This report from the National Audit Office (NAO) considers whether the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) are achieving value for money in their administration of homelessness policy in England. It covers three main bases: the causes and costs of homelessness; the nature of current local authority responses to it; and the Department’s leadership in reducing homelessness.
It is a highly significant contribution the homelessness debate currently underway in England, in that it gives an authoritative and unequivocally negative account of post-2010 governments’ record on this issue. On all measures, homelessness has increased substantially: rough sleeping has increased by 134% since 2010; the number of households in temporary accommodation is up 60% on 2011 levels; and the number accepted as statutorily homeless has increased by 48% since 2009/10.
The NAO are abundantly clear on the reasons for these increases. They point to households “who live in centres of economic activity and who are on the margins of being able to pay market rents for their homes” (p.16) as being at highest risk; document the over-riding role of the ending of assured shorthold tenancies in the private rented sector in driving homelessness; and report the clear consensus among the local authorities they spoke to that this reflects “increases in rents in the private sector, and a decline in people’s ability to pay these rents… partly due to welfare reform” (p. 19). This chimes with consistent evidence from the Homelessness Monitors series
regarding the impacts of welfare reform, and with household survey based explorations
of the drivers of homelessness that point to the absolutely central role of poverty. In relation to costs, the NAO highlight the manifold impacts of homelessness on those experiencing it and on wider public services, though are critical of DCLG’s failure to quantify these costs and make the case for reducing homelessness.
In considering local government responses to homelessness, the report documents the challenges local authorities face in providing temporary accommodation in the context of rising demand and supply issues, and the knock on effects in terms of the costs of providing this accommodation, as well as on households moved ‘out of area’ in order to access it. The analysis of local authority spending on homelessness highlights that while overall spending has increased since 2010/11, this reflects trends in spending on temporary accommodation (which authorities have a statutory duty to provide). Spending on homelessness prevention, by contrast, has remained static, with spending on homelessness services more generally having declined substantially. A trend of particular note is the radical increase in spending on nightly paid accommodation, from £26 million in 2010/11 to £106 million in 2015/16.
Given the level of clarity about the direction, scale and causes of homelessness trends – and their associated financial and wider social costs – perhaps most shocking of all are the report’s conclusions on DCLG’s leadership role in relation to preventing and reducing homelessness. The Department receives particular criticism for its engagement with other government departments (which the authors claim “remains nascent”, p.37) and – inspired by the “principles of localism” (p.36) for its ‘light-touch’ approach to engaging with, guiding and monitoring local authorities. The clear implication is that such a hands-off approach is impossible to justify in the context of the unfolding homelessness crisis we have seen in recent years.
The controversy so soberly described in this report continues, as reflected in the recent Public Accounts Committee report
, which pulls no punches in describing current levels of rough sleeping as “appalling” and the extent of homelessness in England a “national crisis” (p.3). The key questions that remain are: will 2018 be the year when these homelessness trends are finally halted? The implementation of the Homelessness Reduction Act offers considerable hope in this regard, but to be effective must go alongside addressing some of the multiple other issues underpinning the appalling record on homelessness described so vividly in this report.