Select Committee publishes evidence on homelessness: no surprises, things are bad

Last week the Select Committee for the Communities and Local Government Department published the evidence submitted to its inquiry into homelessness.

Many of the submissions are worth reading and they provide testimony to the housing crisis, the impact it has on homeless people, and the strain that all services to homeless people are under. The only missing player would appear to be the department responsible for it all. That is hardly surprising as the one thing that is stunningly clear from the evidence is that Government policy is failing to meet the housing and other needs of homeless people.

There are many local authority submissions, and some interesting contrasts – from some councils lauding their ‘options’ schemes and former Government adviser Andy Gale seemingly denying there is such a thing as ‘gatekeeping’, to the Housing Law Practitioners Association (HLPA) showing that there may be some good practice but there is also a large amount of illegal gatekeeping going on. (For anyone particularly interested in the technical issues around homelessness law and practice, the HPLA submission is a key source.) There is a lot of debate in the evidence about the ‘prevention’ model adopted in Wales but, if that policy is adopted in England, it will have to be carefully designed to ensure that ‘prevention’ does not join ‘housing options’ as another synonym for gatekeeping.

Unsurprisingly, the evidence from CIH, JRF and Shelter is comprehensive and they all link the rising trend in homelessness to the lack of availability of social housing, the rise of insecure private renting, and the impact of welfare reform. Organisations providing specialist support services and assisting single people (and especially young people) show how bad things are getting, especially in London. Also noteworthy is the evidence from Women at the Well, a Kings Cross organisation working with homeless women, about the whole issue of ‘hidden populations’ of homeless people.

I found the evidence from Westminster City Council hard to take. Like most London councils, they face a serious homelessness problem, a shortage of social homes, an impossibly expensive private sector, and a growing problem securing temporary accommodation. But having observed that council’s housing policies for forty years, I know that they have always complained about their special position in the centre of London and tried to dismiss the problem as being largely to do with transient people, despite the fact that homelessness in the borough is predominantly home grown. Throughout that time – and not just during the era of Lady Porter’s ‘Homes for Votes’ – they have constantly failed to take opportunities to build additional social rented homes for their population through their own building programme and by failing to make the most of the section 106 provisions. Even now, with the crisis in homelessness that they describe in their submission, they are promoting private development on key sites like the Jubilee sports centre in north Paddington with scarcely any affordable homes. They have made long term political choices and their proposed solution, that they should more easily be able to provide homes outside the borough, both permanently and for temporary accommodation, should be seen in that context. It is no surprise that other boroughs and districts outside London give them a hard time when they have patently failed to provide as many homes as they could.

Reading through some of the evidence reminded me of the last comprehensive select committee review of homelessness, 12 years ago when I was specialist adviser to the then ODPM Committee. One task was to read and comment on a huge array of submissions. Looking back at the Committee’s 2004 report it is fascinating how much has changed, largely for the worse. It will provide a stark contrast to the new report when it is produced. For example, I doubt very much if the Committee in 2016 will be able to start its report in the same way as the 2004 Committee did:

There is no question that the Government has taken on the problem of homelessness. The Homelessness Act 2002 represented a breakthrough in strategic thinking, and the extension of the Priority Need categories has brought large numbers under the protection of legislation. New obligations have been imposed on local authorities to help more people than ever before. We are glad that the Government recognised the scale of the homelessness problem.

The next paragraph of the report however foretold of the problems to come:

Having reduced the number of rough sleepers, and families forced to live long term in bed and breakfast accommodation, ODPM now faces a new crisis. The growing pressure in temporary accommodation needs urgent attention, and investment. New housing is not being built quickly enough, and too much of it is destined not to be used as much needed social housing. We regard the provision of new social housing as an absolute priority for the Government. This problem will not go away; indeed, it may get much worse.

At that more optimistic time, along with the Committee and most in the housing world, I saw the 2002 Homelessness Act as a great step forward. But the ambition was always undermined by inadequate housing supply. Too many councils, having been pushed by the Act into undertaking a comprehensive review and adopting a strategy, looked for ways of simultaneously preventing homelessness and reducing their exposure to homeless acceptances. In my view the latter became the dominant motivation. To compound matters, the law of unintended consequences was applied to an apparently progressive Government target, to halve the numbers in temporary accommodation. This also encouraged too many councils into a heavy gatekeeping policy, trying to stem demand because it was much harder to improve supply.

The evidence submitted to this 2016 review is pointedly less positive than that submitted in 2004. Shortage of social housing is intensifying and there is much more emphasis in the submissions on the role of the private rented sector in generating homelessness – in 2004 the great expansion was not really underway. Rough sleeping then was declining, now it is rising rapidly. Providing more social housing was seen as the key way forward, now it is simply not on the Government’s agenda. Then the use of temporary accommodation was in decline, now it is rising steeply again.

And as we wait for the next Osborne budget and another round of cuts, it is worth remembering that total expenditure on homelessness by London boroughs has now topped £600 million a year.

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