The Commons Communities and Local Government Select Committee has begun an enquiry into homelessness. The written submissions from Councils, charities, campaigners, professional organisations and others are a stark illustration of a homeless system that is, at least in some areas, in complete crisis – overwhelmed, unable to cope with rapidly rising demand, let alone provide suitable accommodation.
Exhibit A. Bristol City Council’s evidence sets out a rise in homeless acceptances per quarter from 66 in quarter 1 2012/13 to 282 in quarter 1 2015/16 (and in addition a rise in s.20 Children Act homeless acceptances from nil in quarter 1 2012/13 to 13 in quarter 1 2015/16. The biggest increase is in ending of PRS tenancies.
Exhibit B. Westminster City Council, amidst various hopes/requests that the Housing and Planning Bill does not go ahead in its present form and further reduce social housing, are desperate to have their homeless obligations, well, ‘reformed’ to enable them to send people out of borough and out of London, because they can’t cope.
9.1 We believe that current homelessness legislation and guidance needs to be reviewed to be more aligned with the objectives of the Housing and Planning and Welfare and Work Bills and welcome government’s recent announcement in this area. We suggest a full review of homelessness legislation, regulation and guidance in the following key areas:
Suitability of accommodation – we aim to place homeless households in private rented accommodation which they can afford. However the law requires local authorities to offer housing ‘in borough’ where it is ‘reasonably practicable’. While every effort is made to do this, we simply cannot procure enough affordable TA or PRS accommodation in-borough (or even very close to the borough). The expectation that homeless families should be placed ‘in borough’, or very close to the borough, also applies to those who do not have longstanding connections to Westminster. Many of our out of borough placements are challenged. While we acknowledge that some households need to be able to remain in Westminster – we suggest that the law or code of guidance should be changed so that affordability is a key issue when making placements and offers, so that people can live in good quality private rented homes which they can afford in areas where they can set down roots. Currently a number of households can only remain in Westminster as they receive Discretionary Housing Payment which is not a long term solution. The offer of private rented housing in an area which is affordable in the long term is often preferable to a wait of many years for a social home.
Reviewable duty – currently, the homelessness assessment is geared towards deciding whether a household ‘qualifies’ for a housing duty or not. Once taken, that decision cannot be reviewed even if circumstances change, or if a social home is not the best outcome for that person. We believe the housing duty should not be fixed indefinitely but reviewed periodically and that it may include the offer of supported housing. This could help us to offer homeless households more rounded and tailored support to address their needs and to make the best use of resources when demand is very high. There should also be a requirement for applicants to engage with services and support (such as employment or skills services) offered by the local authority as a condition of accepting a duty, where they are able to work.
So, that would be asking to do away with precisely the tricky suitability issue on which Westminster lost in the Supreme Court…
Organisations like HLPA and Z2k raise gatekeeping by local authorities to try to avoid homeless duties, and Z2K and Shelter highlight the financial crisis in both PRS renting and in homeless temporary accommodation provision – because it is, in the end, about the money, in both preventing homelessness and responding to it. A 250% increase in households becoming homeless by the ending of a PRS tenancy between 2009/10 and 2014/15 tells it how it is.
But the starkest gulfs in visions of what can and must be done are between on the one hand homeless campaigners and some housing lawyers and on the other hand some councils and some council officers. The issue is funding (and a changed approach) on the one hand, against a desire to further restrict and/or dilute statutory duties on the other.
As well as Westminster wanting a dilution of statutory obligations, there is the evidence of the Association of Housing Advice Services (no, me neither, but I gather they represent ‘operational managers’ in council homeless units). AHAS have some proposals on extending the definition of intentional homelessness to include:
a) Homelessness in consequence of failing to move into suitable accommodation that is offered by the local authority or a private landlord, which would have ended a threat of homelessness within 28 days. (Currently families can refuse all offers of suitable accommodation and chose to become homeless before they are formally assessed and accepted as homeless).
b) Homelessness in consequence of not following advice provided by, or on behalf of, the local authority that would resolve the threat of homelessness. (For example not following employment advice that would enable the family to increase their income through employment and benefits so as afford rent payments and avoid rent arrears).
Oh so much of the wrong. They have not thought this through. ‘Suitability’ means a right of review, and so does a decision of intentionality. Such proposals would mean a doubling of the numbers of review officers at least… Mind you, this does illustrate why I think that any attempt to import the Housing (Wales) 2014 model of a prevention duty dischargeable when ‘the local housing authority is satisfied that the applicant is unreasonably failing to co-operate with the authority’ needs to be, at the least, carefully limited and specified.
And of course the AHAS think Nzolameso is unfair…
Because of the lack of affordable housing in London, the reduction in the overall benefit caps & rising PRS rents, LAs need greater flexibility to place households in affordable areas. The case of Nzolameso v Westminster has made it too difficult. Government should review the Suitability of Accommodation Order and guidance, in order to reduce the burden on expensive LAs.
Because of course any review of the operation of homeless obligations should focus on minimising the burden on local authorities at the expense of the homeless.
This is just scratching the surface of the many (and occasionally very, well, various) evidences filed with the select committee inquiry. But almost all, no matter from what position, have an air of desperation – laying out the facts of a situation that is getting worse, with no end to the downwardness in sight.