As the Homelessness Reduction Bill completes its Committee stage – lengthy for a private members’ Bill because it has complex provisions that have been frequently amended during the discussions – suspicions are rising about the Government’s motivation in supporting the legislation. The fear is that it is setting a trap for local government to divert blame from Government when homelessness continues to rise, as it surely will.
The Government has always said it would ‘fully fund’ councils to enable them to deliver the significant additional services that will be needed to genuinely achieve the Bill’s aims of preventing more homelessness, as has been accomplished in Wales through similar legislation. This week it announced a headline figure of an extra £48 million additional funding. But the Minister’s (Marcus Jones) statement makes it clear that this sum covers the 3 years of the spending review period, and amounts to £35m in 20170-18, £12m in 2018-19 and ZERO in 2019-20. He claimed that ‘offsetting savings’ will make sure there are no costs thereafter. Decisions have not yet been taken about the distribution of these funds between councils to reflect their differing needs of different councils, but it represents an average per council of less than £150,000 over 3 years.
The Association of Housing Advice Services called the funding allocation ‘desultory’. Based on data from five representative London councils, AHAS followed the findings of the earlier legislation in Wales and applied them to London, and estimated conservatively that the total cost to London alone would be more than £160 million. Their full analysis can be found here.
AHAS also make it clear that the rate of successful outcomes achieved in Wales is very unlikely to be repeated in London, where the pressures are significantly greater and ‘solutions’ to homelessness much more difficult to achieve. The most significant extra cost will be for additional temporary accommodation. According to Inside Housing, individual London boroughs have also been making assessments of cost that are significantly higher than the Government has allowed for – £2.4m in Lewisham, £2.6m in Ealing. In most cases, the extra funding from Government will be little more than a partial offset to the service cuts already made.
The Conservative chair of the Local Government Association, Lord Gary Porter, has called for a full review of the costs after the initial two year period because the initial costings are based on assumptions that are difficult to predict. The LGA has warned that homeless placements in temporary accommodation have already risen by 40% in the last four years and homelessness services face a funding gap of £192m by the end of the decade.
As previously discussed on Red Brick, the core of the problem is that Wales’ success in homelessness prevention is unlikely to be replicated in the more high pressure areas of England, and especially London, in the context of wholly inadequate affordable housing supply policies and benefit cuts. We are grateful for small mercies: anything that improves the services provided to homeless people and which helps some of them avoid homelessness is to be welcomed. But, rather like the management of beds in the NHS, the simple reality is that the use of temporary accommodation is rising rapidly because there is nowhere for people to move to.
‘Solutions’ to homelessness are becoming harder to find. Most homeless people simply cannot afford to buy on any scheme, many find it impossible to stay in or to find employment as they go through the experience of homelessness, access to the private rented sector is becoming harder and more expensive each year, benefit caps are pushing the PRS out of reach of many more people, and the social housing stock is in free fall – this week the Chartered Institute of Housing estimated that almost 250,000 social rented homes will be sold or converted to other tenures by 2020, intensifying the problem each and every year. Any notion that the Bill’s provisions will pay for themselves after two years is totally fanciful.
Any notion that the Bill’s provisions will pay for themselves after two years is totally fanciful.
Concern about what the Government is up to was raised this week by a letter from Government to councils setting out its assumptions. As reported in Inside Housing, they are expecting a 30% reduction in homelessness acceptances by the third year of the Bill’s implementation.
I agree with the LGA and others that it is almost impossible to make predictions of what will happen due to the Bill, but I confidently forecast that there will not be a 30% reduction in acceptances, rather the opposite, unless councils’ actual response to the Bill is to become more severe at gatekeeping – as happened after the 2002 Act – and ‘advice’ becomes ‘diversion’ and ‘blocking’. Ministers have threatened to ‘intervene’ if councils do not deliver and send in staff where councils do not follow its requirements, proving yet again that empty vessels make most noise.
I also predict that in 3 years’ time, when the numbers have grown yet further, Government will be happily passing the buck onto councils. They were on board to the legislation, they will say, and we fully funded them to implement it. It is not central Government to blame, it is councils, and mainly Labour ones at that.
This does not in my view mean that we should ditch support for the Bill. Instead, it is vital to highlight the true costs of implementation and to make it clear that central Government is selling local government short by a long way. Councils must up their demand for Government to adopt policies that will lead to a dramatic increase in the supply of social housing – the only real long term solution to the homelessness crisis. Locally, it is important to campaign for proper implementation – some homelessness is preventable and of course it should be prevented wherever possible.
It is good that councils will have duties towards a wider range of people, many of whom have been neglected before. But the fact that many councils could do more should not obscure the fact that most are struggling to find genuine solutions to homelessness as the housing crisis for people on low incomes intensifies.
Inside Housing magazine has had excellent coverage of the passage of the Bill and they have produced this excellent summary of its provisions, reproduced here for the benefit of readers.
AT A GLANCE: THE HOMELESSNESS REDUCTION BILL
The bill is made up of 12 measures:
- A change to the meaning of “homeless” and “threatened with homelessness”. Each household that has received an eviction notice is to be treated as homeless from the date on which the notice expires, and the period at which a person is threatened with homelessness is changed from 28 to 56 days.
- All homeless people have access to free advice and information.
- Local authorities are required to carry out an assessment of what led to each applicant’s homelessness, and set out steps to remedy this in an agreed written plan.
- Local authorities are required to help to secure accommodation for all eligible households who are threatened with homelessness, and at an earlier stage.
- Local authorities are required to provide those who find themselves homeless with support for a further period of 56 days to help to secure accommodation.
- Local authorities are able to take action to help to secure accommodation under the new duties to help homeless households.
- Households in priority need who refuse to co-operate with prevention and/or relief activity will be offered a minimum of a six month private rented sector tenancy. They will not progress to the main homelessness duty. Households not in priority need who refuse to co-operate would be provided with advice and information only.
- All young people leaving care will be deemed to have a local connection in the area of the local authority that is responsible for providing them with leaving care services under the Children Act 1989.
- Applications are provided with the right to request a review in relation to the prevention and relief duties.
- The bill introduces a duty on specified local agencies to refer those either homeless or at risk of being homeless to local authority housing teams.
- The secretary of state has a power to produce a statutory code of practice to raise the standards of homelessness support services across the country.
- A local housing authority must satisfy itself that specific requirements are in place where it secures accommodation for vulnerable households in the private rented sector