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Housing

Could Eddie Hughes be the minister to end rough sleeping?

Eddie Hughes once worked to help rough sleepers and managed 20,000 homes. Now he’s the man tasked with coming up with the plan to end street homelessness in the next 18 months.

Rough sleeping minister Eddie Hughes is a rare thing in politics – a minister who is exactly where he wants to be.

While the identity of who leads the Conservative Party – and by extension, the country – is in question, lower down the Tory pecking order Hughes is the man responsible for meeting the lofty target set during the party’s 2019 manifesto: end rough sleeping by 2024.

It’s a goal set in a world very different to the one we live in now: at the end of a decade where Tory austerity policies had sent rough sleeping surging and before a pandemic when the Everyone In scheme saw people living on the streets offered a place to stay.

Last year’s official rough sleeping snapshot put levels at an eight-year low but it is not time to celebrate yet. The one-size-fits-all approach employed during Covid didn’t end homelessness for good and the pandemic’s fallout is still threatening to drive more people into poverty.

So the question remains: will rough sleeping become a thing of the past in 18 months’ time?  

Speaking from his Midlands home during the summer recess, former homelessness worker Hughes tells The Big Issue he is optimistic that the challenge can be met.

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“I would say we’re in a good place,” the Walsall North MP says. “But I can see some storm clouds on the horizon and some turbulence ahead. I think I feel optimistic about not only the position that we’re in because of what we’ve learned recently but the government seems to me to have the agility to be able to respond to circumstances that might have otherwise proved even more dramatic.

“That [the 2024 target] absolutely has to still be our ambition. I am working at the moment with other government departments and their ministers to try to squeeze out of them further commitments to help us come up with a refreshed plan. I’m hoping we’ll get something published in the not too distant future. 

“But that remains our commitment and our ambition for sure.”

Far from a household name, Hughes is not your average Conservative minister who has taken the job in the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities on the way up to Number 10 or been hastily handed the role in a reshuffle without any credentials.

In fact, he wasn’t even a dyed in the wool Tory. Growing up in an Irish Catholic community in Birmingham to a dad who was a bus driver and a mum who was a cleaner, his first vote went the way of Labour.

It was only in his last year of university that he realised his political leanings.hen asked to read up on manifestos he realised: “Bloody hell, I’m a closet Conservative!”

Before Westminster politics beckoned, Hughes worked for the YMCA in various roles, rising up to the role of deputy chief executive.

He also spent five years at housing association WHG. When he was elected in 2017, Hughes became the only MP to represent constituents while managing 20,000 homes.

With a housing crisis to tackle as well as the need to stop the flow of people onto the streets, Hughes says this experience is invaluable to his work.

“Incredibly helpful, not least because I have some understanding, it feels to me, with regard to the homelessness issue, from the perspective of working for an organisation that provided accommodation to previously young homeless people,” says Hughes.

“At the YMCA, I was based in a building called Harry Watton House. You couldn’t help but be immersed in the work of the organisation rather than being in an office some distance from the people that we were serving. I was completely immersed in it.

He continues: “I went over to WHG feeling pretty sceptical to say the least, I wasn’t sure that social housing organisations were always well run or cared.

“It’s safe to say over my five years there, they moved me slightly from right to left along the spectrum to appreciate just how good a well-run organisation can do and the difference it can make to people’s lives.”

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Since taking over the role of rough sleeping minister from Kelly Tolhurst in January 2021, Hughes has had the chance to bring those experiences to policy making.

Hughes initially worked under Robert Jenrick – who told The Big Issue earlier this year the Tories had “got it wrong” on rough sleeping in recent years.

Now Michael Gove is leading the newly rebranded housing department and Hughes is clear that he has made a difference describing the Levelling Up secretary as “a black belt”.

“He completely understands how the levers of government work. And he understands how to make significant change,” says Hughes, before hastily adding that the difference between Jenrick and Gove is not “between good and bad, but good and better”.

If rough sleeping is to become a thing of the past, that better be true because the challenges ahead are numerous. In the last eight months there have already been plenty of pitfalls. 

Hughes says he was concerned about the “near-perfect storm” of last October when pandemic support packages like furlough and the £20 universal credit increase came to an end. The Big Issue was among many predicting a surge in homelessness, launching the Stop Mass Homelessness campaign in response.

So far, that reality has not fully come to pass, although the cost of living crisis remains an ever-present threat.

As well as tackling the economic drivers of homelessness, the government is also bringing the Renters’ Reform Bill and the Social Housing Bill to the table to improve accommodation and prevent evictions.

Hughes is particularly enthusiastic about the proposed landlord’s register and believes there is a “connectivity” to all these actions, and the wider government response, which will stop people from flowing on to the streets. 

“We’ve seen that, recently, with the chancellor in terms of understanding when is the opportune moment to intervene and at what scale and so that’s kind of making me feel reasonably confident,” he says.

“Lots of the things that have worked well over the pandemic will persist, and we will continue to deliver on them but who knows what storm clouds are gonna build?”

Hughes insists it’s a problem he has personal stakes in and is there to fix: “For the guy who used to work for YMCA in the sector to then be the person leading the government’s charge on this and ultimately, seeing us get to that point where it was rare, brief and non recurrent would be just fantastic. 

“It will be a very, very significant achievement. It’s as simple as that.”

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