Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Councils should use the private rented sector in the fight against homelessness, says Grant Shapps

There has been a lot of debate on the pages of Inside Housing on the use of the private rented sector to house homeless families. And rightly so - it’s a decision that involves some of the most vulnerable people of our society.

There are nearly 2 million households languishing on social housing waiting lists in this country - a number that doubled over the past 13 years. These families often have very little hope of ever being handed a set of keys to their own social home.

Homeless households also face the continued uncertainty of long waits in temporary accommodation until a social home becomes available.

Safe house

The private rented sector can give some of these families a safe and secure roof over their heads, and the stability they need to begin rebuilding their lives. Currently, the solution to virtually every case where a household is accepted as homeless is considered to be social housing. But it’s an out-of-date concept that is unreasonable for households which are stuck in temporary accommodation for longer than they need to be, and doesn’t necessarily provide the most effective help to people rebuilding their lives.

The current system is also unfair - while we have long social housing waiting lists it is no surprise that some people may get themselves evicted by friends and family as their best chance of accessing social housing.

We need reform.

Councils must be given greater flexibility in meeting the housing needs of their local area and this should involve, where necessary, making better use of private sector accommodation to help those in greatest need.

Our proposed changes will allow councils to use a house or flat in the private sector where they are satisfied that it is suitable for the family’s needs.

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.

Homelessness prevention

Local authorities already house tens of thousands of households successfully in the private rented sector through homelessness prevention schemes. But even so, safeguards will stay in place, the safety net against homelessness will remain just as robust and the ‘priority need’ categories for those facing homelessness will be kept. And councils must ensure that the accommodation is suitable, safe and secure and available for a minimum of 12 months.

The difference is that they will now have the discretion to use their resources in the most effective way possible, and will be able to provide the most appropriate assistance for people who need help with accommodation.

Some have made the argument that it is too costly to use the private rented sector to house families. But they ignore the fact that we already pay the huge cost of temporary accommodation for those households accepted as homeless but who are stuck in temporary accommodation for long periods of time while they wait for an offer of a social home. Councils should instead be able to negotiate contracts with providers in their area to offer a place in the private sector for those who need it and deliver better value for money for their taxpayers.

That’s why I’ve called on councils to start forging closer links with landlords and letting agents, so that when the new powers in the Localism Bill come in they can hit the ground running.

But that’s not to say it will be the end to the problem. We need more social homes. The new affordable rent model that we are offering social landlords will allow them to charge new tenants who can afford it higher rents and will contribute, as a result, to delivering up to 150,000 new affordable homes over the next four years.

Similarly, the £1.6 billion we are investing to bring a further 150,000 council homes up to a decent standard will improve the lives of thousands and relieve the burden of rehousing them.

Freeing up social housing

And through the Localism Bill, we are giving councils the option to offer fixed tenancies to new social housing tenants, ensuring a council home is available for as long as it is needed and when it is no longer needed it can be given to someone else who could benefit.

Additionally, asking the top 1 per cent of earners who are on six-figure salaries, but still living in social housing, to pay the market rent will, rather than denting aspiration, equal out the system provided by the taxes of millions of hard-working, less well-off people. The extra money generated can then be put into building more affordable homes.

These changes are part of the most radical reforms for a generation and will give councils more flexibility to use their social housing stock to maximum effect and drive down waiting lists - following in the footsteps of central government and ensuring the most vulnerable people in our society are protected.

Grant Shapps is minister for housing and MP for Welwyn Hatfield