Homlessness (HC 61-i)
ODPM Committee 30 Nov 2004
Evidence given by Councillor Angela Harvey, Cabinet Member, and Steve Moore, Chief Housing Officer, Westminster City Council, Tony Newman, Chairman, ALG Housing Committee and Genevieve Macklin, Director of Housing Policy, Association for Local Government; Janice Samuels, Homelessness Services Manager, Salford City Council, Ms Janice Bennett, Housing Services Manager, South Ribble Borough Council, Ms Julie Watson, Service Manager and Ms Fiona Goodfellow, Trustee (formerly Housing Needs Manager, South Ribble Borough Council), South Ribble Key; Ms Diane Henderson, Head of Care Support and Diversity, Ms Helen Williams, Head of Neighbourhoods and Sustainability and Mr Jon Rosser, Operations Director, Southern Housing Group Ltd, National Housing Federation, Josh Sutton, Housing and Advice Manager, Craven Housing, Les Williamson, Head of Housing, Harrogate Borough Council, Richard Adamson, Yorkshire Coast .
Q78 Mr. David Clelland: Given the resources available and the current planning regime, do you think the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister are being realistic when they say they hope to reduce or get homelessness under control by 2008?
Mr Moore: Looking at our supply and demand patterns, we have about 5,500 people a year coming to us as homeless applicants, and we accept around 1,200 a year. Now, over the last three years, we have lost the investment that we were previously making of around £10 million a year in local social housing grant and that has cut our amount of new units coming through RSL investment by about half. We are currently seeing our temporary accommodation rising by around 200 a year, so that is people in temporary accommodation of 200 a year, despite over 80 per cent of our available units each year going to homeless households. So against that backdrop, unless there is a significant increase in the overall supply coming through, it is extremely difficult to see how we are going to be under control by 2008, and I think all the indicators would suggest that where we are at the moment is a rise in the temporary accommodation population going on into the foreseeable future.
Q79 Mr. David Clelland: So what is your estimate of the situation in 2008? Will it be worse than it is now or better than it is now?
Mr Moore: Certainly I would expect more people to be in temporary accommodation in 2008 than there are today.
Ms Macklin: Can I just add to that that I would agree with that because in London as a whole temporary accommodation is going up by 5,000 per year, so it illustrates Westminster's issue at the more local level, and there is not sufficient supply to be able to counter that. In fact, the number of social rented units predicted in the London Housing Strategy is 5,500 per annum, but we have already received recent information which suggests that is going to be 800 units short of that target, so that means that the temporary accommodation problem is going to increase. I think there are ways in which we can address this issue, which are not just about putting more funding into new social rented supply, although that is welcome and that is what we need as well, but there are other measures which we submitted in our evidence, like the Better Value Investment Model, which is really about just using the large sums of money that already go into temporary accommodation in a different way and it actually has cost benefits and savings to government. There are also a number of other initiatives which will produce longer-term savings for government which help to increase the supply, so again the Better Value Investment Model will produce 40 per cent more housing by just using the same amount of money, but using it on permanent housing instead of temporary accommodation. I think that does require the DWP, the Treasury and ODPM working together and we would like to see initiatives like that coming through. Similarly, there is the Revenue Incentive Scheme, and Westminster has already mentioned the loss of local authority social housing grant, which was funding an additional 1,000 units in London. We have put forward a proposal at the ALG for high-demand authorities, which has already been defined by ODPM through the right-to-buy discount initiative, so in high-demand authorities, if an incentive is given to boroughs to use their usable receipts to help RSLs develop more housing, that is another cost-benefit analysis for government, so we do not just have to keep talking about more and more money going into new supply, but it is about better using existing money.
Q80 Mr. David Clelland: But on the question of provision of new housing, Westminster have criticised the Government's concentration of new affordable housing in the Growth Areas, but is it realistic, indeed economic, to build new homes in central London given the land prices?
Cllr Harvey: I would like to answer that in two ways. First of all, the new Growth Areas do not take into account the infrastructure costs and I think our own experience from the 1970s and 1980s when large estates were built and people went in in one go, it led to much more uncohesive, shall we say, communities than we would have wished. Therefore, by having a steady trickle where we can build, certainly our experience is that it develops more cohesive communities. As I say, the new Growth Areas do not take into account the costs of the infrastructure itself. Also people do want to live in central London and we have, through our affordable housing policy, working with private developers, produced over 1,000 new homes in the last five years, so there is a way of getting advantage within. Can I say that when the Gershon reforms come through, of course there will be some land available in central London and perhaps we might want to develop that thought further.
Q81 Mr. David Clelland: Can I ask the ALG about choice-based letting schemes. Do you think that these will help or hinder the equivalent housing schemes?
Cllr Newman: I think choice-based letting schemes are, where they work, a very positive thing indeed. I have a choice-based letting scheme in my own borough, Croydon, which was set up in partnership with Shelter, who worked on it with us. It has removed the old points scheme of allocating housing and this, in a borough, like London as a whole, where there is extreme housing pressure, is a much fairer system where people can see what type of property they might be applying for, how long they might have to wait if they want a property in a certain area, and if they are prepared to look at living in other parts of the borough, then that may reduce the time to wait for a property, but it seems a much more transparent and much more fair scheme. The challenge in London, some London boroughs now work on a sub-regional basis together and it is looking at how one can then move into cross-borough nominations. The ODPM are talking about, with the ALG and others, the possibility of sort of pan-London opportunities and that I think, in principle, is something the ALG can support, but only at a time when the supply has been addressed and we are a long, long way from there now because if you attempt to move into pan-London lettings when there is such a limited supply, you can to a degree address that on a borough level, but it will not work. We have seen how housing can be misused in London in terms of outfits like the BNP in Barking, Dagenham and other areas playing off people's fears around housing and choice-based schemes with wild allegations about who may or may not move into an area, and it is a very sensitive area and I think before getting much more ambitious than one or two well-working borough schemes in London, we need a lot more work on this in terms of how we are going to tackle it. It must be done, as I said, in relation to supply because, without sufficient supply, it simply will not have any credibility.
Q96 Mr. David Clelland: Another way of tackling this problem is to prevent homelessness happening in the first place. Is there something about how the strategies which were introduced in the 2002 Homelessness Act are working out? Are they proving to help to resolve these problems?
Ms Macklin: I think certainly homelessness strategies have helped. I think the whole policy around the kind of reduction in bed and breakfast targets for families and the development of local strategies has been very, very helpful to boroughs. There is still an analysis, some research that needs to be carried out because it is early days yet in terms of seeing the overall effect, but certainly the work that was done around prevention is proving to be successful in certain areas around certain prevention strategies and less successful in other areas, so it does depend on local markets. The three elements of prevention strategies that have worked best, as I mentioned earlier, are, firstly, the rent deposit scheme and that has cost-benefit measures coming out of it as well as help to reduce the number of acceptances and help prevent homelessness. Then the homeless visiting officers and mediation services for young people are very successful and I have already mentioned the success with the mediation for young people, and both of those in particular have cost benefits to them.
Q100 Mr. David Clelland: The supply [of prevention schemes] is uneven across London. Is this not something which is really too big an issue for the individual boroughs to deal with? Should this not be a GLA issue, the whole question of homelessness in London?
Cllr Newman: I think there is a role for the GLA, but if you look at how well local borough homelessness strategies have worked, and the word "local" is key here because in boroughs of between 100,000 and 300,000 people, these are significant-sized places, having a local input into the local need I think is critical. The ALG and the GLA have worked together on some projects, and Notify is a project where information about those people who move into temporary accommodation in London is shared, and I think a balanced approach where it is right to have a London view and pan-London information with, I think, still the delivery focused at the local borough level has, I think, worked reasonably well. I think around some of these strategies is the concern of some of them that if you went pan-London with them, you would lose that connection with what is actually happening in local communities and lose the solutions and the answers as well, so I think there is a balance to be struck.
Mr Moore: We do not believe that one size fits all. London is a very, very large city with lots of dynamics and lots of different requirements, and what fits residents in the centre of London is worlds apart from the leafy suburbs of Bromley in the south and Enfield in the north to the centre of London, Kensington and Chelsea, ourselves and Lambeth and Southwark, so I think the issue for us is that the GLA has a part to play clearly, as does the ALG, and we make sure that we tap into those resources and we make sure that we use any conduit that we can to further the aims that we have, but at the same time we do require local discretion.
Cllr Harvey: If I can just add to that, I think that if we want to strengthen and make more cohesive our communities, to do it on the local borough basis will help enhance that rather than diminish it.
Q113 Mr. David Clelland: Councillor Harvey was keen to talk about the local connections, so this is your opportunity. Are they appropriate to London and, if not, how will you change them?
Cllr Harvey: The dysfunction is between the money which comes which is no longer local, but the requirement to house still is, and that is really the nub of it. We have had cut down to a fifth the amount of money that came into Westminster to build affordable housing and, as you can see, the number of people on our homeless register continues to rise.
Q114 Mr. David Clelland: What changes do you want? Do you want more resources?
Cllr Harvey: Yes, please! Also if there is a disconnection between supply and demand, we have got to do something about that, so what we would like is to see the local connection rule changed and perhaps instead of after six months or no local connection at all, we could move to some kind of compromise, a connection of two years in the last four, something like that, so that we still have a local connection rule so that we still regard communities and make them cohesive, but that we should not have to accept over half of our people at the moment that we have on the housing register with a connection of nothing at all or only six months in the last twelve.
Q115 Mr. David Clelland: What about the arrangements by which local authorities refer homeless applicants to each other, the interconnection between local authorities? Do these work well?
Mr Moore: That works well. Clearly everyone is suffering from supply difficulties, but clearly we do have instances where a particular case wants to be in a particular area, not necessarily within our sub-region, and we have these reciprocal arrangements. They have worked for many years and certainly I know with Tony's authority we have certainly accepted Croydon cases before and indeed they have taken some back in the other direction.
Q121 Mr. David Clelland: What is preventing the expansion of the provision for 16- to 17-year-olds? If demand exceeds supply, how do you cope?
Ms Samuels: We do have very, very strong links with social services and with the connections that we have in Salford and we work in partnership with them. What we have found is that even despite that and having a cross-service group that meets around 16- to 17-year-olds' issues, we are dealing with people's lives which are very, very complex and it is often how we manage the services to come into that and certainly funding will come into it in the next few years because, going back to the last speakers, we are very conscious that any cuts to the Supporting People budget will actually have an effect on those services to the less popular client groups in the city and because it will be reducing possibly on the client groups that need those services.
Q122 Mr. David Clelland: Why are more 16- and 17-year olds presenting themselves these days?
Ms Samuels: We find there are a number of different reasons why they come to us. Often they come to us because there are issues around domestic violence in the property. That could be that they themselves are the victims of violence or it could be that they are witnessing violence within the home. There will be other young people who just have a row with their parents and do not want to stay there.
Q123 Mr. David Clelland: There is not a greater incidence of that now than there was previously but yet we are getting more presenting themselves, so why is that?
Ms Samuels: I think there is an awareness of where you can go to get housing services and the services that you need. A big thing for us and something that has started to make a difference is that we have a youth mediator who works in Connexions and when young people come to us he does some work with the family and the young people to try and negotiate them back home in the short term and just give them a bit of a reality check about living in temporary accommodation services and what living independently means.
Q124 Mr. David Clelland: Are all those who present themselves entirely honest in their reasons for being homeless or do you think that often there is collusion between young people and their parents even and their friends to engineer themselves to jump the queue?
Ms Samuels: What we find is, because we are dealing with teenagers in particular, if they have a row with mum, or mum has said something that they do not particularly like, their immediate reaction will be to come to Housing Services and say, "I cannot live at home any more. My mum has told me I have to leave". It is about putting some checks around that information, so we have our youth mediator who will talk to the family and often you will get behind the fact that they have just had a row that day. What it does is offer some check about the ones who are coming through to us who have got genuine homelessness issues or where it has just been the fact that they are perhaps not wanting to be at home because they have had a row.
Ms Watson: In terms of collusion, I do not think that happens very often. The young people that come to us are usually in a fairly serious state of crisis. Even if it is the fact that they have just had a row, it is not usually the first row; it is usually a long way down the track and when we do try and get them to build bridges and be able to go back home it is often the parents that will not do that, not the young people.
Mr. David Clelland: But these social and domestic strains have always been there, and yet we have more 16-year olds and 17-year olds now presenting themselves as homeless. It is not because this has just happened. Presumably there are other reasons behind why they now think they want to leave home and live on their own.
Q137 Mr. David Clelland: According to South Ribble you have almost a quarter of applicants coming from outside the district, not all families with legitimate reasons for doing so. Is that also the case in Salford?
Ms Samuels: No.
Q138 Mr. David Clelland: It is not the case in Salford?
Ms Samuels: No. We do not have lots of presentations from outside the area.
Ms Bennett: It is because we are central Lancashire and there are three local authorities whose boundaries wrap around each other. From the centre of Preston to the centre of Leyland to the centre of Chorley is five miles in any direction. They are very close and if you look on a map it looks like one area. People do not see local authority boundaries. They are just administrative boundaries, so people move between them quite freely. If you have a local connection, the local connection can be that you live in Preston but your mum and dad live in Leyland, and if you are homeless under the legislation you have equal access to any of those local authorities because of those local connections. It is very close as a county, particularly in central Lancashire.
Q139 Mr. David Clelland: Do you think anything can be done to reduce that problem?
Ms Bennett: I think we cope with it very well.
Q140 Mr. David Clelland: Yes, but do you think anything could be done in terms of legislation, in terms of the rules, to reduce the problem for South Ribble?
Ms Bennett: I do not think we see it at all as a big problem.
Q141 Mr. David Clelland: What about the arrangements by which local authorities refer homeless applicants to each other? Do they work well?
Ms Goodfellow: We have reciprocal arrangements. South Ribble works particularly with Chorley and Preston quite well. We refer one to them and they refer one back. It works well.
Ms Bennett: Ten years ago Chorley and South Ribble did a homeless hostel together and we are looking at other schemes we can do jointly in order to share limited resources between three small district councils.
Q175 Mr. David Clelland: In their evidence the National Housing Federation expressed some concern about the ODPM targets for reducing rough sleeping and ending bed and breakfast for families and children. Is that a concern which is shared by Yorkshire and Humberside Housing Forum? Could we hear a bit more about what the specific concerns are?
Mr Williamson: If I could deal with the bed and breakfast issue, in Harrogate we were congratulated at our success in meeting the government's target of not keeping in bed and breakfast for longer than six weeks families with dependent children, but we responded by saying that that masks a real difficulty because in actual fact our bed and breakfast costs have gone up by 300 per cent for other categories of homeless presentations, particularly young single people with support needs. Someone mentioned earlier the size of the bed and breakfast expenditure. Two or three years ago we were spending £1,000 per year on bed and breakfast in Harrogate. Last year we spent £102,000 and that figure is likely to be breached again this year, so there are real concerns. An additional concern we have is that more recently we have had to accommodate people in bed and breakfast outside the district. We have always tried to provide temporary accommodation within the district but as of today we have got something like 19 or 20 households in temporary accommodation, bed and breakfast, in Leeds.
Mr Adamson: Speaking as someone who works at a seaside resort, one of the issues at Scarborough is that it is going to be extremely difficult long term to meet the government's target of six weeks for families and pregnant women simply because of the small amount of affordable housing that is available in the programme. For the first time since the late eighties/early nineties every single letting in Scarborough borough in the last year has been to somebody who is statutorily homeless with a family. Whether it is a house or a flat it has 100 per cent gone to homeless families. That is likely to continue to be the case even with the prevention strategies we have got in place which are having some effect. We have still got as many homeless acceptances as there are vacancies occurring per week.
Q183 Mr. David Clelland: The National Housing Federation said in evidence to us that the success of the rough sleepers' programme is in danger of becoming the next problem.
Ms Henderson: I think what has happened is that the number of people actually sleeping on the street did decrease but, rather than people moving into hostel and other temporary accommodation, and well done to Yorkshire and Humberside for following that up with the hostel redevelopment programme to improve that, what is happening is that people are in those hostels and losing the next bit. Again, a hostel manager is not housing them, although it may be simplistic to say that. As people move into hostels there is not then the next move which is permanent housing. We tend in the jargon to say that they have moved on but actually what we mean is that there is not enough permanent housing to serve people. Therefore, people stay in hostels. They are not moving on and they are not allowed the next intake, if you like, until people have that support into the environment and not in a hostel.
Q184 Mr. David Clelland: Is it purely the shortage of housing that is the problem?
Ms Williams: It is houses in the right place of the right size where people want to live. It is not just housing. Obviously, that is more acute in London and the south east than it is in some areas, but, just from evidence walking around, people are moving back to the streets slowly. That is anecdotal; I have no way to prove that, but my feeling is that it is backing down to the streets. We need to look at whether there are more imaginative ways of people moving from those hostels to permanent housing.
Q186 Mr. David Clelland: You have got agreement there. If the authorities were not willing to reach some agreement should the housing association have the right to say, "We are going to refuse to accept that number of people with children who are effectively homeless people"?
Mr Rosser: Accepting nominations is a condition of us accepting the grant, so we cannot simply say we will not. There is a debate going on in some authorities who are more flexible than others in this. At a strategic level most of them recognise the issue: these communities are in their areas and their councillors have to represent them, so they have an interest too in them working. Nevertheless, the pressures are there. I think those pressures grow as we get these larger schemes where the boroughs nominating to them are not necessarily the borough that they are in so that you get people from elsewhere nominated. They have a bit less interest in how they run subsequently and that is a concern.
Ms Williams: Can I pick up a little bit on planning policy on that? It is also about the use of planning policy not only to deliver affordable housing units but also to ensure that developments are mixed so that we do not see polarised developments for owner occupied housing here and social rented accommodation there but that there is a true mix.
Q187 Mr. David Clelland: In terms of exclusions of certain people from the homeless provision have local authorities got the right to say to people, "You have been engaged in anti-social behaviour in the past. We have got this on your record. You may have come here homeless but we are going to take that into account and have decided that you are intentionally homeless"?
Mr Williamson: There is a difficulty there because we perceive that as an inconsistency between the way in which homelessness legislation is drafted, which focuses around the loss of the last settled accommodation, and the way in which exclusions policies are applied, where you can look further back into a person's housing history and exclude them from permanent housing on previous tenancy misconduct, for being in rent arrears or for anti-social behaviour or whatever. Indeed, we have six cases in Harrogate at the present time of statutorily having to accept someone who is homeless who you then exclude from permanent rehousing because of previous tenancy misconduct, either by the council or through nomination for housing association.
Q188 Mr. David Clelland: So why do they accept them as homeless if they lost their last tenancy, say, because they were a thorough nuisance to their neighbours?
Mr Williamson: That would not be a problem if they lost the last tenancy through that, but they may have lost their last tenancy, which may have been an assured shorthold tenancy, with no blemish on their record, but if you look further back into their tenancy history there is tenancy misconduct.
Q207 Mr. David Clelland: Do you consider the increase in homelessness in the Yorkshire and Humberside area to mirror national trends and what explanation do you have?
Ms Henderson: There does seem to be a general increase in people presenting as homeless. I am not sure that we are confident as to the reasons why that is the case yet. The bottom line is providing that safeguard for people when they apply, and that we know when people come through the door they are given the appropriate treatment. I guess anecdotally we can say that the widening of the statutory homeless categories from the 2002 Act will have some influence but what most local authorities are saying to us, and members too, is that it is a general increase across the board, it is not just the new categories that have come in, whether that is partly about people being more aware of what help they can get or partly just the way to get housing is to present as homeless. Obviously in parts of the South East, the cost of the private rented sector is prohibitive. It is very complex as to why the numbers have gone up but I do not think the answer is to say it was because of the Act or because of a huge lack of accommodation. It is an addition of all those reasons.
Ms Williams: Can I add to that? Picking up the point about the homelessness statistics as well, they show who local authorities have accepted a duty to. Beyond that, there are a large number of people in acute housing need who are not accepted as homeless, maybe they are over-crowded or they are single people who do not meet the vulnerability test. There is a huge level of acute housing need out there not being measured by homelessness statistics.
Q208 Mr. David Clelland: Does Yorkshire and Humberside have any explanation as to why there has been a huge increase or a considerable increase?
Mr Adamson: In Scarborough we have had increases because of the extension to the priority groups in the 2002 Act but also we have had a 300 per cent increase in landlords ending short hold tenancies, that seemed to be because of the price increases. It is not the large scale landlord, it is people who own one or two properties and they have decided "My house that I bought for £50,000 is now worth £150,000, I can get the tenant out and sell it". There have been a lot of homeless applications coming in from people who say the landlord wants to sell the property. Hopefully if the housing market is cooling down a bit that phenomenon might stop but a lot of landlords have been getting out of the market because they think they can get a better return for their money somewhere else.
Q209 Mr. David Clelland: Are there particular specialist needs in the rural coastal areas?
Mr Adamson: Yes. One of the challenges in Scarborough borough - it has three centres of population, there is Filey, Scarborough and Whitby - it is very difficult to provide services without people having to move to the services. There is not a very great incidence of homelessness in rural areas mainly because people who live 20 miles outside of Whitby know that if they come in, they will be offered accommodation in Whitby and they are not going to get back to the community where they lived originally. There is a scale issue, in terms of providing the services there are economies of scale. Rural districts do not have the centres of population that make some specialist services economically viable. Scarborough is 300 square miles so if you put the service somewhere in the middle people have got to come a hell of a long way to access that service and that is a feature right across North Yorkshire.
Q210 Mr. David Clelland: What particular financial problems has the increase in homelessness created?
Mr Adamson: Scarborough Council is predicting that its expenditure on bed and breakfast this year is going to be half a million pounds. As I used to work for the borough council and manage its homelessness service before stock transfer, that is more than double what I can ever remember a local authority spending on bed and breakfast in the past. The difficulty being, again as I said, the only provision for homeless families in Whitby is bed and breakfast, there is no hostel in Whitby. People in Whitby will not move 20 miles to move into a council's hostel in Scarborough, quite reasonably. Whitby probably is not big enough to sustain a homeless hostel so the council is working with ourselves and others to develop flexible housing that can be used as temporary accommodation for people who are homeless but if the demand is not there it could be let on a permanent basis to a permanent tenant. That is obviously a long term strategy that may take two or three years.
Q211 Mr. David Clelland: Should there be changes in the way that homelessness services are paid for?
Mr Adamson: Somebody has got to pay for them and at the end of the day it comes down to the taxpayer, whichever pot it comes out of. I am quite sure the local authority would love the Government to pay, even if they pay a cost, but whether that is reasonable or not, I do not know.
Mr Williamson: Can I just add, the difficulty is that it is general fund expenditure and general fund expenditure is under pressure. Councils are faced with council tax capping. Let me just give you an example. A small district council in North Yorkshire, Ryedale which is based on Malden, the cost to them of bed and breakfast this year is equivalent to two per cent on the council tax. If you look at next year, and have to budget two per cent for bed and breakfast and three per cent for inflation and you are facing council tax capping of five per cent, there is not much room for manoeuvre.
Q212 Mr. David Clelland: If, as a result of our inquiry, the Committee was to suggest to the Government that they should invest more money in housing projects that would benefit homeless people, what would be your top priority for projects as far as you are concerned?
Mr Williamson: In North Yorkshire, there is no simple answer to the problem of homelessness because it is an acute symptom of the problem of affordability. The problem of affordability is not easily solvable. If we were looking at measures in the immediate term, it would need to be resourcing more temporary accommodation, hostels and more revenue support through supporting people. Beyond that you are looking at measures like restricting further the right to buy because it is not a coincidence that the increases in problems of affordability have coincided with councils selling 40 to 50 per cent of their housing stock over the past 25 years. As Richard says, the issue of the prevailing form of tenure in the private sector where there is an inherent insecurity in the form of tenure level, short hold tenancy.
Q213 Mr. David Clelland: Do you think we concentrate too much on owner occupation rather than the rented sector?
Mr Sutton: Yes, broadly speaking.
This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.
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