The Homelessness Reduction Act is just the first step towards tackling the issue, says Andy Gale
Any changes to legislation intending to tackle or reduce homelessness is a good thing and the Homelessness Reduction Act is a big step forward.
The existing homelessness legislation in England is ‘broken’. It is adversarial and has gone way beyond its original intention of a safety net to protect vulnerable households, instead becoming the only realistic route into social housing, and forming - it can be argued - a legal framework that perversely creates additional homelessness.
Local authorities, constrained by the cost of temporary accommodation and the scarcity of social and private rented housing, try their best to prevent homelessness but are forced to implement the legislative tests, adopting a ‘minimum legal duty’ approach. The result is that the majority of single people and a number of vulnerable groups, including rough sleepers (who should by any common sense view be found to be vulnerable), often fall through the net because of the tough application of the priority need assessment test.
Tough decisions are also made for households where their homelessness is determined to be as a result of an intentional act - they get minimal support despite these families often being the most vulnerable with a range of complex needs.
There is a better way, and the Homelessness Reduction Act provides an opportunity to overhaul services and create a modern safety net where no one is turned away. The help offered recognises the financial and supply constraints faced by local authorities. It will also bring other agencies, both statutory and non-statutory, into a local partnership of taking action and finding solutions for those who are vulnerable and have complex needs, beyond just a housing need.
It is great that Bob Blackman’s bill received overwhelming cross-party support but when all the back-slapping of MPs is over, the stark reality is the act doesn’t build one more unit of social housing, nor does it roll back welfare reform that has seen the supply of private rented housing haemorrhaging away. We can’t let the government wash its hands by saying “we have done our bit, now over to you, local authorities” to solve a homelessness crisis its very policies on welfare reform have created.
The government has been big on blame, castigating local authorities for using bed and breakfasts and making an increasingly high number of out-of-area placements. At the same time it has been largely silent on why local authorities have been forced to take these actions. No council wants to treat people this way or incur the costs.
As someone who was involved from the start in 2002 in the development of what came to be known as the ‘prevention and options approach’, I am proud of what local authorities achieved against all the odds. However, there is one stark fact that won’t go away - the new ‘options and prevention approach’ was fundamental in delivering a reduction in statutory homeless acceptances before 2010 of nearly 70% and the halving of the numbers in temporary accommodation.
And yet, it may also have contributed to letting successive governments off the hook when it came to committing to new affordable rented housing. BBC journalist Mark Easton in 2009 blogged that homelessness was the “story of a dog which has not yet barked”, and observed that “it seems odd that England has apparently escaped the kind of scenes being witnessed in America: tented villages of homeless people; motels requisitioned to house the destitute”.
In 2017, an increasing number of local authorities across England are being forced to use budget hotels - and signs of tented villages are emerging in some of our big cities.
Need for change
All sectors will need to accept some compromise if the Homelessness Reduction Act is to be successful.
Accepting the need to change culture will be the foundation of the success of the new legislation. Don’t underestimate just how much of the success in Wales has been built on goodwill and a new commitment to make it work across local authorities and the third sector.
For local authorities, the government wants all prevention work to be carried out under a statutory duty triggered by a statutory homeless application.
Virtually anyone with a housing problem that may put them at risk of homelessness will trigger an application.
The new duty on specified public authorities to refer, with consent, cases to a local authority will inevitably trigger a homeless application for the vast majority of those referrals. Applications may therefore double, way higher than the government’s own estimates.
For others, the culture change required will be to accept that preventing homelessness lies at the core of the new legal framework. If there are any organisations that still hold the view that households who are homeless have a ‘right’ to be given social housing and preventing homelessness is a ‘second-class outcome’ over social housing, they will have to change. Despite the pressures the new legislation will bring, every local authority I have spoken to is up for the challenge and supportive of the legislation.
Culture change from the government may take longer, but in the meantime there is one very practical thing that can be done now. For all the good prevention work that will inevitably come out of the new act, the key outcome of success will be the ability of local authorities to access a sustainable supply of housing, ie the private rented sector.
‘Accommodation, accommodation, accommodation’ will be the critical measurement of success.
The government should be bringing together housing associations and the best private sector providers to set up a network of social lettings agencies, giving landlords confidence that letting to people who have to rely on benefits to pay all or part of their rent is not the risk they currently perceive it to be.
Sometimes the government needs to intervene when a market is failing before it is too late. The irony is that private rented housing has seen a huge increase, but homeless people have never had more difficulty in accessing it.
Across England, all associations need to see delivering access to private rented housing as core to their being, working with a wide range of partners to deliver rented accommodation at a level needed to make the new legislation work.
The government has to initiate this sea change and support the development of a network of social lettings agencies, combining the best of social landlords and the private sector, along with recognising innovative approaches to increasing the supply of housing for those who need to access it.
Andy Gale, housing consultant
This article was written independently and was commissioned as part of a package sponsored by Mears