not answered his original question.
Mrs Cole then reiterated the “inaccuracies” she believed to be contained within the report, reflecting the council’s concerns that it “did not accurately reflect the full picture of the homelessness situation or service provision in West Berkshire”.
In a statement released after the meeting, Mr Masters condemned the council’s lack of clarity in response to his question, despite being advised to put it again to the council in future public meetings.
“I was very disappointed to not get a straight answer from the housing portfolio holder as to whether it was acceptable to have a rough sleeper rate over 50 per cent higher than the national average,” he said.
“This is typical of a council who are unable to accept that the previous cuts and their austerity policies are actually harming our most vulnerable.
“I ask her formally to answer with a straight yes or no.”