Councils and Whitehall must work together to avoid a homelessness epidemic

Central and local government are going to have to have to work together and invest in housing if we are to avoid a homelessness epidemic, writes Anna Turley.

Anna Turley is the founder of Progressive Localism (@ProgLoc), a new independent blog dedicated to providing a voice for the centre-left in local government

Government figures (pdf) last week showed another worrying rise in homelessness – a 17% rise on the same quarter last year in the number of homeless households owed an accommodation duty by their local authority, to 11,820.

After many years of decline, all the major homelessness indicators are on the rise.

This includes the number of households in temporary accommodation – up in the last quarter after 26 successive quarters of reduction, during which it fell from a peak of over 100,000 to less than 50,000. Source: DCLG

There are several reasons why we have got here, and, while the recession has taken its toll, both central and local government (and indeed both parties) must accept their responsibility for this situation, with neither sufficiently prioritising this crucial issue over the years.

In particular, the impact of the government’s recent welfare reforms and the larger picture around employment opportunities are starting to be felt.

Despite belligerent tweeting from housing minister Grant Shapps blaming the last Labour government for failing to build enough houses and claiming a zero cut to the homelessness budget in the next four years, the statistics look grim for the government.

These are the first figures since the cut in housing benefit have taken effect and these latest figures show a 46% rise on the same period last year in the number of people being accepted as homeless as a result of their tenancy in the private rented sector ending.

The following measures will have a further impact:

• The caps on housing benefit (Local Housing Allowance);

• Rates being set to the 30th percentile of the market rents, rather than the median;

• The move towards fixed term ‘flexible’ tenancies in the social rented sector; and

• The extension of the Shared Accommodation Rate to 25-34 year olds will have a further impact.

At local level, it has always been very difficult for local government to have to pick up the pieces of the government’s welfare policy – having the responsibility to deal with the consequences, but with little control of the macro-policies that lead to homelessess.

But local government must also take its share of responsibility for a policy area which it does have control over mitigating, and which requires joint strategic effort from both central and local government.

Rarely has a sufficiently holistic view been taken on housing, encompassing:

• Planning;

• Improving the physical quality of existing social housing and the life chances of tenants;

• Reforming the private rented sector;

• Helping the homeless and vulnerable; and

• Encouraging new developments.

Under the last government, it was clear some local approaches were working.

Local homelessness strategies, and the Supporting People and Hostels Capital Improvement programmes, had encouraged strategic working by local authorities and their voluntary sector partners, and had led directly to the development of new, improved and more flexible services for single homeless people. Source: Crisis, See The Homelessness Monitor, Crisis, 2011 (pdf)

Yet the de-ringfencing of the Supporting People grant in April 2009, together with its reduction from central government of 12%, has seen some local authorities reduce the grant by up to 50%.

The fear is also about what is yet to come. As Crisis point out in the launch of their Homlessness Monitor, there is concern devolutionary measures in the Localism Bill could undermine the ‘national settlement’ and the decentralisation of housing allocation eligibility decisions risks excluding some marginalised groups from mainstream social housing.

Moreover, the policy of moving the homelessness into private tenancies without the applicant’s consent also raises important concerns regarding the tenure security available to vulnerable households, especially families with children. All this could yet have a further impact on driving up homelessness.

So what should local government do?

Firstly, it could use new planning powers and HRA reform to bring forward developments, as well as be innovative in encouraging new developments through giving land or grants themselves or seeking equity share partnerships.

As lack of housing supply and capital investment is the issue, it could use local authority pension schemes to provide institutional investment in new housing. It could better use existing powers to drive out bad landlords and encourage and support the good, particularly where tenants are reliant on housing benefit.

Crucially it should prioritise housing in budget decisions, not cutting funding such as Supporting People and local authority grants to day centres, homeless services and advice centres. It should be proactive about identifying households at risk of homelessness by trying to prevent eviction for arrears or debt for both families and single people.

Helping people stay in current homes is much more cost effective than helping them once homeless.

And they should argue for more freedoms from the centre. Even with HRA reform local authorities are still constrained without serious money from central government. They should take the campaign for more funding and for political priority to be given to housing in Westminster and Whitehall. We need a national campaign for more and better housing.

Local government will have its work cut out trying to support those who have been brutally cut adrift by the government’s policies. Both central and local government are going to have to have to work together and make investment in housing far more of a priority if we are to avoid a homelessness epidemic.

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