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07/01/2009

Homelessness collaboration agreement

Out of Leeds comes an interesting story (picked up via Shelter’s Roof blog) about an agreement between the Local Authority, two Citizens Advice Bureaux and Shelter’s West Yorkshire Advice Service.

Leeds City Council has signed an agreement with the CABs and WYAS which sets out the ways in which they will collaborate on providing advice and help to those facing homelessness.

Under the terms of the agreement the agencies will work more closely together to provide early advice, assistance and support both to people at risk of homelessness and those who have already lost their homes, as well as preventing recurring homelessness by helping people secure sustainable accommodation.

The agreement is apparently the first to use a model that has been developed by the National Homelessness Advice Service,  a partnership between Citizens Advice Service and Shelter, with support from Communities and Local Government, with the aim of helping local authorities and independent advice agencies to work together to prevent homelessness. It sets minimum standards for co-operative working and outlines good practice.

Hmm. We would be very interested to hear from anyone involved in this arrangment, or in deploying the NHAS model, as to how it actually works. While cooperation to reduce homelessness is clearly of value, I must admit to some concerns over the effect on the independence of the CABs and Shelter advisors in bringing challenges to Local Authority ‘advice’ or decisions on homelessness applications.

And then, given that the ‘preventing homelessness’ agenda in local authorities has seen the numbers of accepted full housing duty drop by 13% in the last year and 60% since 2003/4, I’m perhaps unduly suspicious of ‘prevention’ per se. (After all, no-one in the sector can seriously believe that the number of people presenting to LAs as homeless has dropped 60% since 2003/4. Gatekeeping of one form or another is rife). I would therefore be very interested to know what forms of support and assistance are involved in this venture. Leeds has divested its housing stock into three ALMOs, but still sets the allocation policy and runs the HPU (or ‘Homelessness advice unit’).

Giles Peaker is a solicitor and partner in the Housing and Public Law team at Anthony Gold Solicitors in South London. You can find him on Linkedin and on Twitter. Known as NL round these parts.

22 Comments

  1. Marcin

    Early referral would not compromise their independance, but I can’t see much else that could happen that wouldn’t either be CABs/Shelter doing the authority’s job for free, or impair their independence.

    Reply
    • NL

      Marcin, that is my concern, but I hope that is me being cynical and that there is more to the arrangement. Details anyone?

      Reply
  2. Michael

    Seems like a more grown-up approach than the usual Shelter/CAB line which (like the NL line) seems to suggest that all social landlords ie the only organisations which offer affordable rents and decent tenancy terms and which house the homeless and needy are necessarily contemptible and corrupt and the enemies of… those self same needy people they house. well done Leeds Leeds Leeds!

    Reply
    • NL

      Thanks Michael, for as ever displaying a deep understanding of the value and principle of independent legal advice. And your ability to read what I actually wrote.

      Reply
  3. William Flack

    What angle are you approaching this one from Michael? Nobody thinks that social landlords are inherently corrupt and contemptible. That would be silly. Its not as simple as that. However the dynamics of what social landlords do mean that they are constantly under pressure to become corrupt and contemptible. It is only the counterweight of an independent advice sector that prevents them from going the whole way. You know how it is Michael. You stare into the abyss and the abyss stares back into you.

    Reply
    • Michael

      Don’t get your knickers in a twist. I’m simply pointing out that Shelter, CAB, and lawyers who claim to be “tenant biased” posit social landlords as the enemy.

      Don’t you?

      The Leeds set-up seems to have made steps to move away from that unhelpful standpoint. And you feel a little betrayed and hurt.

      NL, I wasn’t writing in relation to what you actually wrote, but in relation to the collaboration itself.

      Reply
  4. dave

    Forgive a slightly academic intrusion here, but it rather depends on what is meant by corrupt and contemptible. If what is meant is a deliberate and knowing flouting of the law, then that claim is rarely in my experience made out (although that is not to deny that this does not occur). What is happening in the homelessness prevention agenda, though, is a government-led policy which operates on a legal tightrope and, as homelessness case law amply demonstrates, this policy can cause councils unknowingly to act against Part 7. To put this another way, it rather depends on the first question which is asked of a person seeking advice from a council about their housing situation. We have moved away from the question “are you homeless”, to the more New Labourish Harrow model “what are your housing options”. There are valid reasons, in my view, for that shift, not least of which is (for want of a better word) empowerment of the advice-seeker. There are also economically rational reasons for that shift. The New Labour housing need narrative consistently puts councils in an awkward, occasionally impossible position in law (CBL etc). The government always protects itself in the small print (which naturally requires participating councils to act in accordance with the law). It is also the case that some councils have operationalised these policies with more vigour than others, partly depending on the personalities of the officers/Members. Again, there are good reasons for doing so, and there is no doubt that most such persons believe (often correctly) that they are acting in the best interests of their (newly conceived) customer/homeseeker. There is nothing corrupt or contemptible about that in the slightest; rather, I would frame that positively as housing providers doing what they do best and promoting their mission, ie dealing with housing need. The difficulty arises where the best option for the customer is, for example, to make a homelessness application. They might not know that themselves and nor should they be expected to do so. That is not their fault – homelessness and allocations law is extremely specialised, something which should be deprecated but seems de rigueur in social welfare law more generally. However, if the prevailing narrative is of housing options, underpinned by the economic imperative, the applicant may be pulled away from that best option or, indeed, other best options which don’t “fit” with that model. In such circumstances, the legitimacy of legal advice/opinion/action cannot be questioned surely? If this type of gatekeeping action is happening on a widescale level, that is not corrupt per se, but it is morally contemptible as it is institutionally denying advice-seekers (a) the benefit of proper advice, and (b) the benefit of legal rights. The concern raised by the Leeds approach seems to me to be that advisors may become implicated in the housing options model and, thus, become implicated in that institutional denial. But it may also, or counter that proposition, be positive in that early advice, as we know, can be an extremely powerful tool in enabling people to exercise their housing rights. So, it will be interesting to see how this plays out in Leeds.

    Finally, if I may, Michael’s position seems to me to be better framed as a set of coherent law reform proposals to pull back on the welfare rights of advice-seekers. That is a legitimate position to adopt and one which may well find its place in the forthcoming Green Paper. However, it is also a position which I would oppose at a pretty fundamental level.

    Reply
  5. Anon (for obvious reasons)

    I worked for Leeds City Council (Single Homelessness) for 14 years and then worked for Shelter in Leeds for a couple of years.

    Leeds in the early 1990s set up a lot of services for homeless people who were *not* owed a statutory duty. (Before all you southerners faint – so did quite a few of the larger northern councils)

    That did change from 96 onwards – and there has been a lot more gatekeeping and box ticking.

    I have mixed feelings about this development and would like to see how it develops. It may lead to sensible fast tracking of initial assessments and better liaison arrangements with the HPU which would be a good things… or it might lead to Shelter doing the councils gatekeeping for them.

    However, I would wait and see …

    Reply
  6. Anon

    I’m not sure the comments about social landlords (for or against) are relevant here as I understand this is more about homelessness and homeless prevention which is not part of the landlord function of the council.

    I might be wrong.

    While Leeds does retain its’ stock (sort of – in Almos) the same scheme could easily be applied to local authorities without any stock.

    Also – practically – even when Leeds did directly manage its stock the homeless functions and allocations functions were very different (indeed at that time the homeless department was very progressive but the housing offices wouldnt allocate to homeless applicants)

    Reply
  7. house

    At my CAB we had a LA funded prevention officer who worked next to me. It’s horribly hard working together as so often a client comes in who has given an LA a reason to believe a client may be homeless etc.

    If a CAB or Shelter wish to claim they are independent how can they not advise the client as to their legal rights and from my experience such partnerships do not work as the LA’s want more homeless prevention stats not more homeless approaches. As the CABx are usually reliant on the LA’s funding, not only for specific contracts but also for the core funding that contributes to their very existance it is the LA views and er ‘pressure’ that will win the day sadly.

    In my opinion and experience from working at both organisations CABx and Shelter are not the truely independent bodies that they claim to be.

    Reply
  8. Michael

    House, I knew that CABx (love that pluralisation) were on the LA payroll, but Shelter? Shurely not!

    Reply
  9. house

    Shelter = LSC & Government payroll

    Reply
  10. Michael

    So they wouldn’t be doing the authority’s job for free, Marcin, they are the authority – by proxy.

    I found the idea of an independely funded charity working hand in hand with an HPU to protect the most vulnerable, not unattractive.

    The idea that Shelter is more like an un-named quango is creepy.

    Reply
  11. HoHum

    Calm down!

    I’m a Senior Case Law Worker for Shelter. Theres nothing new in us recieving a little(v. little)funding from LA’s. Its part of the Statutory obligations under part 6 and 7 to provide access to independant advice and we’re a cheap way around that obligation.

    Its not a secret its been going on for years in England and Wales. At the bottom of most decision letters and arrears letters you’ll see a recomendation to seek Independant Advice naming us, the CAB and others.

    I bet any LA officer reading this will have spat out there tea. Imagining us colluding with them. I know that Homeless officers, up and down this country, hearts drop when they hear were on the phone,or see our letter head or see us against them in court. They know we will challenge and we fight for our clients.

    Ultimately its about getting our clients re housed. One the best ways to go about that is to work in partnership with the LA.

    Simple and sensible.No quangos or consiracey.

    They did really land on the moon, Elvis is dead and gatekeeping does exist.

    Reply
  12. HoHum

    ……..er by that I mean LA’s do gatekeep its true! Sorry to shock and all that.

    We certainly don’t collaborate. I can hear all the Councils sighing.

    Mind you that maybe my medication.

    Reply
  13. NL

    Right. This has all got a bit heated and I’ve had to remove a comment for falling into personal abuse (in my view). Robust is OK, rude isn’t.

    There is some interesting info here, particularly from Anon, but sadly not from anyone who has knowledge of the actual Leeds agreement. I don’t think there is anyone who would dispute that if the agreement works to better aid those who are facing homelessness or are homeless, then it is a good thing. But to those of us who are scarred cynics there is an apparent risk to independence. This may or may not be the case, which is why I’m interested to know about the agreement and any arrangements around it.

    Comments on that are welcome.

    Reply
    • Rudy

      Unlike myself, there will be a number of readers of this blog who will have genuine inside knowledge of the immediate motivation and mechanics of this arrangement. You know who you are, and we’d welcome your views on this!

      But from my own acquaintance with the Leeds situation, there has been much – sometimes well justified – criticism of this authority’s gate-keeping (just as Anon [hi there] says), particularly with regard to the “other special reason” vulnerable single homeless. Locally, Shelter have been aware of this for some years, and have felt frustrated at not being able to bring a test case. This has been chiefly because such applicants, at the stage in the process where they are still trying to get the LHA to entertain their application, are those who are most easily put off by the sort of gatekeeping system that Dave, in his “slightly academic intrusion” above, described so well. We all recognise that their often chaotic lifestyles mean that they are hardly likely to then hang around while the lawyers get the ducks in a row. Judicial review pre-action protocol letters of claim have worked in extremis, in the odd case. The difficulty, inherent in the nature of JR, of establishing factual allegations of gate-keeping, means that there is no easy way of making progress by litigation. And anyway, Shelter would say that they’re main purpose is to put roofs over heads, not to litigate.

      I too have concerns that Shelter may inadvertently wind up doing the LHA’s job. But for pragmatic reasons, we should welcome this arrangement: there is a strong chance that vulnerable applicants who are not getting housed under s.188 duties, and hence giving up and going away, will now get their rights recognised.

      The local Shelter advisers are more than competent, and are respected as nobody’s poodles: they do not suffer LHA fools gladly. If the arrangement is seen not to work by them, it won’t last. And I think there may be a number of senior homelessness and allocations officers who are less happy about this protocol than some of nearlylegal’s bloggers. Well,it’s the New Year, and can’t we just be a bit optimistic for a week or so?

      Reply
  14. Michael

    Or if anyone doesn’t agree with you then they must not be heard.

    None of my previous entry was offensive to anyone other than you lot.

    Reply
    • NL

      Michael – no ‘you lot’ involved. It was my call entirely. If you want to take it up with me further, you have my email, but we are not discussing it on blog. Sorry.

      Reply
  15. Anon (again)

    A bit more local information.

    It’s actually very difficult to get a *good* test case against an authority like Leeds. They’re simply not bullheaded *enough* to refuse to backdown when they are legally challenged. There is a Shelter HAC and a number of specialist housing solicitors in Leeds and so if someone gets *to* one of them, then it’s likely the council will back down.

    It’s the bogstandard initial approach gatekeeping, treating homeless applicants in the HPU as cattle, and constant turnover of staff that makes Leeds bad- there are too many applicants and too few ways for them to access advocates.

    It’s particularly annoying that Leeds got deemed a local ‘champion’ of prevention services using the example of mediation – when they had *one* mediation worker in a city with a population of 700k.

    Shelter and CAB would *not* let that initial gatekeeping pass by – and will have contact with the local solicitors for JR’s etc so this could actually be fairly good.

    Nontheless – there are problems around independence and I know that Housed has written about some of his difficulties at a CAB getting his management to tackle the local council for their bad policies.

    Reply
  16. Anon (again)

    I’m speaking as someone who now spends most of my time dealing with London councils when I say Leeds is not as ‘bullheaded’ :)

    Reply
    • Rudy

      @Anon – spot on, I think. I too deal with a largeish number of authorities, and “not bullheaded” would be taken as a compliment by Leeds, and most authorities north of the Chilterns. It also means that they’re more inclined to be flexible and accountable enough to listen to properly put arguments and fresh facts, albeit not always as early in the process as they should have.

      My understanding is that West Yorkshire Shelter now have the in-house staff and expertise, and a franchise to enable them to bring proceedings themselves, without referring clients to any of the 4 or 5 local outfits that deal with homelessness cases. My concerns in that locality are rather more with the independence and judgment of the CABx, rather than Shelter.

      Reply

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