Bob Widdowson, director of Shac, a housing advice service, welcomes the idea of a new statutory duty. 'I am extremely happy about it,' he says. 'We have been after it for 30 years. The vast majority of local authorities don't provide housing advice at the moment, even though the 1977 Housing (Homeless Persons) Act was supposed to create a duty on them.
'The big cities have very good centres, others are very restricted. They won't deal with council tenants, and they won't roll their sleeves up and get stuck in for somebody. It hasn't really moved on for 20 years. It has got stuck in one sector - helping the homeless - and has lost touch with what it was set up to do.
'It should be available to all people, not just those who are homeless, but for those who want to own their own homes, who want advice about mortgages. A lot of people who ran into mortgage trouble did not see housing advice as relevant,' he says.
Mr Widdowson is helping Scottish Homes, the equivalent of England's Housing Corporation, produce a common standard of housing advice in Scotland. HomePoint, the information division of Scottish Homes, initiated research a year ago into housing advice in Scotland. It found there were 236 agencies directly giving housing advice, but about 600 more gave some advice - to released prisoners or women seeking refuge, for example.
The quality of advice varied enormously, with some advisors unaware who to ask for further information. Many Scottish local authorities gave little support to private sector tenants, but are now reviewing this. HomePoint plan to create a Scottish network of back- up for advice agencies. The Chartered Institute of Housing is looking at a similar network to support local authorities in the south west of England.
Many Labour-controlled local authorities, such as Manchester, are wary about becoming accommodation agencies for the private sector, preferring to assist tenants with their legal rights. Manchester refuses to make referrals to private landlords, in case it is asked to support tenants in taking legal action. The authority still owns a large housing stock, and does not need to cultivate private landlords.
Conservative-controlled Westminster City Council takes a very different approach. It has given considerable support to long leaseholders to help them buy their freehold, but has run down its support for private tenants, and no longer undertakes case work for them. This may change as a result of continued demand, and the authority's housing committee this week agreed to support a bid for additional workers to re-establish the service.
Bath council, run by Liberal Democrats, has established a landlords' register, helping to put potential tenants and landlords in touch with each other. The focus of the authority's work has changed in recent years, placing more emphasis on helping the homeless and less on giving tenancy rights advice. The authority, like many others, has established a deposit bond scheme, enabling people on low incomes or benefits to pay the necessary deposit to move into a private dwelling.
Some authorities are linking debt counselling to housing advice. 'I don't see how you can look at people's housing without looking at their money,' says Gillian Greaves, senior housing advisory officer at Northampton, which operates a housing and money advice centre.
'Anyone is welcome here, whether they own a house, are a tenant, or are thinking of buying a house,' says Ms Greaves. 'We deal with debt advice, problems with bailiffs, fuel arrears, and benefit take-up. We will go to court with a client, and talk to creditors.'
Northampton council publishes a newsletter, Bedsit News, to make tenants and landlords aware of legal rights and obligations. The council attends freshers' fairs to talk to students about fire safety. The authority is also working with landlords to establish a forum so that they can discuss problems of mutual concern.
Shelter, the housing charity which runs its own housing advice centres, says that it is important that local authorities should continue to support independent advice services. 'People needing advice are often local authority tenants, or applying for council accommodation, and there needs to be no conflict of interest,' argues John Goodwin, Shelter's head of legal services.
Kirklees council has found that even though its housing advice function is run through an independent agency, Chas (the Catholic Housing Aid Service), the authority still needs to provide housing advice itself.
'There is a need for an independent housing aid function,' says Alan Tomlinson, Kirklees' homelessness and housing needs manager. 'You do get disagreements between housing aid workers and other sections. An authority can't sue itself, you need someone to help tenants assert their rights. But 40 to 50 per cent of my staff's time is spent on housing aid services.
'We had 4,300 applicants for housing that we saw last year, of which 1,200 were in priority need. The other 3,000 got some form of housing aid. Chas takes a 'client- centred approach', they say. That means that if private tenants say they want to move out, Chas will help them get a council house. Our response is to force a landlord to do repairs, and keep them there.'
Kirklees focus is on policing tenants' rights, and offering a conciliation service for tenancy disputes. The authority is producing a good landlord's charter, which threatens them with enforcement if they do not sign, and offers an incentive if they do. 'There is a fast track of housing benefit for landlords if they sign up, which is the biggest carrot we have got,' Mr Tomlinson says.
Such a diffuse approach to housing advice suggests it may be difficult to formulate a statutory duty, especially as the attempt in 1977 has been ignored by so many authorities. It is likely, however, that Parliamentary time for a homelessness bill will not be available until the 1995/6 session, which should at least give the Department of Environment the opportunity to draw on the lessons from Scotland.
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