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The problem with the Homeless Reduction Act 2017 was summed up rather tidily by Shelter’s policy manager, Deborah Garvie, as being “a bit like waiting in hospital, being treated very nicely but finding there are no operating theatres”.
Because the inconvenient truth is that there is not enough social housing being built, and unfortunately, boosting service engagement levels and getting people placed in the system faster still cannot solve the main problem.
The act, which came into force last April, means that anyone assessed by their English council as being at risk of homelessness within 56 days now has a statutory right to assistance from their council to stop that threat from becoming a reality.
At the Commons’ housing, communities and local government committee yesterday afternoon, Ms Garvie’s point was a central theme – that it doesn’t matter how much time and care is put into the council’s interaction with those faced with losing their homes, if there is not enough permanent housing available, then the outcome remains much the same.
Ms Garvie nonetheless praised the “huge efforts” of councils to implement the act, in terms of recruiting and training staff.
But there were also shared concerns about the bureaucracy that’s now hampering the process. Committee member Bob Blackman (Con), who spearheaded the act in the first place, was concerned that ‘personalised housing plans’ were becoming “cut and paste templates”.
“We want ’personalised’, not just ‘here’s one I prepared earlier’”, he commented.
Ms Garvie echoed his sentiments. “The standard templates used are not personalised in many cases, and for the average person, they’re difficult to understand. None are user friendly. There is a high turnover of staff in some areas - new staff are not getting training immediately. It’s a very mixed picture.”
There was also fierce criticism of the statistics recording system known as H-CLIC (Homelessness Case Level Information Collection), which is being used to monitor the implementation of the act.
Adele Morris (Lib Dem), deputy chair of the LGA’s Environment, Economy, Housing & Transport Board said there hadn’t initially been enough time allotted to get the system up and running as it was introduced very quickly. Redbridge LBC cabinet member for housing & homelessness Farah Khanum Hussain (Lab) described the data system as a “major administrative challenge for staff”.
“More and more staff are spending most of their time inputting data, and many don’t understand why it has to be so burdensome and complicated,” she said.
Crisis has surveyed 545 people that have used housing officers since the act was introduced last year, and conducted 50 in-depth interviews. The majority - 51% - of respondents said they left feeling positive about the options available to them, which is perhaps cause to be optimistic.
However, the survey also found that only 14% of the people using the services said they were aware of the introduction of the act, which housing minister Heather Wheeler admitted she was “disappointed” to hear.
Crisis chief executive Jon Sparkes believes the act could be improved by applying the ‘Duty to Refer’ mandate, placed on councils under the act, to GPs.
Many would argue that the UK’s homelessness crisis is still raging, as evidenced by a trip into almost any urban centre in England, but Ms Wheeler pointed out that according to the Ministry for Housing Communties & Local Government’s latest rough sleeping figures for 2018, there has been a 2% drop in homelessness. She also claims that MHCLG’s first ”quality statistics” on the act show promising signs, with 10,800 households having been helped through the new duties.
While those giving evidence almost unanimously called for more social housing as the ultimate fix for the homelessness crisis, Ms Wheeler was brusque in some of her responses.
“In London, we have put £50m for [London mayor Sadiq Khan] to bring on accommodation.We want to get these new builds going. Maybe you want to ask mayor Khan what he has done with that £50m.”
Ms Wheeler believes that it’s still too early days to see what the act’s overall impact will be. The government has pledged to review the effectiveness of the new measures and will publish a final report in March 2020, which Ms Wheeler says will be “the proof of the pudding”.
She is hoping that England will follow the trend seen when a similar act was introduced in Wales.
Welsh councils have had a statutory duty to prevent homelessness for the past three years, under Section 66 of the Housing (Wales) Act 2014, and the results there are giving Ms Wheeler some cause for optimism.
According to the Welsh Government, councils there prevented 65% of people threatened with homelessness in 2015-16 from becoming homeless, suggesting that the preventative approach is working there.
And there are other government measures on the horizon that may see homeless numbers decline further. A consultation on scrapping section 21 clauses in tenant contracts which allow no-fault evictions is due to launch soon, and Ms Wheeler says she hopes that new standard contracts will be “two years and open ended after that” to provide tenants with more security.
She also spoke of innovative collaborations with the Ministry of Justice on all prisoner releases across the country, and another with the NHS, “with nobody leaving hospital without somewhere to go”. “We have joint working with the NHS on that,” she said. “We are really trying to think outside the box.”
Some of these measures could open up new cracks in the system as well as filling old ones, as any move to keep the homeless in hospital beds is bound to put more pressure on our overstretched NHS.
And a fixed two-year contract would involve some sort of rent freeze, which could tempt landlords to move their money into more profitable investments - thereby putting more of a squeeze on the private housing market.
There are clearly no easy answers to solve the homelessness problem. But everyone - including the Conservative government - is agreed on the need to build more social housing, and get those operating theatres in action.
Jessica Hill, senior reporter