‘Significant improvement’ seen in Scottish council’s housing service

Service is moving on from “significant weaknesses” identified by the regulator in 2016.

A Scottish council’s housing service has “significantly improved” since a tough regulatory review that found widespread failures.

Now, the Scottish Housing Regulator (SHR) recognises progress made by Dumfries and Galloway council (DGC) in the way its Housing Options and Homeless Service works with Registered Social Landlord (RSL) partners.

The resulting report says: “Together they have significantly increased the number of lets to people who are homeless and reduced the time people spend in temporary accommodation waiting for a home.”

SHR assistant regulator Kathleen McInulty said: “We expect the council to review and update its plans for further improvement to take account of our recommendations.”

In 2016, the council commissioned a large-scale review of the service after the Regulator identified significant weaknesses the council was slow to address.

The council accepted the review findings and has made good progress in implementing an improvement plan.

Cllr Andy Ferguson, chair of DGC’s Communities Committee, said the council made a “clear commitment” in 2016 to address improvements required in the service – with the regulator’s review of the results “very welcome”.

Cllr. John Martin, vice chair of the council’s Communities Committee, said: “While improvement has been evidenced every effort will be made to continue to take the service forward both strategically and operationally.”

The number of homelessness applications the council has risen steadily from 635 in 2014/15 to 910 in 2018/19 – the year the council assessed it had a duty to provide settled accommodation for 677 households (74%).

But the council does not have any houses of its own and relies on its RSL partners and the private sector to provide both temporary accommodation and settled accommodation for people who are homeless.

SHR has been engaging with the council since 2013/14, having found “significant weaknesses” in the operational delivery of housing options.

Issues included a service that:

  • Was not person-centred, and it did not tailor advice to a person’s needs
  • Did not always assess people as homeless, or threatened with homelessness, when they were
  • Lost contact with significant numbers of people using the service
  • Did not keep good case records and did not audit cases to ensure consistency in dealing with homelessness applications

The council attempted to restructure the service but with few positive outcomes for people who are homeless.

In 2016, the council commissioned an independent review of the service in response to increasing SHR concern about the council’s capacity to improve.

The review found significant areas of weakness and failures across the service.

These, the council accepted in agreeing to a plan containing 52 recommendations for improvement.

Since 2016, the council has increased its resources to the service, made significant changes to staffing, funding, partnerships and strategic direction; and it has introduced a new case management system.

More recently, the council’s Communities Committee has had responsibility for monitoring progress and oversight of the implementation of the plan.

Key findings from the latest SHR assessment include:

  •  The council has significantly improved the service and has a clear plan to deliver further improvement
  • The council and its Registered Social Landlord (RSL) partners have significantly increased the number of settled lets made to people who are homeless
  • The council has put in place an effective process for referring people who are homeless to its partner RSLs for settled accommodation
  • The council has reduced the number of people waiting longer than a year for an outcome, the time it takes to achieve an outcome, and the length of time people spend in temporary accommodation
  • The council is working more effectively with strategic partners to improve outcomes for people who are homeless or threatened with homelessness
  • The council has reduced the costs of its temporary accommodation in response to comments from people who are homeless
  • The council has an improved, person-focussed process for assessing homelessness applications – characterised by strong partnership working with RSLs and support and advice agencies
  • The council has improved how it keeps in contact with people who are homeless about the progress of their application – as a consequence the council has reduced the number of people with whom it loses contact

Issue acknowledged as still needing address include:

  • Council is not always taking a homelessness application when it has a duty to do so – this means that the council is underestimating the homelessness need and demand in its area
  • Council does not always make offers of temporary accommodation when it has a duty to do so – particularly the case in emergency out-of-hours situations
  • Some of the council’s temporary accommodation is not suitable for people’s requirements – though the council is aware of this and is currently working to improve the type, location, quality, and void times of its temporary accommodation
  • The council does not always keep an appropriate record of its assessment decisions and some decisions were contrary to the Scottish government’s Code of Guidance on Homelessness
  • Council does not always meet its target to complete a monthly audit of 10% of homelessness assessments

The main recommendations from SHR call on the council to:

  • Always take a homelessness application when it has reason to believe that someone is homeless or threatened with homelessness
  • Comply with its statutory duty to provide temporary accommodation
  • Must ensure its decisions comply with the Scottish government’s Code of Guidance on Homelessness and legislative requirements
  • Focus its temporary accommodation, improvement work on ensuring that it’s out-of-hours emergency provision includes properties for people with specific needs and ensure it is meeting the requirements of The Equality Act (Specific Duties) (Scotland) Regulations 2012
  • Review how it publicises its service, updates, and extends the information on its website, including information about the service across the council area – it should ensure staff delivering its frontline reception facilities are appropriately trained in line with the Code of Guidance
  • Record the source of referrals and analyse this information to determine how it could improve access to its services
  • Work with partners to meet the challenges of temporary accommodation and settled accommodation raised in the council’s Homelessness Strategy and its Rapid Rehousing Transition Plan
  • Ensure its decisions are appropriately recorded and carry out a programme of regular and thorough audits of its assessments to ensure accuracy

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