Prevention and curePosted: January 30, 2017
Originally posted on January 30 on my blog for Inside Housing.
As the Homelessness Reduction Bill passes its final stages in the House of Commons, it is time to mix celebration with realism.
The cause for celebration is that, once the bill has passed through the Lords, more people facing homelessness are entitled to help and that they will get it earlier. A landmark piece of legislation will make it on to the statute book 40 years after the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977.
Conservative MP Bob Blackmandeserves great credit for leading the way but the bill was backed by Crisis, drew support from the government and MPs of all parties and has also had extensive input from Shelter and local authorities. Poppy Terry has a useful summary of how the bill has evolved on the Shelter policy blog.
Crucially, the bill was not just backed by the all-party Communities and Local Government Committee, it also went through extensive scrutiny. The issues are fiendishly complex but the comparison with the ‘back of a fag packet’ Housing and Planning Act could hardly be more marked.
Another positive is the way that good ideas can spread from one UK nation to another. The approach to homelessness prevention pioneered in Waleshas spread to England and is also interesting Scotland and Northern Ireland. Scotland’s ban on letting agent fees to tenants has influenced policy in England (and hopefully soon in Wales).
The new system was implemented in Wales in 2015 and has rightly been hailed for in successfully preventing homelessness. Research just published by Shelter Cymru found that homeless people themselves had seen a change for the better but it also found a system and a culture that is very much in transition.
After the celebration, the realism starts with an appreciation that Wales and England are in very different places on housing and homelessness.
Homelessness is far higher in England, especially in London, and local authorities face having to implement the new system after years of deep cuts in funding.
Homelessness policy does not exist in isolation. Wales has carried on investing in social housing while England has been busily selling it off. Wales has retained a ringfenced Supporting People programme but councils in England continue to reduce funding following the removal of the ringfence in 2009 and the deep cuts in their funding seen since 2010. Only this month councils in Norfolk, Birmingham and Sunderland have been debating more cuts despite dire warnings of rising homelessness.
The Westminster government that is supporting the Homelessness Reduction Bill is also pursuing what amounts to a homelessness expansion policy: relentless cuts in housing benefit, sanctions and cuts in entitlement, with more still to come, at the same time as housing policy has forced more people into the insecure private rented sector.
Figures last week showed that rough sleeping has risen by 16% in the last year and more than doubled since 2010. The last homelessness statistics showed that the number of families with children in bed and breakfast was up 13% last year and five times what it was in 2010.
If England and Wales are not strictly comparable when it comes to homelessness, there are also reasons to think that the prevention system may not have quite the same impact. Jenny Pennington explains her reasons for caution, again on the Shelter policy blog.
Above all there’s the question of funding. In the debate on Friday, communities minister Marcus Jones said that local authorities would get an extra £13m on top of the £48m previously announced to reflect the increased cost of amendments made at report stage. He also repeated his commitment to review the resourcing of the legislation no later than two years after implementation.
The money will be paid in those first two years after implementation on the assumption that reductions in homelessness and temporary accommodation use will mean that the new system will pay for itself from the third year.
As Steve Hilditch argued on Red Brick recently, that assumption could easily turn into a trap for local authorities, leaving them taking the blame and the costs for a problem of central government’s making.
Transition funding for the new system in Wales was £5.2m in year one, £3.8m in year two and £2.8m in year three, a total of £11.8m. Allow for Wales’s much smaller population on the same basis as the Barnett formula and that is the equivalent of £200m for England, or more than three times what the government is now proposing.
But back with the celebration, the hope is that the bill will pay for itself by preventing homelessness earlier for more people.
As Bob Blackman put it in the debate:
‘Because local authorities are not yet implementing their prevention duties early enough, families and other people in crisis end up in temporary accommodation at the last minute, which is very expensive. If we can reduce that expenditure just marginally – 5% is not a huge amount – it would pay for the cost of the Bill. If councils across the country can achieve their prevention duty, that would prevent anyone from becoming homeless at all, and the cost reduction to local authorities would be enormous.’
That same argument applies in reverse, of course, to all the other policies that have increased homelessness since 2010.
Tory and Labour MPs backing the bill told of dire cases from their constituencies:
- A 72-year-old man stuck in a bedsit in Enfield with his wife with a bed propped up on blocks of wood and cold air coming through the windows who felt “I’ve been sent to a hellhole”
- A young mother with two kids made homeless from the private sector in Westminster sharing a room two hours away from the sick parents she cares for
- The young man kicked out of home in Westminster and forced to sleep in a friend’s car but robbed at knife-point of everything he owned, even his only shoes
- Families in Peterborough made homeless so their landlord could make more money from accommodating homeless people.
It’s unrealistic to expect homelessness prevention to fix all of the problems thrown up by the rest of the housing system. But any difference the bill can make in cases like those will still be cause for celebration.