Harry's wedding, the homeless and a war of words dividing Windsor: ROBERT HARDMAN finds opinions are split in one of Britain's wealthiest areas
On one side of Windsor High Street stands William the Conqueror’s fortress, the largest inhabited castle in the world.
On the other, beneath a pile of blankets inside the bus shelter, is Carla Giazzi, a homeless 24-year-old – or ‘vagrant’ as the local council describes her.
Now it looks as if both of them will play a supporting role in the great royal showpiece of the year.
Cllr Simon Dudley (left, with Theresa May) has accused rough sleepers of 'aggressive begging and intimidation' and wants them moved on before Prince Harry ties the knot with Meghan Markle in May
Daily Mail journalist Robert Hardman speaks to rough sleeper Carla Giazzi in Windsor
It is a cast iron rule of royal weddings that they always generate some unexpected political or diplomatic maelstrom ahead of the big day. It happened to the future Queen in 1947 after an MP claimed her wedding dress had been produced by ‘enemy’ silkworms from Japan (it hadn’t).
And so it is that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle find their own marriage plans mired in a furious row about homelessness in Windsor.
By last night, their wedding had been recast as a grand tableau of social inequality played out on news bulletins around the world with the happy couple demonised on social media as a cross between King Croesus and Marie Antoinette – and all thanks to the leader of the local council.
If Simon Dudley was ever on the guest list for St George’s Chapel, Windsor on May 19, his name will surely have been erased by now.
A rough sleeper huddles under an orange tarpaulin with the rest of his belongings as rain falls in the town of Windsor
A homeless person's belongings are stuffed into a shopping trolley and hidden by sleeping bags and tarpaulins as the historic Windsor Castle dominates the background
For reasons best known to himself, the leader of Tory-controlled Windsor and Maidenhead Council – or ‘the Royal Borough’ as it likes to call itself – decided to use Christmas week to demand that the police deal with an ‘epidemic’ of ‘rough-sleeping and vagrancy’ on the streets of Windsor ahead of the wedding.
In his festive tweet, Mr Dudley added that aggressive beggars had been ‘marching tourists to cashpoints’.
He has since provided more details in a letter to the local Police Commissioner for Thames Valley, Anthony Stansfeld, in which he deplores the ‘hostile atmosphere for our residents and the seven million tourists who come to Windsor each year’.
‘It is becoming increasingly concerning to see the quantities of bags and detritus that those begging are accumulating and leaving on our pavements, thus presenting a security risk,’ he warns.
‘Obviously, the level of tourist interest is set to multiply with the Royal Wedding and there are increased concerns from our residents about their safety. The whole situation also presents a beautiful town in a sadly unfavourable light.’
A rough sleeper's bundle of belongings is kept in carrier bags in the door of a business in Windsor
Mr Dudley has complained about the homeless people who are living in a bus shelter Windsor Castle (pictured today)
In response, the police commissioner said that he had been ‘surprised’ by the letter which had been released to the media before he had received it. But he would consider Mr Dudley’s points.
The council leader was unavailable for comment yesterday, having chosen to launch his broadside while on a skiing holiday in Wyoming. His media management does have a certain Donald Trump quality about it.
However, there was no shortage of heated debate on the freezing streets of Windsor. I found opinion fiercely divided on the causes of homelessness in one of Britain’s wealthiest areas.
The one thing which united all sides, however, was a degree of sympathy for the royal couple.
‘If I was Prince Harry I would be furious that the biggest day of my life has been overshadowed by all this,’ said Murphy James, 34, who runs the Windsor Homeless Project from a room at the local Baptist church.
A homeless man was photographed sitting down next to a suitcase and acoustic guitar in Windsor on Thursday. There is no suggestion he has been begging in the town
‘We are always told that the royals have to stay out of politics. And here you have a politician politicising a royal wedding.’
Once homeless himself, Mr James helps the charity provide a drop-in centre, legal support and a weekly meal for all-comers.
He thought that there were between 12 and 15 people sleeping rough in Windsor at present. Several more come here to beg from elsewhere, something which angers the ‘resident’ rough-sleepers.
But Mr James said the one thing all beggars have in common is some sort of mental health issue. Hence his irritation at Mr Dudley’s attempt to drag Prince Harry into the argument.
Cllr Dudley, who demanded police clear the 'epidemic' of beggars from Windsor
‘Prince Harry and his brother have brought the whole issue of mental health home to millions of people who wouldn’t otherwise know about it,’ he said.
Talk to local residents and businesses, however, and many will agree with Mr Dudley’s central point.
‘Only a few people around here are genuinely homeless and they are gentlemen and nice to talk to, but the rest are not,’ said restaurant owner Massimo Quagliozzi, 46. ‘They are coming from elsewhere, places like Slough, and it’s like a proper organisation.’
Some locals claimed that many beggars have made a deliberate choice to be here at a time of year when residents and tourists are feeling generous.
However, I could find no one who had witnessed aggressive begging, let alone people being marched to cash machines. All agreed that a permanent solution was required, not just a quick fix to sterilise the town ahead of the wedding coverage.
Yesterday, I found Stuart, 40, sitting with his worldly goods beneath a duvet at a bus stop.
He acknowledged that he had been offered a room at a hostel miles away in the west London suburb of Southall but said he had found it so disgusting that he had moved back to live rough in Windsor, his home town for the last two years.
A former driver and conservatory fitter, the father of four had been made homeless when drugs (not his own, he insisted) were found at his council flat.
In the next bundle of blankets further down sat Carla Giazzi, who said she had been kicked out of home by her parents after an ex-partner lured her in to ‘heavy drugs’.
Cllr Dudley believes that the bags and detritus could cause a security risk for the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle
Raised locally, she said she is sometimes recognised by former schoolfriends walking past.
‘They say they’ll do something to help, but I never hear from them,’ she said sadly, adding that her ambition was to find a job as a carer.
She wished Prince Harry and Miss Markle all the best for their wedding, adding: ‘I want to be part of it. It’s ridiculous treating us like rats who need to be taken off the streets.’
Other rough-sleepers, like former gardeners Tracy, 49, and James, 35, huddled under a sleeping bag outside McDonald’s, insisted that family bereavements rather than drugs had forced them on to the street.
In response to all questions, a council spokesman directed me to Mr Dudley’s letter to the police commissioner.
In it, he claims that the council already provides an emergency shelter, day service and addiction treatment for all homeless people in the area, adding: ‘In the Royal Borough we believe homelessness is completely unacceptable in a caring, compassionate community such as ours.’
A group of homeless people are currently living outside an abandoned shop in the town centre
A man, wearing a woolly hat to keep warm, sets up a place to sleep under a bus shelter in the historic town of Windsor
I contacted the leader of the official opposition, Simon Werner, who is his party’s spokesman on everything being the solitary Lib Dem on the council.
‘This is a very wealthy area where some people are in work and still can’t afford homes so they live on friends’ sofas,’ he said.
‘All the agencies need to get together and agree that we are dealing with a lot of of mental health issues here. You can’t just send people to a rat-infested hostel miles away in Southall.’
Some, however, found it hard to muster much in the way of sympathy, particularly those with experience of life at the sharp end themselves.
‘Look, I came here seven years ago from Algeria with nothing and I work hard and I don’t live on the streets,’ said Kelti, a waiter in a high street tearoom.
Daniel, the Romanian-born manager of a pizzeria opposite the castle, said takings had gone right down since a rotating team of rough-sleepers had taken up residence next to the main window.
‘People don’t want to eat looking out at that,’ he said, pointing to a man snoozing in a sleeping bag.
‘This morning, there was a woman there. Someone gave her a slice of pizza and she just put it in the bin. They’re only interested in money.’
Kensington Palace has declined to comment on the matter. But I fear that Mr Dudley and his council may need reminding what royal weddings are really like.
This week, they have a dozen or so people sleeping on the streets of Windsor. On the night of May 18, there could be thousands.
And if Mr Dudley starts calling them ‘vagrants’, there might be a riot.
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