Activism

Tory councillor quits party over refusal to back homeless donation scheme

Brendan O'Donnell says the refusal to support the Billy Chip was the "catalyst" for him to quit the Conservative party

Brendan O'Donnell with the Billy Chip. Image: Supplied

A councillor has quit the Conservative Party over its refusal to support a donation scheme to help people experiencing homelessness.

Brendon O’Donnell asked the Tory-run Gloucester City Council to back the Billy Chip scheme, which allows the public to buy poker chip-style tokens at a shop or cafe and give them to a person on the streets to exchange for food or a hot drink, but was told the council “does not promote” any particular options.

This refusal was the final straw for O’Donnell, given a controversial poster campaign run by the council in 2018 which asked those giving money: “Are you really helping homeless people?”

He also claimed he was told the council would not put up signage for homeless shelters out of a fear of making the city “too attractive for homeless people not from Gloucester”.

“I thought ‘this is bullshit’. If they can campaign on that four years ago why can’t they back [Billy Chip]?,” O’Donnell told The Big Issue.

Gloucester City Council said signage for homeless shelters was not put up because the council had outreach workers providing information directly, and because some shelters did not wish to draw attention to themselves.

O’Donnell now sits as an independent, after becoming a Conservative councillor in 2021.

“I have never really been a true blue,” he said, adding he had lost his job after being diagnosed with narcolepsy 18 years ago, and found a purpose volunteering.

Becoming a councillor felt like a natural extension: “I did it to save my community, really.”

Billy Chip was launched by the family of Billy Abernethy-Hope, an ambulance driver who died in a motorbike accident in Thailand.

Billy’s dad Jon with the chips created in his honour. Image: Supplied

Your support changes lives. Find out how you can help us help more people by signing up for a subscription

Born out of conversations with his Dad, Jon, who was reluctant to give money directly to those on the streets, Billy’s idea became the Billy Chip. It has now rolled out in local shops and Greggs chain stores across Bristol and Bath, and is set to launch in over 250 Co-op supermarkets at the end of March.

The council offers help to otherhomeless support schemes, including the Gloucester City Mission night shelter, which it backs with addiction help and eviction protection, and Feed the Hungry, which it gave a city centre shop to use.

Gloucester has the highest rate of homelessness in its county, according to a recent count by the charity Shelter, with one in 433 people either on the streets or living in temporary accommodation or a hostel.

O’Donnell got talking to Billy’s sister Meg at the end of 2022 and decided the scheme would be good to help people in Gloucester, where he felt the problem was “glossed over”.

Get the latest news and insight into how the Big Issue magazine is made by signing up for the Inside Big Issue newsletter

While he sits as an independent and remains a councillor, he will be trying to get supermarkets and cafes to sign up.

“I think some people expected me to drop it after I got my answer, but they are wrong.”

O’Donnell, who represents the city’s Matson and Robinsonwood area, asked the council’s cabinet member for planning and housing strategy if it would “support this initiative and help support this cause”

In a written reply at the end of January, he was told the council would not promote the scheme but “residents may wish” to support it themselves.  

This refusal, which O’Donnell described as “crappy”, was the “catalyst” for him to leave the party.

A spokesperson for Gloucester City Council said: “No one should have to sleep rough so reducing homelessness and rough sleeping is a priority for us. Like most local councils we believe in proactively engaging with people face to face, treating them with dignity and as individuals. 

“This means advising them on how to get help and support according to their needs. Our street teams are out daily working with people to give them long term support and help them into sustainable accommodation. 

“In addition, over the past few years we’ve helped to secure £6.7 million for Gloucestershire councils to address rough sleeping and are committed to our own five-year homelessness strategy that focuses on the prevention of homelessness and rough sleeping. There are many organisations and charities in the city doing great work that residents may choose to support, including Billy Chip for which there are currently two local businesses signed up.”

Do you have lived experience or burning opinions to share about this story? We want to hear from you. And we want to share your views with more people. Get in touch and tell us more.

The Big Issue’s #BigFutures campaign is calling for investment in decent and affordable housing, ending the low wage economy, and millions of green jobs. The last 10 years of austerity and cuts to public services have failed to deliver better living standards for people in this country. Sign the open letter and demand a better future.

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
'We are here and we exist': Inside the neighbourhood offering sanctuary to queer Russians and Ukrainians
Pride

'We are here and we exist': Inside the neighbourhood offering sanctuary to queer Russians and Ukrainians

Actor Liz Carr says it hurts to hear her younger self 'wanted to die'
Liz Carr
Disability rights

Actor Liz Carr says it hurts to hear her younger self 'wanted to die'

Feeling like change in the UK isn't possible? Let these 28 purposeful campaigns prove otherwise
Activism

Feeling like change in the UK isn't possible? Let these 28 purposeful campaigns prove otherwise

Back to Black actor Eddie Marsan: 'There aren't any no-go areas in Tower Hamlets'
London

Back to Black actor Eddie Marsan: 'There aren't any no-go areas in Tower Hamlets'

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know