Councils must take note of the housing minister’s concerns about their use of bed and breakfasts
Back in 2006, then housing minister Yvette Cooper became so vexed at the way councils in England were treating homeless people that she wrote to all of them to ‘remind’ them of their responsibilities. Ms Cooper was worried councils were ‘gatekeeping’ (discouraging homeless people from applying for housing assistance).
Local authorities are used to their decisions coming under national scrutiny and such debates tend to be conducted in public because of the irresistible opportunity for political point scoring. Private knuckle-rapping, like Ms Cooper’s, is a much rarer occurrence, however. This is why we should sit up and take notice at the news that current housing minister Grant Shapps has written to 20 councils because of his own concerns about the way they are dealing with homeless people. In no uncertain terms, Mr Shapps has told the councils to up their game. Unlike Ms Cooper, he is not concerned about authorities restricting access to services. Rather it is the type of services on offer that he finds unacceptable.
As Inside Housing revealed earlier this year, increasing numbers of families are being placed in bed and breakfast accommodation and Mr Shapps is unhappy at the amount of time they are left languishing there. The guidelines state that families should not be left in such housing for more than six weeks.
The overall number of people in B&Bs is also soaring. Communities and Local Government figures 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 nothing short of a national disgrace. The last government referred to B&B as ‘the least suitable form of accommodation for most households’ that should only be used as a ‘last resort’. Like Mr Shapps it was not wrong. But while some councils must clearly up their game, this is also an issue for central government. Mr Shapps is currently drawing up a new cross-departmental homelessness strategy which must come up with solutions that will help authorities struggling with a lack of suitable accommodation.
Mr Shapps’ letter is a welcome sign that the problem is being taken seriously - but the strategy now needs to offer some equally serious answers.