Iain Whyte: We need to do better for Edinburgh's homeless

Rough sleepers should be given a home immediately and support to help them stay there, writes council Conservative group leader Iain Whyte.

Monday, 18th December 2017, 6:00 am
A different way of working is needed to tackle rough sleeping. Picture: John Devlin

As winter hits and Christmas approaches many of us think of those most in need and especially the homeless and rough sleepers. Thousands, like my Conservative colleague Councillor Graeme Bruce, took part in Social Bite’s recent Sleep in the Park. Many others have donated to fund meals or have bought a Caring Christmas Tree to support Bethany Christian Trust’s Care Shelter.

I applaud the generosity of the public but we in politics should instead look to the services we are responsible for and the policies we enact if we are to solve the problem.

It is not for want of resources that we are failing those most in need.

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Councillor Iain Whyte is the Conservative Group leader at Edinburgh City Council. Picture: Ian Georgeson

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The council spends £60 million a year on homelessness and has 182 staff dedicated to this work. But signs of distress on our streets are growing and we have the scandal of families living in B&B accommodation.

The numbers in temporary accommodation continue to rise and in the ten years that the SNP and Labour have run the council the average length of a homelessness case has increased from 109 days to 303.

What galls is that those administration councillors misguidedly blame others for a “lack or resource” and criticise welfare reform for “growing” homelessness.

Councillor Iain Whyte is the Conservative Group leader at Edinburgh City Council. Picture: Ian Georgeson

The truth is that Edinburgh’s homeless case numbers have fallen every year for those ten years from 5,500 to 3,400. So, it is time that councillors of all parties look at our services and ask whether they are doing the right things or doing them well enough.

If there are fewer in desperate need, shouldn’t we be serving them better?

We were successful in the past, ending rough sleeping in the mid-1990s through an initiative launched by a Conservative Government. We also ended the use of B&Bs as temporary accommodation.

But performance can slip and changing policy fashions can mean that the things that work are too easily forgotten. The only real solution is to build more homes and free up our laborious planning and regeneration services. We can do a lot to mitigate the problems our housing service deals with in the meantime.

In October, I challenged the council to implement the Housing First model. This gives those in greatest need, like rough sleepers, a home immediately and then supports them to maintain it rather than trying to solve their problems on the streets or in a hostel.

There is already substantial international evidence that it works, but any action has had to wait while the council set up a Homelessness Task Force.

We need to be swifter in policy change when evidence suggests a different way of working is far more effective.

A councillor’s role is to be a critical friend to our services but after ten years in power it seems the SNP and Labour will only defend current services even when they are failing.

I presume they fear being blamed. We Conservatives won’t shirk on being critical in a positive way to get better services for Edinburgh.

I am happy to have been appointed to the Homelessness Task Force because there is consensus on improving outcomes for the homeless. I just wish others would join me in publicly challenging our services to do better because it really does matter to our services users and the generous public who care about them.