The blame game
Grant Shapps has upbraided councils for their use of bed and breakfast accommodation when housing homeless families but with homes in short supply, what other options do authorities have? Emily Twinch investigates
The last Labour government pledged to end bed and breakfast accommodation use for homeless people. Then housing minister Yvette Cooper stipulated it should be used only as a last resort, and introduced the Homelessness (Suitability of Accommodation) (England) Order 2003, making it illegal to house a family in B&B for six weeks or more.
Eight years later and use of B&B is far from the last resort for many councils with extended stays increasingly the only option open to them as homelessness rises and pressure on accommodation mounts.
Figures published by the Communities and Local Government department in March show a 37 per cent increase in B&B placements from 2,310 households in the last quarter of 2010 to 3,170 in the same period last year. This is becoming a major cause for concern within the government. As Inside Housing revealed last week, housing minister Grant Shapps has intervened to stem the tide. In an unusual move, he wrote to 20 council leaders warning them to shape up when placing homeless families.
‘While this government has removed targets… this does not mean I am relaxed about local authorities placing families in B&B for extended periods,’ he wrote. Urging councils to prioritise the problem, he left a veiled warning: ‘We will be monitoring the statistics closely.’
Many concerned about homelessness, which rose 14 per cent in the last year alone, welcome Mr Shapps flagging up this problem - although it remains unclear what he can do to tackle it beyond naming and shaming (see box: Consequences). He did offer the councils help and support from his officials in his letter, but the CLG would not elaborate on what his assistance might be. However, councils that received the minister’s letter point out that it is coalition policies that are exacerbating the problem.
So, is it fair for the government to criticise individual councils without equipping them with the resources to tackle the growing crisis? And what alternative options are available to authorities other than housing people in B&Bs?
The first point is tricky. Councils that received a letter all insist they rarely use B&B’s. However, they are also keen to point to the extreme housing need they face compared with a lack of social and private rented sector housing.
A spokesperson for Cornwall Council, which received a letter from Mr Shapps, says the council faces ‘significant challenges’, including a housing waiting list that is 24,000 households long and seeing homeless acceptances rise by 24 per cent in the last year.
Similarly, both Westminster Council and Bromley Council say demand for housing is outstripping the available supply. This is blamed on cuts to funding for leasing temporary accommodation, ‘a very competitive private rented sector’, and, in the case of Bromley, a ‘furthering of the gap between housing benefit levels and market rents’. In short, the private rented sector where councils would normally place homeless families is not a viable option for many cash-strapped councils.
But why, then, are other councils managing to avoid leaving families in B&B accommodation for longer than six weeks?
As Mr Shapps wrote in his letter: ‘[This is] clearly against rules and regulations that have been in force for nearly a decade [and] the vast majority of councils around the country are making sure no families are put in this position.’
Alice Evans, head of policy at homelessness umbrella organisation Homeless Link, points to the fact that 10 of the 20 recipients were London-based, suggesting the disparity can be explained by the differing level of housing need in different areas.
‘I don’t know if it is being used as a last resort or if it [B&B use] is just creeping up again, but either way London-based local authorities are struggling the most,’ she says.
While she is sympathetic to the ‘unenviable’ position councils find themselves in, she maintains councils must not ‘retrench’ in the face of government cuts to council budgets and pressures from policy reforms.
‘Some local authorities will undoubtedly be retrenching back to their statutory duties only, but there will be others looking for innovative ways of dealing with this,’ she adds.
So what ‘innovative’ options are available to councils that heed Mr Shapps’ call? Last month Newham Council revealed that one extreme measure it was considering was moving families en masse. The Labour council admitted it had written to thousands of landlords across England, looking to rehouse 500 households languishing on its housing lists. It soon became apparent that many other boroughs across the capital, including Conservative ones, are examining the same idea. But Mr Shapps slammed Newham’s plans, effectively dismissing this as an alternative option to using B&Bs.
With this off the table, councils have limited room for manoeuvre. However, some are conjuring up some unlikely solutions. Hitesh Tailor, cabinet member for housing at Ealing Council, says a massive shortage of suitable private rented housing has meant looking at how regeneration plans can be used to help.
‘We have regeneration schemes with blocks that are due to be vacated over 10 to 15 years. There are blocks that are to be decanted out and made secure before they come down in around 12 months. They will be empty for a while, so we will use them as an alternative to B&Bs for people who have been accepted as homeless.’
Indeed, Cornwall, which was among those singled out by Mr Shapps, says it is working on schemes that it hopes will see B&B use ‘fall to zero’. A spokesperson says: ‘Initiatives we have introduced include targeted support to help move people out of B&B accommodation quickly; advertising for new private sector-leased accommodation and re-procurement of the emergency accommodation service. Next month we are planning to launch a new scheme that seeks to attract private landlords to work with the council.’
Ultimately, though, many are looking to the government for some ideas. Paul Noblet, public affairs manager at homelessness charity Centrepoint, is pleased Mr Shapps put pen to paper, but says it is up to the coalition rather than the councils to come up with alternatives.
‘The supply of housing is not really increasing,’ he says. ‘Rather than just saying “you must do better” there must be some sort of solution or
support to accompany that.’
Since the 2003 order came into effect in April 2004, councils have faced the threat of judicial review if they place families in B&B accommodation for six weeks or more. Housing barrister David Watkinson, from Garden Court Chambers, says he has never heard of such a judicial review being lodged but believes it could happen if B&B use continues to rise. Mr Watkinson warns that the minister himself might be able to lodge a legal case if a council persistently offends. ‘The government would then have standing [to launch a judicial review] on the basis it was in the public interest,’ he explains.