The planned resettlement of 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020 could be at risk due to a lack of suitable housing and school capacity, the National Audit Office has warned.
Last week the government announced it had received enough informal pledges from councils to meet the target, but the NAO has said in a report today that these “indicative” agreements must now become firm offers.
The NAO estimates 4,390 new homes and 10,664 childcare or school places would be required over the life of the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme.
LGC research in July found councils in England had made firm offers to support more than 8,000 people under the scheme, with more than a third of areas declining to make a firm commitment to participate due to concerns over funding and existing pressures from housing and supporting asylum seekers.
By the end of June, 2,659 people had been resettled in the UK under the programme.
The NAO report says councils had reported that ongoing concerns over costs and capacity were the main barrier to future participation.
On housing, the report said some councils were struggling to establish successful partnerships with the private rental sector while others were concerned the housing benefit cap meant accommodation would be unaffordable to many refugees.
It also noted an overall school places shortage and said that in some areas the only schools with places were not in the same area as available accommodation.
The majority of London boroughs and all councils in Greater Manchester have yet to formally agree to accept families under the programme.
London Councils said boroughs were still waiting on a response from central government on whether funding would be made available “that recognises the unique challenges” faced in the capital.
A spokesperson for the Greater Manchester Combined Authority said councils were already dealing with large numbers of asylum seekers.
The NAO report adds that while councils have “worked hard” to resettle people, they have not always understood the government’s expectations after the first year of the programme.
Most of the costs of supporting resettled families in the first year are covered by the official development assistance budget, with funding for health and education falling to the relevant government department thereafter.
A total of £421m has been allocated from the ODA budget, while the Home Office expects to give councils £126m up to 2020 as a contribution to costs for refugees’ second to fifth years.
The Home Office contribution is down from the initial budget of £129m announced in the spending review last year.
The report states there has been no estimate of the overall cost of the programme to councils and central government.
The NAO calculates that the programme could cost up to £1.1bn to 2020 and a total of £1.7bn over the scheme’s lifetime.
Responding to the report, David Simmonds (Con), chairman of the Local Government Association’s asylum, refugee and migration task group, said councils were willing to support the programme and other schemes relating to refugees and asylum seekers.
He added: “In these other schemes, [councils] have no say over when people will be allowed to enter the UK, but stand ready to help when they do.
“There are also thousands of asylum seekers who are not housed by councils but who rely on their services and support.”
The head of NAO Amyas Morse said the SVPR programme had been more successful than previous resettlement schemes due “in large part to the dedication and goodwill of those involved.”
He added: “The characteristics of the refugees arriving in the UK will become clearer over time. With this new information, the programme team must adapt budgets so that no organisation taking part in the programme struggles to participate effectively due to cost pressures.”