‘I feel deeply ashamed’ over the homeless crisis

MORE PEOPLE ARE HOMELESS NOW: Cathy Come Home producer Tony Garnett.
MORE PEOPLE ARE HOMELESS NOW: Cathy Come Home producer Tony Garnett.

Gritty 1960s play Cathy Come Home, screened 50 years ago this week, caused an outcry about homelessness. In the second part of our special series on the issue, producer Tony Garnett tells STEF HALL he believes things have got worse since the play was made.

AS a respected producer it would be quite easy for Tony Garnett to take credit for improvements and changes said by many to have been brought about by landmark TV play Cathy Come Home.

Scene from play Cathy Come Home

Scene from play Cathy Come Home

But he does quite the opposite.

“There are more people homeless now than when we made Cathy and it fills me with shame,” he says.

The play, about a young couple and their children cruelly overtaken by events which lead them into trap of debt, homelessness and poverty, triggered outrage, a surge in donations to the charity Shelter and the founding of another charity, Crisis, soon after.

Yet in a no-holds-barred interview with the Evening Post, Garnett is the first to admit that the problems it cast light on are now much worse than when the play was screened.

ON THE POVERTY LINE: Cathy Come Home.

ON THE POVERTY LINE: Cathy Come Home.

Garnett tragically lost his mother when he was five from the after-effects of a back-street abortion, and after his father committed suicide 19 days later he had to be raised by his aunt and uncle.

His painful early life is said to have underpinned much of the gritty and game-changing films he is known for.

Now 80, he explains: “Cathy got a huge audience and kept being repeated and had huge press coverage but the proof is in the facts - and the facts are it’s worse now.

“I used to think I could produce a film and change the world but that was youthful optimism.

ON SCREEN: Cathy Come Home  - Ray Brooks and Carol White.

ON SCREEN: Cathy Come Home - Ray Brooks and Carol White.

“Films raise people’s consciousness, but people combining together are the only element that will force change. Basically as a society we don’t care enough to want to solve it.”

He believes if the Government adopted a not-for-profit attitude when it comes to social housing, it would virtually solve the country’s homeless crisis.

He says: “If local authorities were able to borrow as much money as they liked at today’s low interest rates over 100 years, they could wash their face not lost any money, not make any money and house the people who need a home.

“But for ideological reasons Mrs Thatcher said no.

“In my view the solution is simple – within 10 years there would be no housing problem in this country if we decided to solve the problem.

“If we borrowed public money at these low interest rates, had no profit or loss, and built with the sole intention of giving; if we got rid of antiquated building practices, and really got into the modern manufacturing of houses, within just a few years everyone would have the home I suggested and we wouldn’t have a problem.

“Then we could start thinking of homes as homes and the whole county would be richer.

“It’s simple except the politicians don’t want to do it. They have been criminally derelict when it comes to the question of housing. I feel sad and deeply ashamed.”

He adds: “Many people are living in B&Bs in Lancashire supposedly temporarily – but it’s more or less permanent – and some people are kept in hideous circumstances.

“One of a few changes since Cathy Come Home is they don’t tear children from arms of their mothers anymore, but these mothers are hidden out of sight living in appalling circumstances.

“We shouldn’t be blaming the housing officers, they are being forced by their superiors to basically be cruel because councils themselves have their budgets cut so drastically they cant do anything about it. They can’t build affordable homes, or help the homeless because they don’t have the money. It all goes back to Westminster but don’t hold your breath.”

• Tony Garnett’s autobiography, The Day the Music Died, is published by Constable, £20.

More in the series

From business director to having nowhere to live

How budget cuts put more at risk of losing their homes

Pete has got his life back thanks to work of charity

Timeline of a deepening problem

1949 - A post-war low of six people found sleeping rough in London - but hundreds around the country, including Lancashire are living in overcrowded and damp slums.

1950s - Programme of slum clearance begins in Preston.

1966 - The screening of Cathy Come Home causes public outrage and leads to the formation of various organisations to tackle homelessness.

1966 - Shelter is formed by Bruce Kenrick and Des Wilson in response to the country’s massive housing crisis to speak for the millions of ‘hidden homeless’ living in overcrowded slums.

1967 - Crisis, a national charity for single homeless people is formed.

1977 - The Housing (Homeless Persons) Act, gives the first statutory definition of homelessness – but, crucially, denies single homeless people the same protection as families under the law. 

1989 - The Children Act places a duty upon Children’s Services to safeguard and promote the welfare of a ‘child in need’ calling for both Children’s Services and Housing to respond to the needs of individuals.

1992 - SLEAP is a voluntary organisation set up as a response to the increasing numbers of young people finding themselves homeless in the Leyland area. It became a registered charity in November, 1995, Host families offer accommodation.

1995 - Chorley’s Help the Homeless launched by 
members of the community working alongside Chorley Borough Council.

1996 - Housing Act makes provision about housing, including the social rented sector, houses in multiple occupation, landlord and tenant matters, the administration of housing benefit, the conduct of tenants, the allocation of housing accommodation by local housing authorities and homelessness; and for connected purposes.

2003 - Supporting People Programme was revolutionary in bringing about change in how support services for homeless people were funded and delivered, ring-fencing a range of funding streams into one pot- but in 2010 the ring-fence was removed and decisions about how it will be spent was at the discretion of local authorities.

2005 - Supported housing schemes The Bridge in Chorley and Foundations/Inn2 in Preston launched, enabling over 800 men and women aged 16 and over to get back on their feet so they can move on to a permanent home.

2011 - The coalition government removes the ring fence from Supporting People funding resulting in services previously funded from Supporting People becoming vulnerable to the funding cuts local authorities are implementing.

2012 - Welfare Reform Act introduces a new Universal Credit to replace previous benefits, limiting the total amount of benefit a person can claim. The ‘removal of the spare room subsidy’ results in a reduction in Housing Benefit.

2015 - There are 48 households accepted as homeless and in priority need in Preston, 
with a further nine in Fylde, 45 in Lancaster, 31 in 
South Ribble, eight in Wyre and 86 in Blackpool.

2016 - Welfare Reform and Work Act introduces further substantial changes to the welfare system including lowering the existing household Benefit Cap, freezing Local Housing Allowance and removing entitlement to Housing Benefit for 18 – 21 year olds.

2016 - The Sunday homeless drop in at Preston’s Central Methodist Church ceases as does the Salvation Army’s soup kitchen