A Liberal Democrat has defended his local party's efforts to prevent a homeless hostel being opened in a residential area, and to instead restore the disused building as a community pub.
The Thorney Close Inn closed its doors in 2020 and has been boarded up and derelict ever since. Last year Sunderland Council announced plans to demolish the site and build a hostel for homeless people with complex needs. The plans included 22 one-bedroom flats for "vulnerable people", including people leaving care, hospital or people who had been sleeping rough for up to three months.
However, the Wearside Liberal Democrats, who opposed the plan, claimed the council hadn't consulted with the local community, many of whom expressed concerns that people with criminal convictions, or a history of sexual offences, could be housed near their families.
The plans were shelved this month after the site was sold to a new owner who planned on turning it back into a pub, but some, including members of the Liberal Democrats, have criticised the party's campaign on this issue, claiming a "pub is not more important than a homeless shelter".
However, Miguel Smith, 18, who is campaigning to be the next Lib Dem councillor for Fulwell, Seaburn and South Bents, has defended the policy, claiming the youth wing of his party had agreed that the loss of community pubs was something that urgently needed to be curbed.
"This is the last pub in Thorney Close – when it closed in 2020 we campaigned to keep it reserved as a pub site because we understand how important these assets are to communities. Obviously, it's a lot easier for a new pub to move in when the existing infrastructure is there."
Smith said the site the homeless shelter would have been built on overlooks the estate's main playground, and while rumours that the site would be a hostel solely for sexual offenders were not true, concerns still remained among local parents.
When asked how he responds to accusations of "Nimbyism", he said: "Our council group in Sunderland approved a thousand homes in one of our own wards. That's a massive demographics change, it will probably put us out of power in that ward, but we still voted for it because it's the right thing to do.
"You can put a homeless hostel in any converted houses, there are plenty of unoccupied homes in Sunderland, plenty of unoccupied council homes actually. We shouldn't first say we'll take a pub and do it, and it shouldn't be overlooking play-park, it's the wrong location. This particular application was just the wrong way to do it."
Reacting to the homeless shelter plans being dropped, Lib Dem councillor for Thorney Close Paul Edgeworth said locals would be "breathing a sigh of relief". He added: “This community asset has been at the heart of the estate for decades and local people were determined to see it kept as a pub or as another community use."
'A homeless shelter is more important than a pub'
One youth Lib Dem member, who asked not to be named, suggested the local party's campaign sent a wrong message.
“A pub is not more important than a homeless shelter, not by a country mile," he said. “It says to voters that we care more about a community pub than housing homeless people in the winter. That’s not the image or the message that we want to give anyone.”
“We are trying to restore our image post-coalition, we’ve spent a long time trying to do that and the youth wing has worked very hard on this.”
While the 20-year-old accepted that restoring community pubs, or preventing their closure, is an important issue, he said: “With the implementation of that policy, it needs to be on a case-by-case basis. It can’t be a blanket policy, we know that blanket policies don’t work anywhere."
Young Liberal policy as adopted at Manchester Conference in 2021 says that “urgent action is required to prevent the loss of more local pubs in communities.
This is the last pub in Thorney Close and the Lib Dems have worked with residents to prevent it being taken away
— Miguel Smith (@MiguelSmithLD) January 28, 2024
Labour councillor Kevin Johnston said: "The Lib Dems, who have done absolutely nothing for the people who live in wards unfortunate enough to be ‘served’ by them are doing a disservice to the vulnerable local people this Labour-led council is looking to support.
“As in towns and cities across the country, homelessness is becoming an increasing challenge, and we know the vitally important role that supported accommodation can play in ensuring that some of our most vulnerable residents are able to build a brighter future.
"We are doing the right thing by local residents who need this support, while the Lib Dems seek to stoke division in their communities. Perhaps Sunderland’s Lib Dem councillors would be more sympathetic to the plight of people plunged into homelessness if they took the time to attend sessions set up to ensure councillors were well-briefed on the often complex issues that lead to people losing the roof over their head.
"Not one serving Lib Dem councillor took the time to learn more and – if they had attended – not only would they have been fully briefed on the plans and the need for supported accommodation, but they would also know that a public consultation exercise was indeed undertaken, something we are committed to as a listening council."
The UK's homeless problem
Authorities in the UK are certainly struggling to house homeless people and have pointed to a lack of support from Westminster.
Last week, Yahoo News reported on the leader of Eastbourne Council revealing that his local authority is spending 49% of taxpayer money on housing the homeless. Councillor Stephen Holt said he knew of other councils "with even greater funding challenges".
This was related to people moving between temporary accommodation, rather than rough sleepers, but figures on both forms of homelessness in England from Shelter make for bleak reading. Analysis by the charity, published in December, showed that over 3,000 people were sleeping rough on any given night – up 26% in just a year.
The findings showed 279,400 were living in temporary accommodation – a 14% annual increase – while there were also 20,000 people in hostels or supported accommodation. Suggesting that many people find themselves stuck in this situation with little hope of escaping, government figures show that 47% of families in temporary accommodation have been there for more than two years.
The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said it was spending £2bn to tackle the problem, half of which would be made available for councils to financially support people to move out of temporary accommodation.