Since I was first elected four years ago, I’ve been struck by the increase in rough sleeping as well as a rise in intimidating behaviour in Bexhill. It’s not just through my own eyes. I was struck by a visit to a school a year ago when the pupils who made up the school council were telling me that they felt afraid to go visit the high street. Regardless of the individual circumstances of those who have fallen on hard times, when children do not feel confident to take to their own streets we need to address the situation.
A further conversation with one of our priests, who had tried in vain to help a rough sleeper only for him and his congregation to experience the ramifications, and the idea of a summit on homelessness and rough sleeping was born. Held in my office, this involved the local police, local politicians from across the divide, senior local government officers responsible for housing and local church leaders. Our mission was to see how we could help those who had become homeless and needed help and separate this issue from those who cause trouble on the streets, are not homeless, but prey on those who are, as well as intimating members of the public. It is important for everyone to understand that there are two distinct groups; one needs our empathy and help, the other needs a zero tolerance approach to stamp it out.
The housing team at Rother District Council have approached all who are genuinely homeless and given an offer of temporary accommodation. A 5 year strategy to help the homeless has been launched and the council has successfully bid for funds from the Government’s Rough Sleeping Initiative fund. A Housing First approach, to provide permanent and affordable accommodation to those most in need and the support to help them stay off the streets, has been launched. This model has succeeded elsewhere in Europe and the US.
As for those who are not homeless but are hanging around the streets, dealing drugs, preying on members of the public and generally making our town centre a less pleasant experience, our police team have invoked new powers. A 48 hour curfew has been put on known perpetrators which stops them from being within the town centre. Breaches have led to arrests. I spent a Friday this month with the police team and joined one of them on the beat. We walked around Bexhill in the morning and Battle in the afternoon before heading out in a patrol car to visit the villages across Rother.
Our police offer kindness and support but anyone who crosses the line is dealt with. This form of community policing is popular with the public and it was clear to me that we have a great local police team. What we need is more of them in order to send a clear message that bad behaviour will not be tolerated. The Government has announced that an extra 20,000 police officers will be recruited. Sussex Police were already in the midst of delivering an extra 200 warranted officers so this figure will now increase. I will be lobbying for our share in the constituency.
In addition to resources, we need to ensure the police are given the respect and protection they deserve. Our Police and Crime Commissioner was right to call for tough prison sentences for anyone who attacks an officer. In the last 4 years, attacks on Sussex Police officers has risen by 16% to an average of 3 a day. In Parliament, we have doubled the prison sentence but our courts are not using it. We need to do more. If we expect the police to have a zero tolerance approach to those who blight the lives of others then they deserve the same support if anyone turns on them.
I hope that the measures to help the genuinely homeless and the measures to root out those who are not, but harass and intimidate on the streets, will be supported locally and that we can all make our town a better place for everyone who lives, works or visits here.