New homelessness law could make “people unintentionally homeless”, warns councillor

After piloting the Homelessness Reduction Act, the London borough of Southwark was forced to spend an extra £750,000 from its own budget.

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When the Homelessness Reduction Act came into force in April, it was welcomed by homelessness campaigners and charities. Passed last year with cross-party support, the legislation requires councils to provide homelessness assistance to any UK citizen or person with the right to reside in the UK.

This imposes new legal obligations on local authorities to actively prevent and relieve homelessness. With the dramatic rise of homelessness over the past eight years (rough sleeping is up 169 per cent since 2010), it’s a crucial piece of legislation.

But councils are struggling to keep up with their new obligations – and could be putting the very people who rely on their housing services at risk of homelessness.

This is due to a lack of resources from central government to enact the new Act.

The youth homelessness charity Centrepoint has researched how councils are coping with the Act, and found 57 per cent of them are struggling to fulfil their new duties to 16-24-year-olds alone. It finds that councils will have to make 45,000 additional assessments a year just to meet their obligations to this age bracket. Already, they’re falling short, with just 13 per cent of young people being housed by their local council last year.

The London borough of Southwark was one of the government’s “trailblazer” councils, tasked with piloting the new Act – receiving a £1m grant to trial the policy over two years, starting in October 2016. But even with this cash injection, the council had to spend an extra £750,000 from its own budget to uphold its obligations to the Act.

“We see the benefits of the Act, the prevention work is happening, but it’s just that it comes at a financial cost,” says Stephanie Cryan, Southwark Council’s cabinet member for housing, who worries about “the long-term sustainability” of the Council spending so much of its own money.

“My real, real worry is if central government doesn’t give us the resources we need,” she tells me. “All local authorities are being stripped, we are being cut, cut, cut due to austerity. And it’s essential we find this money, but then what else gives? What next year’s going to suffer?”

As an early adopter of the policy, Cryan warns that if local authority budgets continue to be cut, then the funding for the Homelessness Reduction Act could come at the cost of other frontline services throughout the country.

 “Ultimately, the people who will suffer are the people who use the service,” she says. “Because if we can’t continue to staff it at the levels we are, there could be longer delays and therefore some people could slip through the net – we could find people unintentionally homeless, because we’ve not been able to follow the Act through as it should be. That’s the biggest danger.

“I know that because we’ve been running with it quite a while in Southwark – we know, we’ve had time to test its implications.”

Although the Act is working to reduce homelessness in Southwark, Cryan worries that the council isn’t receiving the financial support to continue achieving such results. She also thinks local authorities should be “allowed to build more council homes” to ease the problem, be given the same borrowing powers to build as housing associations have, and have the right to funnel right-to-buy revenue “back into building council homes”.

As the new law is rolled out throughout the country, the government has allocated £72m to English councils over three years to help them meet their new obligations. The question is whether this is enough to truly help those who need the service – or if they will again fall victim to vanishing local authority resources.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.