Boris, Ken and the Big Society

By Benedict Rickey 24 June 2010

I saw Boris Johnson cycling home the other day, his head bobbing lightly from side to side as he attacked a hill by London Bridge. I find cycling is a good time to reflect on the day, so I started to wonder what Boris was thinking as he pedalled home that evening. It turns out there is a good chance he was thinking about homelessness. A couple of days later he appeared on the Today programme talking about the Greater London Authority’s work on tackling homelessness. In 2009 the GLA set a goal to end rough sleeping in the capital by 2012 (click here for more details). Visionary stuff indeed. But Boris decided that the public sector can’t deliver this goal alone, so he set up a partnership including the capital’s main homelessness charities.

Boris and Ken agree – there should be no rough sleepers in London by 2012. The Ken I’m referring to is not Ken Livingstone, but Ken Olisa, Chair of Thames Reach, the London homelessness charity. Thames Reach is a member of the London Delivery Board, which is the partnership Boris set up of key players involved in tackling homelessness in the capital. It includes not just the GLA, but London Boroughs, other government agencies and the key voluntary sector organisations – Homelessness Link, Crisis, St Mungo’s and, of course, Thames Reach. All members are committed to the 2012 target, and to taking a pan-London approach to tackling rough sleeping.

This mixture of public sector vision, planning and resources with voluntary sector outreach and delivery is hardly new. However, it does appear to be surprisingly effective. For instance, since May 2009, two thirds of the 205 most entrenched rough sleepers – a group with very complex needs – have been helped to get off the streets.

But that doesn’t mean the partnership is stealing the show: individual partners are achieving a lot by refocusing their efforts to deliver the target. Thames Reach has put the 2012 goal front and centre in its three year business plan. A substantial number of its 400 staff and 75 volunteers are focused on delivering it. Thames Reach itself, in its push towards the 2012 target, helped 678 people of the streets in 2009 (see its 2009 Annual Review). This is around a fifth of the total number of people who slept rough that year. That’s no mean feat.

By working together, Boris, Ken and the other partners have given themselves a fighting chance of achieving their goal. This is without substantially increasing public sector spending on rough sleeping. In other words, better results for about the same money. This sounds like the missing piece of the Big Society puzzle – how to get more results for about the same investment by involving and engaging the voluntary sector in service delivery. David and Nick should probably take heed – Boris and Ken might be on to something there…

You can read about NPC’s ideas for how to scale up charities’ activities for the Big Society by clicking here.