Government urged to improve monitoring of how councils tackle homelessness

17 Aug 16

Levels of homelessness have risen to the extent that a new government-wide strategy is needed, including greater monitoring of local authorities’ homelessness performance, a committee of MPs has concluded.

The communities and local government select committee has delivered its report into the issue after an inquiry was launched in December last year in response to figures suggesting homelessness, particularly rough sleeping, had risen significantly. 

A release by the Department for Communities & Local Government in June showed that between 1 January and 30 March 2016, local housing authorities received 29,120 applications for assistance. Of these, 14,780 households were accepted as being owed the main homelessness duty – a 9% increase on the same quarter in the previous year. London saw a particular rise, with a 13% increase from the first quarter of 2015 to the same three months in 2016.

Rising housing costs and low accommodation availability were contributing to the problem, MPs concluded, and there were also unacceptable discrepancies in the standard of support that homeless people received from local authorities. Many people were badly treated by council staff and those who were not judged to be in priority need were often poorly served and sent away without any meaningful support, according to the Homelessness report.

The committee is calling on the government to monitor councils, identify those not meeting their duties and review and enforce the statutory code of practice on homelessness to ensure local authorities clearly understand the service levels expected of them.

Bob Blackman a member of the committee, has brought forward a private member’s bill to Parliament earlier this year known as the Homelessness Reduction Bill. The bill, which is backed by the committee, is aimed at improving the level of support and advice available to homeless people. It saw its first reading in Parliament in June and will be published in full shortly, ahead of its second reading in October.  

The report explained that due to a shortage of social housing, many people were turning to the private rental sector to avoid homelessness, but often the financial costs were too great to sustain. Among other recommendations, the committee has urged the government to work with local authorities to deliver homes at affordable rents and said that local housing benefit levels should be reviewed to more closely match local market rents. 

Committee chair Clive Betts said: “No one should be homeless in Britain today, but the reality is that more and more people find themselves on the streets, in night shelters or going from sofa to sofa to keep a roof over their heads. They are often driven there by the availability and cost of housing and have been failed by front line support services along the way.”

He called for a new cross-government strategy to help those who are already homeless and prevent vulnerable families and individuals who are at risk, and said local authorities had a key role to play.

“The committee recognises they face a significant task with funding pressures and legal obligations, but vulnerable people are too often badly treated, being made to feel like they are at fault, and offered ineffectual and meaningless advice,” Betts added.

“We want the government to monitor local authorities and help them achieve best practice,” he said.

However, Nick Forbes, senior vice chair of the Local Government Association, said cutbacks had made it difficult for councils to address the issue. Local government could tackle the issue if given the resources and authority to further integrate local housing, health, justice and employment services, and was able to build more affordable homes, he stated.

Forbes added: “The extension of legal duties on councils, as supported by the committee, would need to be accompanied by sufficient powers and funding from the government, as part of a coherent national strategy. Without this, councils will continue to find it difficult to deliver on our ambitions to end homelessness.”

The Chartered Institute of Housing also backed the call for a new homelessness strategy.

CIH deputy chief executive Gavin Smart said: “We are delighted to see that the Communities and Local Government Committee has endorsed what could become a crucial piece of legislation to tackle homelessness.

“This adds more weight to our calls for the government to introduce a cross-departmental strategy to reverse what has been a steady increase in homelessness in recent years. The only way to make a long-term difference to homelessness will be to target resource and support at the root causes of homelessness.”

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