Reducing homelessness needs bills and bricks

The latest version of the Homelessness Reduction Bill has been published, ahead of a crucial second reading vote that will determine whether England’s homelessness legislation is reformed.

Bob Blackman’s bill would replicate the broad approach of the system recently introduced in Wales. Local authorities would have to help all eligible households – regardless of priority need or intentionality – to assess and prevent or relieve their homelessness. Priority need households who are homeless through no fault of their own would still be entitled to rehousing if these earlier stages proved unsuccessful.

Shelter supports the bill, which has been championed by our colleagues in the single homeless sector. A more inclusive approach and renewed emphasis on prevention are both to be welcomed. But we have always been mindful that it does represent a change in the protections owed to families with a priority need.

We’ll be publishing a full briefing for MPs early next week. We’re pleased that the latest version of the Bill removes a dangerous clause about intentionally that weakened protections for families in priority need. But it’s disappointing that plans to give single people with no-where safe to stay short-term emergency housing have been dropped. This would have provided real protection for people at risk of rough sleeping, but it looked extremely difficult for local authorities to provide amid a lack of emergency accommodation. For similar reasons, measures designed not to put people through the stress of waiting for the bailiffs have been watered down.

We support the bill as one tool to reduce homelessness. But, as the DCLG Select Committee have recommended, it must sit alongside a cross-government strategy to increase access to suitable accommodation in the areas that need it most. Government must also adequately resource local authorities if we are to bring about a meaningful reduction in homelessness.

Tackling the broader causes of homelessness

At Shelter we know only too well that legislation does not exist in a vacuum. In theory England’s safety net for priority need homeless households is world-leading, but few who are have turned to their council for help would feel this way.

We are painfully aware that councils are struggling with ever-growing numbers of people needing a home and a shrinking pool of options available to them. No one would argue this is the right climate to be working in. But this should never translate into a lack of compassion for people needing support.  We continue to hear ever more shocking stories of how councils respond: a colleague this week spoke of a client who was told she could return to the accommodation where she had been kept as a slave.

The bill aims to transform the way in which councils engage with people facing homelessness and aims to create a culture where people’s needs are assessed and councils work with people to resolve their issues early. This is highly laudable.

But the current culture has emerged not due to badly drafted legislation but thanks to a badly broken housing market. Mr Blackman has spoken of the new bill reversing “40 years of rationing”. But rationing is solved by increasing supply, not redesigning the system that dishes out limited resources.

Ministers are yet to decide whether the government backs the bill. If they do then, unlike most private member’s bills, it has a real chance of becoming law and transforming the way councils respond to homeless families. But to genuinely reduce homelessness, the government must also commit to properly resourcing local authorities and more crucially, use the powers in its gift to tackle the chronic lack of genuinely affordable housing.