Losing your home is a terrible blow that ripples out to harm every other part of a person’s life.
It is usually the last in a series of disasters as people struggle to keep control of their lives, so stepping in early to help must be a good idea.
That is why the Homelessness Reduction Bill now in parliament should be welcome, but the compromises MPs are being pushed to accept in this bill show that, under pressure, the national debate drifts towards blaming councils instead of preventing homelessness.
London boroughs are at the centre of this storm: 75% of England’s temporary accommodation is here, with more than 52,000 households in temporary accommodation, which is an increase of 9% from last year. Rough sleeping is also rising nationally, up from hundreds in 2010 to possibly 7,500 today.
The bill does three things. First, it says everyone is entitled to help, not just especially vulnerable groups. Second, it says help should start early, not when the bailiffs arrive, but 56 days before; drawing on examples from Wales, the bill requires councils to be imaginative with advice, short-term loans and so on. Third, it gives individuals rights to challenge councils to do better by demanding a review of the support they have received.
What’s not to like? The problem is corners are being cut to turn the bill into an act. The government is offering £61m to councils across England to tackle homelessness over three years. On the basis of theory, not evidence, the government assumes by year three, prevention will be paying for itself. London Councils’ survey shows London alone will need £77m per year. Without more funding, this bill will offer no help to the homeless.
Worse, the review process offers false hope. With a broken housing market, homes too often cost more than benefit caps; the only solutions can be pretty tough. Anyone would want to appeal but appeals won’t build cheaper homes. In London we calculate that reviews will cost £19.9m each year. Micro-managing council performance means 98% of the funding offered by government will be spent on appeals and not homes.
We can do better. Croydon LBC proves that. Croydon’s People’s Gateway service intervenes far earlier than 56 days. Data analysis spots people before they are in deep trouble and offers advice. Year one saved 1,100 families from losing their homes; helped 5,400 become more financially secure and got 587 into a job. It saved Croydon council tax payers £2.5m.
National politicians should learn from the evidence. It is only locally that the complex service solutions needed to prevent homelessness can be developed. Local government must adopt a more confident tone and educate national players to raise their game.
Dick Sorabji, corporate director for policy and public affairs at London Councils