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Peter's point of view

Peter’s point of view

In Praise of U-Turns

If you’ve been following the local media and our social media channels, you will know that we at St Petrock’s have been campaigning hard with our partners to stop Devon County Council’s plans to end all its funding for homelessness prevention services. We were – and remain – deeply concerned that if these cuts happen, St Petrock’s and Exeter will be overwhelmed with rough sleepers.

DCC’s argument was that it does not have any statutory duties around homelessness or housing, and so with extremely tight finances it simply cannot afford to fund these services any longer. And, superficially, fair enough – I don’t have a lot to disagree with that. Except that DCC does have legal duties for providing adult social care (including preventing people from getting to the stage of needed social care in the first place) and for tackling health inequalities.

These past few months I have been repeatedly pointing out that if someone becomes homeless, and loses the kind of support provided by hostels and other short-term housing, their care needs are likely to escalate massively, and their health deteriorate drastically. The likelihood of misusing drugs or alcohol escalates, and mental health rapidly slides downhill. Meaning that the financial pressure on DCC will actually increase, rather than decrease, if these services are cut.

Thankfully, Council Leader John Hart took the time to listen carefully to these and other arguments, and took the bold step of announcing that these cuts were going to be suspended for 6 months while DCC worked with the other local authorities in Devon to find a solution. In Cllr Hart’s words,

“While Devon County Council does not have responsibility for housing or homelessness directly, the issue of homelessness has significance across a great deal of what this council does to improve life for the people of Devon – whether that is in terms of good Public Health; our support to young people and especially our care leavers; as well as our adult social care services. We need to better understand the full impact of such a decision on all aspects of our public services.”

There is a tradition in British politics that when a ruling party changes policy in the face of public pressure, the media and Opposition mockingly cry “U-Turn!”. I think this is extremely unhelpful, and wish it would stop. When someone like John Hart has the insight to change tack in response to new evidence or changed circumstances, that demonstrates leadership, not weakness. (Although you have to ask why DCC councillors were not made fully aware of these knock-on impacts to start with, which would have made a U-turn unnecessary. But that is something for another Peter’s POV!)

I wonder how often governments – local and national – doggedly persist in poor and damaging policy which they know to be morally wrong and non-sensical simply because they are fearful of being mocked for U-turning? And we all suffer as a result.

I’d love to see much more U-turning away from policies that cause massive harm to vulnerable individuals, usually impacting the taxpayer financially. And I’d love to see more intelligent thinking in politics that doesn’t just look at issues (e.g. homelessness) in isolation, but which recognises the impact of these issues on a raft of other social problems (e.g. physical and mental health, drugs and alcohol, criminal justice).

It is only this kind of rigorous policymaking, crossing departmental silos and breaking political taboos, that will bring both genuine financial savings and a better and more just society for all.

And prevent U-turns being needed in the first place.