Bristol’s cabinet member for housing admitted to being caught between a rock and a hard place with a van dwelling policy that has drawn criticism.
Paul Smith reiterated there will not be a one-size-fits-all approach to the growing number of people living in vehicles on the city’s streets, but said the council cannot ignore its responsibility to those who are vulnerably housed or affected residents.
A petition, launched in response to the new policy that includes measures such as helping people find alternative accommodation and use of enforcement where necessary, is calling on Bristol City Council to reconsider its approach and has gained more than 1,100 signatures in a matter of days.
The policy was created in a bid to provide clarity as to actions the council will take. It follows a situation at Greenbank View in which a peaceful encampment was rocked by a small minority who caused issues, resulting in the council issuing a court order in the wake of caravan fires.
Speaking at a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, petition organiser Rhiannon Craft said: “It is felt that the proposed policy has not been researched correctly and the consultation not carried out fairly.”
She expressed concern that the implementation of the new policy will stem from discriminatory sentiments and argued that perceived anti-social behaviour could be addressed with the provision of facilities for Bristol’s van dwellers.
“You are a progressive, forward-thinking council. Why are you not considering an approach that is more research-based and consultative?” questioned Rhiannon.
Another speaker, Michael Gape, spoke about how moving from a damp flat into a vehicle had actually improved the physical and mental health of him and his partner.
Responding, Smith stressed that the policy will not affect people who live in a vehicle out of choice and don’t adversely impact residential neighbourhoods.
“Whatever we do it will never be the right thing,” he told cabinet members
“There is no one size fits all. Sleeping in vehicles is complicated – for some it’s a choice they have made, not something that’s been forced upon them. That’s very different to those who find they are living in a van because they cannot afford to rent somewhere, or the alternative is to be on the streets or in a night shelter.”
He continued: “The council does accept that, for some people, living in vehicles is an excellent choice and one they wish to continue with. There is nothing in this policy that will stop that.
“We are not going to force people into housing, and nor should people feel they have to live in housing if they have made themselves a perfectly good home in a vehicle.
“We have not been chasing people around the city moving them on, most of the encampments have been left. But there are some people living in vehicles who don’t want to.”
Meanwhile, a group of Conservative councillors have slammed the new policy for not going far enough to clamp down on vehicle dwellers.
Mark Weston, Claire Hiscott, John Goulandris, Geoff Gollop and Steve Smith all put their name to a press release arguing the council’s approach will be a “recipe for inaction”.
John Goulandris, a Tory councillor for Stoke Bishop, said: “Sadly, the proposals before cabinet completely fail to protect the interests and legitimate expectations of residents for quick and decisive action.
“Conservatives represent parts of the city with particularly ‘vulnerable’ locations like Durdham Downs, the Blaise Estate and Horfield Common. These places are regularly threatened with unlawful temporary encampments.
“The weak policy leaves residents none the wiser as to when enforcement measures will take place. For this reason, it needs to be rewritten and a much tougher stance taken towards this problem.”
A statement was submitted to cabinet, but no Tory councillors were present at the meeting, prompting Smith to comment they did not have the courage in their convictions to turn up.
He told the meeting that the policy had been designed to balance the needs of everyone affected and added that, if van dwellers do not feel it is working, they are welcome to work with the council to improve it.