Councils struggle to cope with rising homelessness as ministers ‘shirk responsibility’

Local authorities say government funding for flagship Homelessness Reduction Act ‘inadequate’

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Saturday 23 March 2019 10:55 GMT
Council leaders say they haven’t been given adequate funding to meet the demands of the Homelessness Reduction Act, which the government lauded as most ambitious legislation in decades
Council leaders say they haven’t been given adequate funding to meet the demands of the Homelessness Reduction Act, which the government lauded as most ambitious legislation in decades

Councils warn they are struggling to cope with Britain’s growing homelessness crisis because ministers are denying them the funds to tackle the problem.

The government brought in legislation last year which placed responsibility on local authorities to support and house homeless residents. But council leaders say they haven’t been given adequate funding to meet demand.

The Homelessness Reduction Act, introduced a year ago and described by ministers as the “most ambitious legislation in decades”, places a duty on councils to support anyone who is homeless, or who is at risk of becoming homeless, within 56 days.

Before it was introduced on 1 April 2018, local authorities were only required to accommodate people classified as being in “priority need”. Councils were allocated £73m of additional funding to implement the new duties.

But the Local Government Association (LGA) has warned that excessive levels of paperwork required by the legislation have led to a surge in administration costs, which is “hampering” their ability to meet the needs of people at risk of homelessness.

Research by the organisation shows that more people being placed in temporary and emergency accommodation as a result of the act, as councils struggle to accommodate them amid a lack of affordable housing.

Charities and politicians warned that as well as failing to providing councils with enough money to deliver on their new obligations, the act failed to address the root causes and was in some cases leaving vulnerable people without help.

Neil Coyle, Labour MP for Southwark, accused the government of “shirking responsibility” by telling councils to do more but not giving them the ability to provide more, and warned that some local authorities were subsequently “cutting corners” to try to reduce their workload.

“Local authorities have been very clear that they are desperately overstretched and need the resources, especially as the new duties involve providing more temporary accommodation, which is incredibly expensive,” he said.

“We’ve seen examples of people being turned away despite having been victims of serious domestic violence for ‘not being vulnerable enough’. We’ve had women told to go home, or provide more evidence that they are a victim, even when they’ve just been discharged from hospital.

“The government is passing the buck to councils, and some councils are gatekeeping, trying to prevent people going through the system, because they can’t pay for accommodation.”

Stephanie Cryan, cabinet member for housing management and modernisation at Southwark Council, said the local authority was at present able to meet demand because it had been successful in bidding for funding, but that there was “little certainty” about the continued funding of homelessness services.

“The funding we receive tends to only cover a specific time period so when this runs out there are questions about where the funds will come from to fill the gap,” she said.

“Ultimately funding is inadequate and we need sustained commitment from government to fund these vitally important services.”

Mark Baigent, director for housing and regeneration at Tower Hamlets Council, said the act was seeing “positive outcomes” for residents, but that “without additional government funding, it [would] be difficult for local authorities to meet the ever-increasing demand for support”.

He added: “Tower Hamlets is a borough that has seen more new affordable homes built than anywhere else in the country, but even here the combination of an insufficient housing supply, exacerbated by welfare changes and other social factors, continues to present a significant challenge.”

Since 2017, local authorities have been housing more than 77,000 households in temporary accommodation, including in bed and breakfasts, hostels and private rented accommodation, with 123,000 of them children.

LGA housing spokesperson Cllr Martin Tett said that while councils were “determined to prevent homelessness”, a lack of affordable housing had left many struggling to cope with rising numbers of people approaching them for help and having to place more families into temporary accommodation as a result.

“This is bad for families and communities, expensive for councils and not the aim of the act,” he said.

Cllr Tett added that the “wider factors” that are increasing homelessness also needed to be addressed if the act is to be a success.

“Councils need to keep 100 per cent of Right to Buy sales receipts to replace homes sold and to adapt welfare reforms to protect families at risk of homelessness and prevent homelessness from happening in the first place,” he said.

Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, said the legislation was leaving councils “stuck between a rock and a hard place”, adding: “They’re expected to give meaningful help to the thousands coming through their doors – without always having the resources to do so.”

She said that in order to reduce the number of people at risk of homelessness, the government must “urgently” end the housing benefits freeze and commit to building social housing.

Minister for Housing and Homelessness Heather Wheeler said: “Having a place to call home is vital in helping those who are homeless rebuild their lives.

“This Act is helping more people before they become homeless. Temporary accommodation plays an important role – ensuring that the most vulnerable have a roof over their heads until longer term housing can be found.”

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