Tackling homelessness

By Paul Marinko | 05 February 2024

Housing pressures and homelessness are issues that have rapidly shot up to the top of the agenda for councils. While social care and special educational need remain huge issues, tackling homelessness is now firmly up there with them as a top problem.

With the National Audit Office (NAO) about to embark on a major new study on the subject, The MJ joined up with the NAO local government team to bring together chief executives and senior managers from across the sector for an event on the fringes of The MJ’s Future Forum North in Manchester to examine the problems and potential solutions around homelessness and housing for local authorities.

Much of the public narrative around housing pressures in recent times has focused on the impact of asylum. With the Government having taken over hundreds of hotels across the UK and now rapidly acting to move people out of them – not least because of the millions of pounds it is costing Whitehall on a daily basis – councils are facing huge pressure to accommodate those being evicted. However, those at the Manchester round table were clear the primary issues councils were facing were the domestic consequences of the cost of living crisis which are increasing instances of homelessness, as had the pandemic – with one council sharing that it had 100 households in temporary accommodation pre-Covid and more than 600 now.

‘What we are seeing particularly is that asylum is a false narrative,’ said one debater. ‘It’s not asylum, it’s domestic issues with the cost of living. People who just can’t afford to live in their homes anymore.’

As another voice around the table said, the main problem was local people being unable to find the money to pay their rent. Asylum was simply ‘adding another pressure’ on a service already ‘at the end of its tether’.

It was clear from the discussion the issues leading to homelessness and housing pressures are currently so wide that councils are having to respond in a way they have never experienced before.

The consequences of rapidly increasing rents, insufficient funding to match these rises and an exodus of private landlords reducing supply alongside asylum and cost of living pressures are all conspiring to restrict the ability of councils to respond.

In the words of one person present: ‘If you speak to people who have been dealing with this for decades, they will say this has been the worst year they can ever remember.’

Another added that they are seeing many more families presenting as homeless, but as well as a rising need for five or six bedroom houses, there was also a growing need for one bedroom properties.

Rising demand has, as a further debater revealed, also created an increasing problem of unscrupulous organisations providing houses of multiple occupancy (HMO). While councils were acting to close these down, more were emerging – especially with the Government moving people out of asylum hotels at undue pace.

And, of course, as councils are left to shoulder the consequences of asylum seekers they are having to deal with related problems alongside housing, including children being bumped from school to school as they move and rising needs for mental health support.

‘It’s a big cost pressure ahead,’ said one voice.

Another agreed, pointing out that alongside mental health needs emerging among rough sleepers there was also a growing problem for councils of people with mental health issues being discharged by health trusts without sufficient support. It was also noted that the National Health Service is only currently spending around 8% on mental health.

And the reality that came back regularly during the debate was there simply wasn’t sufficient supply of housing to address the demand.

The challenge of getting funding out of Homes England was referenced within the room, something which ‘sapped the will of those involved’ within councils. They suggested there had to be a better way for councils to access the support available to fund home building projects.

One suggestion was to share out the available support among councils within a region and call on them to provide recommendations on how it be used, given every area would have differing needs and expectations.

‘This would unlock funding more effectively,’ they mooted.

But there was also a devil’s advocate in the room, pointing out that Homes England and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) were regularly locked in battle with the Treasury on resources. This, they argued, left uncertainty over major housing schemes which would make a huge difference to supply in the long term.

A lack of long-term vision within Whitehall was picked up as a significant issue. As one diner said, short-term funding impacted partners as well as councils and impacted desperately needed innovation.

Another concurred that there was a negative consequence of short-term funding from a plethora of pots, something they had perceived impacting preventative work, which everyone clearly wished they had the opportunity to address more effectively.

The table had already heard of one particularly strong initiative at an authority where data was being mined to step in and prevent homelessness occurring – an initiative which offered support with council tax payments if the person was prepared to accept limited intervention that may help their circumstances.

It was suggested that if the many sources of funding could be pooled this would provide more solidity and certainty over money which would create the permanence necessary to move resource over into much more preventative work.

‘If we hoovered up some of those temporary pots we could put more into preventative work,’ said one. ‘But we need the DLUHC and the Treasury to do that.’

And while there were a number of ‘supply levers’ the gathered guests felt could be used to improve the situation, such as improved grant rates for social rents, there was universal agreement that the sector needed to alter its narrative over pressures such as housing and homelessness.

‘If we just tweak it we may be able to change the response,’ was the suggestion.

The hope expressed was that by highlighting the fact councils can help solve the problem with a few changes by government, rather than just moaning about what isn’t working, it may elicit a different response from ministers and Whitehall.

Another person around the table suggested there was now an opportunity for the sector to come together and embed what needs to be done so it could be presented ahead of the next spending review.

‘It does require us to move away from the challenges and to focus on five or six things that could make a difference,’ they said.

And there was a recognition, after the gloom around the situation had metaphorically sprinkled a dose of salt that risked souring the entire main course, that councils were making a real difference to people facing homelessness by providing them with a route out of their plight.

‘Councils are finding solutions,’ said one voice. ‘The performance of local government is a good story to tell.’

They added that it was also important for the sector to highlight the ‘criminal waste’ of public money which was being spent on temporary accommodation. And by identifying ways the money could be better spent – through effective pooling and greater certainty – councils will offer government more solutions.

And, as this person emphasised, the challenges facing housing and homelessness across the UK are not just a financial crisis. Most importantly it is also a human crisis.

NAO/The MJ round table attendees

David Ashmore – director of housing services, Manchester City Council

Emma Foy – director of corporate services, West Lindsey DC

Kate Josephs – chief executive, Sheffield City Council

Andrew Lewis – chief executive, Liverpool City Council

Kath O’Dwyer – chief executive, St Helens MBC

Denise Park – chief executive, Blackburn with Darwen BC

Michelle Sacks – chief executive, Huntingdonshire DC

Tom Stannard – chief executive, Salford City Council

Vicky Davis – director, local government value for money, National Audit Office

Phil Hyde – audit manager, National Audit Office

Heather Jameson – editor, The MJ (chair)

Paul Marinko – deputy editor, The MJ (reporting)

This article is sponsored content for The MJ

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