Repairing the safety net

Originally published on August 18 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Today’s report by the all-party Communities and Local Government Committee recommending significant improvements to the homelessness safety net is getting a warm welcome – and no wonder.

The first select committee inquiry on homelessness since 2005 uncovers evidence of a system at breaking point as social housing provision declines, insecure private renting expands and welfare is ‘reformed’.

The report aims to help families falling through the gaps in the existing legislation as well as single people not covered by it, calls for a cross-government approach to homelessness and also makes specific recommendations to help vulnerable groups such as people with mental health problems, care leavers and ex-prisoners.

And in case you’re thinking this is just another select committee report whose recommendations will be ignored by the government, this one comes complete with legislation attached: a private members’ bill promoted by one of its members.

First the problems: as you might expect, they are most acute in high-pressure areas of London. In Westminster the gap between the average weekly rent for a three-bedroom home and the capped Local Housing Allowance (LHA) rate is an incredible £536.54 and the waiting list for four-bed social rented homes is 25 years.

But tellingly they are spreading well beyond the capital, too. The shortfall between rents and LHA rates ranges from £250 to more than £500 a month depending on property size in Brighton and it’s at least £250 a month in South Cambridgeshire. Manchester has 22 general needs one-bed flats available and 4,616 people on the waiting list.

Rent shortfalls will inevitably get bigger over time as a result of more housing benefit cuts in the pipeline. Bristol pointed out LHA rates are frozen for four years but average private rents in the city increased by 18% in 2015 alone.

The lower overall benefit cap that starts in the autumn will spread shortfalls throughout the country and affect larger families in social housing as well as in the private rented sector. Housing support for under-21s who are out of work will be withdrawn from April 2017.

And supported housing has been left in limbo over plans to cap housing benefit at LHA rates. Derventio Housing Trust supported over 1,000 mostly single homeless people and had a turnover of £3.8m in 2014/15. It told the committee that the welfare reforms will cost it £3.4m and force it to close all of its supported housing.

The MPs recommend a series of responses across the housing and homelessness system. On welfare reform, they say the government should review LHA levels so that they more closely reflect market rents, give all claimants the option to have their housing benefit paid direct to their landlord and exempt all supported accommodation from the LHA cap. Meanwhile, refuges and hostels for single people should get additional resources.

On social housing, in contrast to the spending they say there is ‘a case for development of homes for affordable rent’. And they also criticise the changing definition of ‘affordable housing’ (to include Starter Homes), arguing that it should be reviewed ‘to reflect local need’

On private renting, they call for measures to encourage landlords to let to homeless people and a review of LHA rates but stop short of more fundamental reform of insecure tenancies.

Local authorities are criticised for their response to homelessness, with good practice in some areas matched by gatekeeping and evasion of responsibility in others. The MPs say ‘it is not acceptable that the level of support offered to vulnerable people can vary significantly across the country’. They recognise that councils are under financial pressure but state bluntly that ‘treating someone as a human being does not cost money’.

Councils under the worst pressure are looking to solve some of their problems by placing homeless families outside their boundaries but that’s having knock-on effects elsewhere. Birmingham has received around 130 homeless families, mainly from London, and has recently started placing its own families outside the city.

Thurrock says local rents have risen as a result of London boroughs paying higher rents and offering financial incentives of up to £4,000 to landlords. Braintree reports a ‘ripple effect’ with Chelmsford using property outside its area to discharge its homelessness duty.

The report says out-of-area placements should only be used as a last resort. Significantly, they consider and reject arguments put forward by Conservative-controlled Westminster that they should be able to place families in affordable areas ‘without fear of legal challenge’.

However, most attention will inevitably focus on legal changes proposed both in the report and in a private members’ bill proposed by Bob Blackman, a Conservative member of the committee. He argues on Conservative Home this week that the current law is failing homeless people including a constituent who was told she was not ‘vulnerable enough’ to get support.

The report rejects Scotland’s approach of abolishing priority need because of significant differences in the housing market south of the border but it supports improvements to homelessness prevention introduced in Wales.

Legislation introduced in Wales in 2014 gives councils a prevention duty for people threatened with homelessness (not waiting, as tends to happen in England, until an eviction is imminent). Councils also have a duty to help secure accommodation for anyone assessed as being homeless for a period of 56 days. After that they only have a continuing duty for people in priority need and unintentionally homeless.

The Westminster government has made positive noises but junior communities minister Marcus Jones told the committee that ‘we want to see how the data pans out and how it really works in Wales’. (This may seem a bit rich given that he was unable to give the committee any assurances that the Department for Communities and Local Government will improve its own misleading statistics on homelessness.)

The committee urges the government to support Bob Blackman’s Homelessness Reduction Bill, which includes many of the legal changes recommended in the report. The bill comes up for a second reading in October.

Crisis has hailed the bill and the committee’s support for it as offering the chance of a ‘major breakthrough’. Chief executive Jon Sparkes said:

‘The government has already recognised the lack of help available to many homeless people, and has pledged to consider ‘options including legislation’, but now is the time for action. The bill draws on the recommendations of an expert panel convened by Crisis, and we’ll be working closely with Mr Blackman and other parliamentarians to help make this a reality.’

One good way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Cathy Come Home in November would be for MPs to give the bill a second reading at the end of October and for the government to give it the support it needs to find enough parliamentary time. It’s also worth noting that the original 1977 homelessness legislation was also the result of a private members’ bill.

However, it’s also worth injecting some notes of caution here. First, Ben Reeve-Lewis raises concerns about how the new system will work in practice in England.

Second, the Welsh legislation on which the bill is modelled followed extensive research and consultation, and was co-produced by the Welsh Government, councils and homelessness organisations. That sort of co-operation is not immediately evident in England.

Third, unless the government heeds the committee’s other recommendations, the pressure on the system will only intensify. It has simply ignored previous all-party reports it finds inconvenient, including ones from this committee.

Prevention is said to be better than cure -– and the committee’s recommendations will make a big difference – but a real cure will take action across the housing system to stop the underlying condition getting worse.

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