A housing inspection team gave the service no stars because of the lack of up to date written information about the service and because the cost of bed and breakfast accommodation has been wrongly paid for by council tenants. Also, compared to other district councils, Shepway's performance in delivering the homeless service is in the bottom 25 per cent.
Roy Irwin, chief inspector of housing, said:
'A number of factors have led us to judge the service as having poor prospects for improvement. There was limited consultation with service users and the council's tenants were not consulted about the review at all. Shepway has yet to address the root causes of poor performance and in the improvement plan, only one proposed item has been achieved by the dates set.
The inspectors found the following key weaknesses:
- There is no written information given to homeless households about bed and breakfast accommodation, temporary hostel accommodation or how the rent deposit scheme operates.
- Although the allocations service is efficient at processing nominations the booklet which describes how the housing allocations system works has not been up-dated to incorporate a major change to the points scheme which took place in November 2001. Local advice agencies have not been informed of or consulted about these changes.
- The cost of bed and breakfast accommodation for homeless households has been paid for by council housing tenants - this is a misuse of council tenants' money and a breech of legislation. Over the last two years this has cost tenants at least£484,000. The cost was made worse because for 12 to 18 months no rent was collected from people whom the council had placed in bed and breakfast accommodation.
- Homelessness cases have not been thoroughly investigated - including no evidence of priority need for rehousing in one case.
- Compared to other district councils the number of households in bed and breakfast, the length of time people spend in bed and breakfast and the length of time it takes the council to make decisions are all in the bottom 25 per cent of district councils.
To help the service improve, inspectors made a number of recommendations, including:
- Reimburse the housing revenue account for the money it has used, incorrectly, to pay for the bed and breakfast costs of homeless households. The accounting for the service needs to be regularised with guidance from the council's external auditors.
Lack of up to date information:
- Produce a booklet about the housing list that explains the current points system, the opening hours of the relevant council offices and addresses the availability of translated and large print versions of information to service users.
- Produce information for homeless households about the services it provides.
- Look at and address the poor performance of the homelessness service.
- Draw up a homelessness strategy which would, amongst other things, complete the work not carried out in the council's best value review.
The services inspected were homelessness and the operation of the housing register - which is the source of all the nominations to affordable housing in the district.
The budget for 2001/02 was approximately£696,270. There are eight staff delivering the service.
A press release from the local authority follows.
The council recognises that its homelessness and housing allocations service leaves room for improvement and is putting in place significant measures to address and remedy the shortcomings of the service and will be working closely with the Audit Commission to achieve these ends.
However, it must be taken into account that there are enormous pressures on supply and demand of housing generally in the south east, especially in the coastal towns.
Despite these pressures, the council has continued to discharge its duty to the homeless and there are no instances recorded of it having failed to do so.
Also, the council has, through its community strategy, already committed itself to a target of eradicating the use of bed and breakfast accommodation other than as a temporary last resort, by 2005.
As a result of the recommendations arising from the best value inspection, and in compliance with the statutory obligations under the Homelessness Act, the council has committed itself to preparing a homeless strategy by August 2002.
With regard to the accounting treatment of expenditure in respect of homelessness, this is considered to be a highly complex area and the council has been seeking advice from the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy and the district auditor.