Homelessness strategy needs urgent repair

By Sir Steve Bullock | 04 October 2017

Tonight in my borough of Lewisham there will be 1,800 families in temporary accommodation. They are victims of our city’s dysfunctional housing market and the impact of various Government policies, past and present. Being homeless brings further pressure for these families as they find it harder to do basic things: from sleeping and cooking to ensuring their children attend school.

With the Homelessness Reduction Act coming into force in six months’ time, the time is ripe for Government, the boroughs and the mayor to address the underlying issues in the system that lead to and perpetuate homelessness. Without action on welfare reform, investment in homelessness prevention and support services, as well as greatly increased powers and funding flexibility so we can encourage housebuilding, the Act is doomed to fail thousands of vulnerable families before it has even begun.

In London, the number of homeless people has increased in recent years. The latest figures show that there are 54,000 households living in temporary accommodation across the capital, 70% of the national total. However, there are many others sleeping rough or staying with family and friends who are not counted in official estimates.

There are a range of factors driving homelessness in London. Our overall population is growing faster than the rest of the country, which puts pressure on housing, public services and infrastructure. We also have areas of significant deprivation in the capital, with high numbers of people reliant on Local Housing Allowance and other forms of welfare support. The difficulty of sourcing the sheer volume of new homes needed is a huge challenge – 72,000 additional homes a year are required according to new central government projections. The realism of delivering them aside, these must be the right mixture of tenures and types to be genuinely accessible to all Londoners.

Homeless individuals and families have urgent housing needs that London boroughs are stretching to breaking point to meet. Many boroughs are finding ways to be innovative – the Inter-Borough Accommodation Agreement, which tracks rates for nightly paid accommodation in London and ensures no participating borough pays more than has been agreed as the maximum, is a good example of this.

The National Audit Office in their recent homelessness report found local authority spend on temporary accommodation has increased by 39% since 2010/11. Given that temporary accommodation has increased by 70% in a similar timescale, this demonstrates local authorities are achieving more with less.

However this is still not enough, given that boroughs will have experienced a 63% funding reduction between 2010 and 2020 and homelessness – both for families and singles – continues to increase.

The stakes for addressing homelessness are higher than ever thanks to the Homelessness Reduction Act. This potentially transformative piece of legislation is an opportunity for Government to meaningfully help homeless households and those at risk of becoming homeless. London boroughs are keen to work with Government to honour the intentions of the Act, but we have serious concerns about the way it is being implemented.

From 1 April 2018, councils will need to provide higher levels of support to a broader number of people at risk of homelessness as well as earlier interventions to the 54,000 homelessness households currently being accommodated, with every stage subject to review. Yet councils are still waiting for much delayed information from government that is vital for preparing to deliver the expanded homelessness prevention offer required by the Act.

London boroughs and other authorities urgently need detailed funding allocations and the code of guidance for implementation of the Act to be published. It would also be helpful if it was delayed for a few months to allow councils to modify their existing services and absorb the new way of working.

Government has earmarked £61m over three years for these wide-ranging homelessness prevention and relief services to be shared across the whole country, but in London alone we estimate these expanded services will cost £77m per year to run.

A raft of welfare reforms, from the Local Housing Allowance cap to Universal Credit, will also have an impact on the effectiveness of the Homelessness Reduction Act. We believe it is important that the Government considers this and puts plans in place to mitigate any issues identified.

Discretionary Housing Payments (DHP) are being used by boroughs to help households on a case-by-case basis. However, the level of DHP funding allocated to London is currently significantly lower than its peak in 2013/14 and is not meeting even the current challenges presented by the Government’s welfare changes. DHP is supposed to provide only short-term support and is an inadequate solution to a systemic issue that must be resolved at a central Government level.

In London there are thousands of individual stories of homelessness, each unique, rooted in personal circumstances and external events. But these are influenced by policy and spending decisions at a national and local level. That is why tackling homelessness in our capital city must be a broad, long-term, cross-party endeavour. We are calling on the Government to recognise the scale and complexity of London’s housing crisis and to urgently work with boroughs, the mayor and other partners, particularly in the voluntary sector, to deliver effective and sustainable solutions, rooted in devolution and public service reform.

Mayor Sir Steve Bullock is executive for housing at London Councils

The London Councils Summit 2017

Saturday 18 November 2017

Guildhall, City of London ? 020 7934 9944 ? www.londoncouncils.gov.uk

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