Posted by: Jules Birch06/07/2011
There’s a well-timed warning about council homelessness services from the Local Government Ombudsman today that should also be a wake-up call.
It’s a response to consistent criticism from campaigners that the priority of some councils is the prevention of homelessness applications rather than homelessness itself. And the ombudsman, Jane Martin, says they must do more to stop ‘inappropriate gatekeeping’.
The report quotes the case one one family who approached their local authority once when they were about to repossessed and a second time when they had moved and could not pay their private rent.
The council said it had tried to take action to prevent homelessness by liaising with the landlord and giving advice but failed to treat the family as homeless despite them clearly being under threat of homelessness and in priority need.
Another council failed to accept a homelessness application from a single mother with a young son who was being evicted from her private rented flat.
An inexperienced officer assumed that when she moved in with a friend’s family as an emergency measure that her homelessness had been prevented.
In a third case the ombudsman ruled that a London borough had made ‘a deliberate attempt to prevent access to housing assistance’ to a pregnant woman in her 20s.
It had refused to take her homelessness application and told her to go to another borough.For the ombudsman, the point of highlighting this and other cases is to identify good practice in the way councils make decisions, inform applicants, administer their systems and liaise with other departments.
And it says it will criticise councils that use homelessness prevention to prevent applications or use other means to delay or deny applications.
Many will see those conclusions as long overdue but they have a particular resonance in the current financial mess.’I am concerned that more people could now suffer injustice because of the combined impact of a tough economic climate and the serious budget pressures on councils,’ says Jane Martin.
‘It’s really important that councils are alert to this very significant risk. We want to help them understand the dangers and take action to avoid mistakes.’
However, that seems like an understatement at a time when even Eric Pickles is warning that housing benefit cuts and the overall benefit cap will make 40,000 households homeless.
As Patrick Butler notes on his Guardian blog, Westminster, the council most in the firing line from the first round of cuts, is expecting a glut of homelessness applications from January 2012 and that it will have to house 300 households in temporary accommodation.
He quotes Westminster’s risk assessment as saying this is affordable as long as only four out of the 40 applications it expects a month are accepted.
An acceptance rate of 40% would mean 1,500 units of temporary accommodation at a cost of £18m. That is just the effect in one borough of the bedroom size caps and the cut to the 30th percentile.
Take that effect around the country, add the cuts still to come such as extending the shared room rate to the under-35s and all sorts of cuts in the housing benefit of social tenants, and the pressures on homelessness services are going to be severe - to put it mildly.
So costs from demand for assistance will be soaring just as funding is plummeting (in his leaked letter Pickles warned that the overall benefit cap will save central government £270m but cost local authorities £300m in homelessness assistance).
The removal of ringfencing for supporting people and homelessness prevention will make things even worse - even in authorities determined to do the right thing.
As one housing options manager comments on Inside Housing’s news story on the report: ‘I have witnessed other councils taking the gatekeeping approach approach referred to in the article and I have to say I am struggling to fend off the urge or requirement to act in the same manner due to the financial constraints against a backdrop of increased demand.’
Finally, add new flexibilities under the Localism Bill for local authorities to discharge their homelessness duty into the private rented sector. Grant Shapps argues in this week’s Inside Housing: ‘They are best placed to weigh up the needs of individuals in their area, and to provide the appropriate accommodation that balances their duty to house against the local demand for social housing.
Few of us would argue that. Nor would anyone think that they are going to desert their responsibility to those in greatest need by abandoning them in unsuitable accommodation.’
Fine words but the sort of problems revealed by the ombudsman happened at a time when services were relatively well-funded. Combine severe cuts in funding, benefits and advice services and a surge in demand for assistance with that local flexibility and we could have a scandal waiting to happen.
From Inside edge
Housing commentator Jules Birch puts the latest news in context