'The Homelessness Reduction Act, in operation for the past 12 months, is potentially the greatest piece of homelessness legislation for 40 years in England, according to Southwark council in south London. The Labour-run council pioneered the government’s new flagship act, and is upbeat about it. While homelessness went up in the borough last year, as it did across London, the rise was less steep than expected: 8.6% for families placed in temporary accommodation and a similarly small increase for rough sleepers. At the same time, there was also a 50% increase in the number of people the council helped to stay in their home. “It shows the act works,” says the council’s cabinet member for housing, Stephanie Cryan.
Southwark began trialling the act in 2016, and spends an extra £1.7m a year fulfilling its homelessness prevention work – towards which the government gives just £420k. It is a proud demonstrator of the approach – a combination of advice, mediation and financial support – to try to ensure people do not lose the roof over their heads. At the last count, 271 councils had made a pilgrimage to inner-city south London to see the team in action, and it had trained more than 1,100 housing officials from across the capital in how to make most effective use of the new legislation.
But for all her pride in the council’s achievements – such as eliminating the use of bed and breakfast accommodation for homeless families – Cryan fears that, though the council has started to put a brake on rising homelessness locally, the positive signs are fragile. “Done right and done properly, the act makes a massive difference to people’s lives,“ she says. “The problem is that the act is working despite the government, not because of it.”
By 2020, the £73m provided to English councils by the government over three years to implement the act runs out. There is no sign it will be renewed. The assumption from Whitehall was that savings accrued from preventing homelessness (not least from reducing the huge bill for housing homeless families in temporary accommodation) would make the act self-financing. Cryan says that in a place like Southwark, that is absurdly optimistic. Last year, even with its preventive successes, the number of homeless families in temporary accommodation rose again, from 2,300 to 2,500.
The other major problem is that the act is proving to have had limited leverage against the powerful economic pressures that drive people to the council for help in the first place. “The biggest reason for homelessness in Southwark is poverty, driven by welfare reform,” says Ian Swift, the council’s head of housing solutions. Private sector rents in London have soared in recent years, he points out, while local housing allowance (LHA) rent support has been frozen nationally since 2016. The maximum LHA support for a three-bed home in Southwark is £1,000 a month; and yet that sum is less than the monthly rent for a one-bed home. One in five of the people who present as homeless in Southwark are working, but cannot afford rent levels, even with LHA support. Evictions are climbing because of rent arrears caused by problems with the rollout of universal credit, into which housing benefit has been subsumed, or the benefit cap, which doesn’t cover the rents people are being charged.'
Read more: Two-thirds of councils say they can’t afford to comply with homelessness law
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