England & Wales Housing and planning, Welfare and equalities

Homelessness – Councils left to pick up the pieces need resources and support

In the next few weeks LGiU will publish the final report from the Local Government Homelessness Commission. The Commission was set up to investigate how councils can fulfil their expanded obligations to prevent homelessness under the Homelessness Reduction Act. It is the first assessment of the state of homelessness prevention from the perspective of local government, those who are tasked with actually implementing the policy and supporting some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

There is no single driver of homelessness. It is increasing due to a combination of factors, including rising poverty, particularly within the private rented sector, changes to the welfare system and related cuts in funding, a broken housing market and, crucially, a lack of clear and consistent homelessness strategy in government. Fragmentation and incoherence between public service areas means that vulnerable people are increasingly likely to fall between the cracks, and poor quality, inconsistent data collection makes it hard to plug the gaps.

The rise in homelessness is, therefore, predominantly driven by central government policy making and lack of strategic leadership. Local government is, once again, tasked with picking up the pieces, though without the powers or resources to tackle the issue head-on. Transformative change cannot be done on a shoestring.

All too often politicians and ministers want to focus on the challenges they can see. The government has a rough sleeping strategy and a goal that no one will sleep on the streets by 2027. There were 4,677 rough sleepers recorded in 2018, a small reduction on the 2017 figure, but still a 165% increase since 2010. There was an increase of 13% in London in 2018 and a fall of 6% in the rest of the country.

But rough sleeping is just the tip of the iceberg. It is the perhaps the most visible aspect of homelessness to the general public and it is a politically charged issue, but the real problem is far more extensive. According to Shelter there were 320,000 people recorded as homeless in Britain in 2018. That is 13,000 (4%) more than the previous year and means that 36 new people become homeless every day. Many people are in precarious situations known as “hidden homeless” which can involve moving in and out of hostels and emergency shelters, or sofa surfing, and so beyond the reach of most forms of support.

The Homelessness Reduction Act (2017) has expanded the responsibility of English local authorities towards those deemed eligible and unintentionally homeless, requiring them to put “Personal Housing Plans” in place when people present themselves as at risk of homelessness. But without the resources and the capacity to provide stable, secure accommodation, or joined-up, well resourced support services, these personalised plans are little more than a slightly improved process with no real outcome. More than that, putting a plan in place when someone is just 56 days away from losing their home is really too late.

A recent survey by the Local Government Association found that the HRA has led to more households in England placed in temporary accommodation, as well as increasing the burden of bureaucracy for councils. This comes with additional administrative costs, taking resources away from other intervention and prevention work. A year on from the implementation of the Act, eight out of ten councils said the number of people presenting themselves to the authority as homeless had increased and there was an increase in the number of placements in temporary accommodation in sixty percent of councils.

Meanwhile, analysis by The Big Issue shows a wide range in the number of approaches made to councils during the first year. According to the figures, based on Freedom of Information requests, Bradford had the most approaches (7,734), while Leeds prevented the most households from becoming homeless (2,871). The fewest approaches was in Swale in Kent where just 18 households approached the council under the act. The Act also introduced a Duty to Refer, under which authorities may also receive notifications from certain public bodies where they believe a service user may be homeless or threatened with homelessness.

Tackling homelessness and addressing its causes is a long-term project that needs to draw on partners and organisations from across the public sector. In short, it cannot be solved by homelessness support teams alone. It needs investment in housing and services, as well as local coordination.

The final report of the Local Government Homelessness Commission will be published next month. Based on our series of detailed evidence sessions from across the sector, it will make recommendations for both central and local government as well as outlining a series of best practice case studies.

The Commission was led by LGiU’s local government members. Cllr Peter Fleming, leader of Sevenoaks District Council, and Cllr Simon Blackburn, leader of Blackpool Council were co-chairs, joined by a panel of local government experts.