The new legislation presents challenges and opportunities to boost collaboration between public and private partners
The themes are familiar: a lot of extra burdens and not a lot of extra money to implement them. In just under two months the Homelessness Reduction Act will come into force, putting a legal duty on councils to help even more people.
And there are definitely more people that need help.
The latest rough sleeping statistics show that last autumn 4,751 people were either counted or estimated to be sleeping rough – that is up 15% on 2016. A quarter of them (24%) were sleeping rough on London’s streets.
Between July and September last year, 15,290 households were accepted by councils to be homeless – almost triple the quarterly low of 5,860 recorded in 2009. Since then, there has been a steady rise, which the government says has been largely driven by households who have lost their home because an assured shorthold tenancy has ended.
Worryingly, official statistics do not show the full extent of the homelessness crisis in this country, as Shelter’s chief executive Polly Neate explains.
“The scourge of homelessness extends far beyond our streets. Hidden away in emergency B&B’s, temporary bedsits and on friends’ sofas are hundreds of thousands of other homeless people, including families with children.
“Most of these people are homeless simply because they couldn’t afford to live anywhere, a situation made worse by welfare cuts.”
Unsurprisingly there are not many who argue against the aims of the Homelessness Reduction Act. However, the amount of money that accompanies it – or more accurately, the lack of money – has seen the issue rise rapidly up councils’ risks registers.
Last autumn, the government allocated a share of £73m to all councils but London’s boroughs alone estimate they need to spend at least that every year if they are to adequately meet their new statutory duties.
The money – which ministers topped up from the £61m previously earmarked, in part due to local government lobbying – is to be spent between now and 2019-20 on preventing a greater range of residents from becoming homeless.
Analysis by LGC last October revealed that the amount of money allocated varies by up to £373 per homeless household between different regions this year – with the West Midlands getting the least and London the most. But even then Southwark LBC, a trailblazer authority which has already started implementing the act, has had to stump up an extra £750,000 of its own money on top of the £1.5m it got from the government “just to keep the system up and running”, according to the borough’s deputy leader and housing lead Stephanie Cryan (Lab).
The Homelessness Reduction Act might be the private member’s bill with the most government money attached to it ever, but even the act’s instigator Bob Blackman (Con) acknowledges it will not solve the problem on its own.
“I’m under no illusions; this [act] is not going to solve the homelessness crisis in this country,” Mr Blackman told a Westminster social policy forum last month. “It doesn’t build a single property [but] what it is is a piece in the jigsaw to actually address the crisis of people not having anywhere to live.”
LGC has sought contributions from three experts who, together, have helped to produce a guide aimed at helping councils to successfully implement the act.
From the beginning of April, councils will be required to assess and provide more meaningful assistance to everyone who is homeless or threatened with homelessness, and not just those deemed to be most in need. The lead-in time to get that help has also been extended from 28 to 56 days.
Providing meaningful assessments and drawing up detailed, bespoke plans for each individual will undoubtedly be a major drain on councils’ depleting resources but Liz Davies, a respected barrister with expertise on housing law, has warned officers against cutting corners.
“Councils would find it impossible to undertake their prevention or relief duties without [the detailed assessments and plans], and would probably face a claim in judicial review by a dissatisfied applicant requiring them to perform those duties,” Ms Davies says.
Meeting these new duties will require collaboration, not just across local government but the wider public sector and private sector too.
Manchester City Council chief executive Joanne Roney says a concerted national approach to tackling homelessness “is currently lacking” but adds “this does not mean we should either wash our hands of the issue or wring them in despair”.
The legislation does require other public authorities to refer cases to councils. Pippa Medcalf, a consultant physician at Gloucester Royal Hospital, has been ahead of the curve on this for almost half a decade. She outlines how she has helped to save about £50,000 by working more closely with councils whenever a homeless person, or someone at risk of homelessness, presents themselves to doctors and nurses.
The country’s housing crisis is well documented, and with councils’ building abilities hamstrung by the cap on the housing revenue account every property is at a premium.
Tensions between councils and private landlords have risen in recent years through a combination of rising rents forcing families out of homes, substandard accommodation, the imposition of selective licensing schemes and a lack of joint working between the two sectors when a household faces homelessness.
But Richard Lambert, chief executive of the National Landlords Association, has written for LGC explaining what councils can do to try to work with private landlords to help ease the burden on a local authorities’ housing stock.