[Update at the end of the post 15/11/2012]
Now that the Guardian has the story, I feel able to quote a briefing paper by Andy Gale of the DCLG that had found its way to me. This is the briefing that Andy Gale has been giving to Council officers (not councillors, as far as I know) on what he gives as the DCLG view of the post-Localism Act world, how Councils should implement it, and how officers should sell this to Councillors.
And it makes very interesting reading. Please note that there may be a more considered post on the issues and policy views to come on this blog in a bit. This post isn’t that one.
The briefing paper is aimed at council officials, effectively setting out the policy proposal that should be put to Council members and cabinet. It is, then, a DCLG briefing to unelected Council officials on how to steer Council policy.
You cannot separate the homeless changes in the Localism Act from the Allocation changes [...]
Avoid as far as possible the risk of the changes being used poliitically leading to statements such as-
‘It’s a power not a requirement so we don’t need to do it’
‘It has come from the Government so shouldn’t we reject it on principle politicially’
‘Isn’t this all about cuts and welfare reform!’
‘Surely the homeless are in greatest housing need’
And as part of the ‘strategic package’ Council members should be told:
Homelessness can be manipulated to guarantee a fast track into social housing. This means fewer properties are available for other housing needs groups and transfer cases leading to frustration.
The social housing stock is reducing and only X [sic] number of empty properties are available to let in each year.
[The homeless] can apply for social housing equally with all other applicants but their homeless status will no longer give them an advantage over tenants and other households in urgent housing need
With so few properties should we help only those most in need of help, transfer tenants and some groups who make a special contribution?
And, of course, council members should be told that:
We can change the balance in our social housing estates by giving more priority to new categories such as:
Low Income households who are working?
Some groups who are undertaking training or volunteering?
Those prepared to undertake training course [sic] on how to be a good tenant
Clear rent account cases and good behaviour?
So far, so much policy spin and issue blindness masquerading as ‘avoiding a political response’, which, although apparently coming as a surprise to the Guardian and a lot of people on twitter, is not a surprise to anyone who actually followed the development of the Localism Act. This is exactly what the Localism Act was intended to enable, along with the flexible tenancy regime.
But then we come to the nitty gritty of policy and implementation.
The discussion of policy options on ‘ending’ the homeless housing duty in the PRS, on pages 3-5 is fascinating. The pressure is to have a ‘full’ policy implementation – described as ‘ending the duty for all accepted cases’ (meaning all homeless duty cases to be discharged by PRS offers, though the language used is telling). However, it is acknowledged that most LAs are likely to go for ‘ending the duty for a % of cases – less targeted’, where the availability of PRS supply will determine the % that have duty ‘ended with a PRSO’.
The answer to this issue, at least in parts of the country where there is still some available social housing, is that Councils:
May well need the reasonable preference for accepted homeless cases to be reduced to the bottom of the reasonable preference groups to ensure that a social housing offer doesn’t come before a PRSO offer.
In any event, a ‘key message’ should be sent out to applicants and stakeholders, which ‘as a minimum’ should state:
-Homelessness will no longer give automatic priority for social housing
-Access to social housing is limited but priority will be given to the following groups a, b, c etc
-Most households in the future who is [sic] accepted as homeless will/may have that duty ended through one offer of suitable private rented accommodation
And now for the master stroke. Gatekeeping! Pages 7-8 of the briefing document. Yes. the DCLG are advocating a policy of gatekeeping.
First we have a ‘4 message priority statement':
1. The Council will continue to meet its legal duties to homeless households but that homelessness will no longer give priority for social housing
2. The Housing Options Service is now a service for all residents who need advice on their housing options or to help prevent homelessness and is no longer just a homelessness service
3. Access to social housing is limited but priority will be given to low income working households (plus any other local priorities set by the authority).
4. Due to resource constraints and high private sector rents in the district any household in the future who [sic] is accepted as homeless will have that duty ended through one offer of suitable private rented accommodation.
Then how to deal with homeless applicants:
Step 3 An approach for dealing with new homeless cases post enactment.
-A household approach claiming to be homeless and it appears that they may have a priority need
-They are given clear advice on their options and the clear 4 message priority statement above is explained and reinforced.
-The key message from that statement is reinforced which is that being accepted as homeless will only result in PRS accommodation and will not be likely to result in an offer of social housing
– Where homelessness cannot be prevented and a homeless application is lawfully triggered the household will be offered one of two options 1) The prevention alternative PRS accommodation route option or 2) the Homelessness Application Route.
The ‘Alternative Prevention Route’ means that a household has
the choice of:
a) remaining with relatives or friends and finding PRS accommodation themselves in their own timescale backed by any deposit or Bond guarantee scheme
b) Remaining with relatives and friends and receiving 2 or several offers of accommodation through the private sector access team
c) If they are physically homeless and have no relatives or friends to stay with the PRS access team can make one immediate offer of PRS accommodation of their choice depending on the availability that day.
Those that take a prevention option which is outside the district could be allowed to remain on the Council’s Housing Register (although of course they will not be granted reasonable preference for being homeless). This will allow households to seek social housing through work in the district, or some other locally set criteria.
Meanwhile the Homeless Application route
The target time for all homelessness investigations and decisions will be no longer than 48 hours. [...] Once sufficient evidence is obtained a decision will be taken.
Cases accepted as being owed the full homeless duty will receive one immediate offer of suitable private sector accommodation to end that duty. Careful pre-offer assessment will need to be undertaken into employment, schooling, health and support factors and any areas where there may be fear of violence.
The prevention option would give the applicant more choice of area for the PRS offer and is therefore likely to be chosen as the default option.
This appears to be advocating gatekeeping, pure and simple. It is not lawfully open to an Authority to offer a housing options ‘deal’ before taking a homeless application. It is not lawful for an Authority to send away those who appear to be homeless, eligible and in priority need to ‘stay with relatives or friends’ while they look for their own accommodation. The s.184 duty is triggered on presentation to the Authority, not at whatever point housing options decide that the applicant isn’t going to accept the ‘deal’.
Yet here is Andy Gale, policy adviser at the CLG, advocating just that as a model for housing options practice.
And what of existing (pre 8 November) applicants in temporary accommodation? The new PRS discharge doesn’t apply. However:
Accepted homeless cases in temporary accommodation will by law retain their reasonable preference status [...] However, that RP status can be set to the lowest reasonable preference level that can lawfully be given. [...] This may effectively mean that existing accepted homelessness cases will not be likely to obtain an offer of social housing.
There is the option that all existing cases could be written to and informed that the Council has met its legal duty to provide temporary accommodation and that duty has been met.
There is the option to ‘close’ the case as the duty has been met and the household is adequately housed in temporary accommodation.
All to be provided with the option of taking a ‘qualifying offer’ in the private rented sector.
What is proposed, then, is that Councils should adjust the degree of reasonable preference for homelessness to make it practically impossible for pre 8 November 2012 applicants (and those with an existing duty owed, and in temporary accommodation) to obtain a permanent social housing allocation.
That is a definition of ‘reasonable preference’ that it would be interesting to see tested in the courts.
It is also an interesting idea that the temporary accommodation occupied by many existing applicants could actually be considered as suitable for long term, semi-permanent occupation. That would seem to give rise to a whole other set of challenges.
The DCLG vision, then, is of a complete separation between Part 7 and social housing, with reasonable preference downgraded to the point of meaninglessness. The availability of discharge through the PRS is seen as a means of reducing the number of homeless applications, the conclusion being “inevitably that new statutory homelessness applications will become minimal”. However, that reduction is apparently predicated on unlawful gatekeeping and a frankly astonishing belief that most homeless applicants are only making an application as a means of gaining social housing, and will just stay with their families instead.
Gatekeeping has been treated with a nod and a wink by the DCLG and its predecessors for many years, but it is surprising to see a DCLG policy advisor openly advocating it.
As the briefing notes at several points, the availability of suitable PRS properties for discharge is key. And here is the great gaping hole in this wheeze. The only acknowledgement that this might be tricky for Councils is a note that:
A procurement exercise is required to source accommodation providers so that there is always PRS accommodation available to the Council. For some authorities in London this may inevitably mean looking for accommodation outside their area.
(This, one might think, is a rather different approach to out of borough placement to that publicly espoused by the DCLG in the draft guidance that followed Grant Shapp’s description of out of borough – “Not only do I think it’s unfair and wrong, I have also made the legislation and guidance very clear that they are not to do this.”)
Just how likely is that that Councils, particularly in London (anywhere in London) are going to be able to find much in the way of PRS property that meets the suitability requirements of the Suitability Order and is somehow miraculously available for a rent within the LHA limits (or Universal Credit cap!).
The other issue noticeably avoided in the briefing is that PRS discharge (or gatekeeping people into the PRS without the protection of the suitability requirements) will lead to an increased level of repeat applications. Households accommodated for a 6 month fixed term (or 12 months if via PRS discharge of duty) then homeless again when the landlord serves notice. Rather than a fall in statutory homeless applications, the approach set out in the briefing may potentially see them rise, alongside the rise in homelessness already taking place.
Assuming there are any housing lawyers left, there will certainly be a rise in challenges, on suitability, on gatekeeping, and given the evidence of this briefing, maybe to Council policy too.
And yes, the title of this post is a direct quote from the briefing…
[Update. The Guardian picked up on this post and quoted it substantially here. As can be seen from the Reader's Editor note at the top of that article, CLG have complained forcefully to the Guardian about the identification of Andy Gale as being of CLG.
The exact wording of their denial, that "Andy Gale is not employed by the department and that it has no contractual arrangements with him." is, in an entirely speculative manner, possibly interesting. However, it is clear that CLG do not want to be publicly associated with Andy Gale's briefing and indeed 'Andy Gale CLG Policy Advisor' has now been removed from the speakers listing for a Capita conference in January 2013, for which he was included until the evening of Tuesday 13 November, being after the publication of the Guardian article. It is also very clear that Andy Gale has been using the title 'Policy Advisor CLG' in these briefings and for many conference appearances in the last couple of years. There may be more to this story.
Anyone who can shed a little light on Andy Gale's relation with/to CLG (up to the afternoon of Tuesday 13 November 2012) is very welcome to contact me - firstname.lastname@example.org in confidence. ]
[Update. And then the whole tale came out.]