Government has not evaluated the impact of its welfare reforms on homelessness, or the impact of the mitigations that it has put in place, according to the National Audit Office (NAO).
An NAO report released today (Sept 13) says the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) does not have a published cross-government strategy to prevent and tackle homelessness – despite acknowledging the scale of the challenge and plans to improve the data the government holds on homelessness.
NAO head, Amyas Morse, said: “Homelessness in all its forms has significantly increased in recent years, driven by several factors. Despite this, government has not evaluated the impact of its reforms on this issue, and there remain gaps in its approach.
“It is difficult to understand why the department persisted with its light touch approach in the face of such a visibly growing problem. Its recent performance in reducing homelessness therefore cannot be considered value for money”.
Shadow secretary of state for housing, John Healey MP, said the report should shame ministers.
“The increase in homelessness since 2010 is visible in almost every town and city in the country but ministers haven’t even bothered to draw up a proper plan to deal with it,” he said.
Green Party co-leader Jonathan Bartley said the “damning” report found the government in dereliction of duty.
“Ministers are compounding the homelessness epidemic by failing to evaluate their disastrous welfare reforms.
“While the government sits on its hands more and more people are losing the roofs over their heads,” he said.
The report records 77,240 households in temporary accommodation in England as of March this year – up 60% on March 2011.
These households included 120,540 children – an increase of 73% from March 2011.
Homelessness at present costs the public sector in excess of £1bn a year.
The NAO found more than three quarters of this – £845m – was spent on temporary accommodation.
Three quarters of this spending – £638m – was funded by housing benefit.
The report shows the ending of private sector tenancies has overtaken all other causes to become the biggest single driver of statutory homelessness in England, with the proportion of households accepted as homeless by local authorities due to the end of an assured shorthold tenancy increased from 11% during 2009-10 to 32% during 2016-17.
In London, the proportion increased during the same period from 10% to 39%.
Across England, the ending of private sector tenancies accounts for 74% of the growth in households who qualify for temporary accommodation since 2009-10.
In addition, it appears likely that the decrease in affordability of properties in the private rented sector, of which welfare reforms such as the capping of Local Housing Allowance are an element, have driven this increase in homelessness.
Against this background, the report finds the DCLG does not have a published cross-government strategy to prevent and tackle homelessness – even though it acknowledges the scale of the challenge and plans to improve the data the government holds on homelessness.
In addition, although the DCLG is responsible for tackling homelessness, during its increase, the report finds it took a ‘light touch’ approach to working with local authorities.
This contrasts with the more interventionist approach that it has taken during previous periods of high homelessness.
Although the DCLG requires each local authority to have a homelessness strategy, it does not monitor their content or their progress, the report says.
The DCLG has supported new legislation that will increase the responsibilities of local authorities in preventing homelessness.
The Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 aims to give local authorities more responsibility for preventing homelessness and the department expects that these responsibilities will lead to an increase in prevention cases and a fall in the number of households that qualify for temporary accommodation.
But the ability of local authorities to respond to increased homelessness is constrained by the limited options they have to house homeless families.
As the NAO set out in its assessment of the housing market in Housing in England: overview, there has been a significant reduction in social housing over the past few decades.
While spending by local authorities on homelessness services such as temporary accommodation has steadily increased since 2010, spending on overall housing services has fallen by 21% in real terms over the same period.
The proportion of homeless households in temporary accommodation outside their home borough increased from 13% in March 2011 to 28% in March 2017.
Pledging Labour to a full review of support for housing costs through social security, Healey said the report showed ministers were not even making a serious attempt to get to grips with rising homelessness – with the NAO clear that an ideological ‘light touch’ approach is hurting efforts to help those without a home.
“Government policy decisions are directly responsible for the rise in homelessness.
“You can’t help the homeless without the homes, and ministers have driven new affordable housebuilding to a 24-year low,” he said.
Bartley directly challenged the DCLG to implement “bold policies” to protect renters including rent controls, a living rent and support for renters’ unions, as well as commitments to build more social homes, and scrapping Right to Buy.
Jacqui McCluskey, director of policy and communications at Homeless Link, said the report was clear about the impact of welfare reform on the increase in homelessness.
“We support the NAO’s call for government to better understand this impact.
“What is clear is that the freezing and capping of Local Housing Allowance has led to a rise in homelessness and we urge the government to urgently review the levels of LHA.
“Homeless Link strongly support the recommendations of the report and in particular, we support the call for government to publish a cross-government strategy on preventing and ending homelessness.
“Homelessness can only be addressed by a clear, well-resourced prevention programme, and by a cross-government strategy that addresses the supply of affordable housing and takes into account the role of the unregulated private rental sector, welfare reform and the root causes of homelessness, which are often linked to multiple needs such as mental health and substance use,” she said.
The NAO report: key facts
increase in households in temporary accommodation since March 2011
households in temporary accommodation at March 2017
local authority spending on homelessness services during 2015-16
|homeless households that applied for homelessness assistance during 2016-17
|households threatened with homelessness and helped to remain in their own home by local authorities during 2016-17 (increase of 63% since 2009-10)
|rough sleepers counted and estimated on a single night in autumn 2016 (increase of 134% since autumn 2010)
|approximate increase in the number of households recorded as homeless following the end of an assured shorthold tenancy since 2010-11
|households placed in temporary accommodation outside the local authority that recorded them as homeless at March 2017 (increase of 248% since March 2011)|
Matt Downie, director of policy and external affairs at Crisis, said: “As the NAO shows, more is being spent leaving people in limbo as they are placed in temporary accommodation, while less is spent on homelessness prevention, social housing and new affordable housing, which makes little sense.
“While the Homelessness Reduction Act coming into force next year will address this preventing many from becoming homeless in the first place, it must be implemented with cross-government working and a genuinely affordable housing supply.
“Furthermore, the government must fully assess the impact of its welfare reforms on homelessness. As our homelessness monitor series has repeatedly shown, welfare reform has greatly impacted homelessness across the UK.
“While a lack of cross-government strategy has undoubtedly fuelled the rise in homelessness, the forthcoming Homelessness Reduction Taskforce should help to ensure this issue is addressed. But this taskforce must strive to ensure that no part of government is causing problems while other departments are working hard to resolve the situation at hand.
“Working together is now the only way we will move forward to end homelessness once and for all.
“Crisis is now calling for Parliament to scrutinise these findings through the Public Accounts Committee.”