Changes needed to temporary accommodation rules
Monday May 20, 2013
Urgent changes to the law are required to prevent councils from frittering away millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on overly expensive temporary accommodation.
Hammersmith & Fulham (H&F) Council has just revealed that it was forced to spend £859,863 to house families in temporary bed and breakfast accommodation on a total of 365 occasions throughout 2012.
While the use of bed and breakfast accommodation is on the increase across London, in 2003, the council had 624 households in bed and breakfast just in March alone – four times the current figure.
The main reason why the council has to place families in bed and breakfast accommodation is because of the housing market overall. H&F is the fourth most expensive place to live in the country and cost of renting is incredibly high because the borough is such a popular place to live and work. With a huge lack of appropriate housing in the private rented sector, the council is often faced with no choice but to seek out bed and breakfast for those in need of temporary accommodation.
Changes to the benefit system have also had an impact. Until recently, high levels of housing benefit have been paid to some households to keep them in their tenancy – up to almost £50,000 per year in some cases in H&F. This was not sustainable and not fair to working households or the taxpayer.
The problem is particularly stark when large families with lots of children present themselves as being homeless and need to be housed as they require larger properties which are not only in very short supply in London but very expensive for the taxpayer.
The council accepts that it needs to help those people who are genuinely vulnerable and in need of temporary housing. Nevertheless, the council believes that the law needs to be changed to ensure that duty is balanced with fairness for hard-working taxpayers.
It argues that the rules should be tightened as some families are trying to dodge new rules on how much housing benefit they can claim by declaring themselves homeless or trying to jump to the front of the housing queue over hard working residents who have waited years for a home.
The council also believes that a small number of people are taking advantage of the current rules because they know that if they are excluded from their accommodation by family or friends they will be rehoused by the council.
Finally, the council argues that the homelessness process itself is overly-bureaucratic and subject to endless legal challenge and in the meantime council tax payers are having to foot the bill. The law should be changed to simplify the process.
Cllr Andrew Johnson, cabinet member for housing said: “In these tough economic times, decent, hard-working taxpayers, many of whom are struggling themselves to make ends meet, do not deserve to have to foot the bill for the council being forced to place large families who present themselves as homeless in very expensive temporary accommodation in some of the most desirable locations in West London.
“Of course, there are some people who are in genuine need of temporary accommodation, and we accept a duty to them. However, we must also respect the taxpayer who has to foot the bill for it.
“The law must now be tightened to prevent large families from simply turning up at our housing office and being able to access expensive temporary accommodation in expensive parts of town that the average hard-pressed taxpayer can only dream of.
“That is also why we will be seeking to reduce the burden on the public purse by placing those people who do not need to live in such expensive areas in places which are cheaper and offer better value for those hard-working people who ultimately pay the bill.”
The council is asking Government to consider the following changes to the Housing Act 1996:
1. Exclusion by Family and Friends
Currently one of the largest categories of homelessness acceptances is of people excluded from their existing home by their own family or friends they have been staying with. The local authority is under a duty to accommodate, including in B&B, unless it can prove “contrivance,” which is almost impossible unless there is an admission by one of the parties. The duty to accommodate is there even if the existing home is adequate.
The unfairness about this is that there are lots of families and circumstances where the “hosts” choose not to exclude their family members or friends and simply deal with what may be a less than ideal situation at home. For them, this is just the reality now if living in London.
The Council, of course, accepts that there are such cases where we should accept a duty but these should be restricted to those cases where it is simply not possible for the “excluded” households to stay – eg where to stay would be injurious to their health or that of the “host” or where there is physical danger to either household or whether there are eg public health issues involved. This would need a change in the law.
2. Right of Review of Negative Homelessness Decision
At present if the local authority turns down a homelessness application, the applicant has the full right of review by another officer. If the case is complex, this can considerably extend the period during which the application is being administered.
Although there is currently no absolute right for the applicant to be placed in temporary accommodation, including B&B, after the initial decision has been made and during the review period, case law has built up such that in practice councils are required to accommodate during the review in many cases and attempts not to accommodate result in judicial reviews and long and expensive defences of court actions.
The council would like consideration of two changes in the law;
a) Absolute clarification that there is no right for a household to be accommodated during a review. (This does not mean we would never accommodate but it would be at the Council’s discretion.)
b) Removal of the right of review. This would leave the position in which once a decision was taken by the local authority, this was final as long as the decision had been properly made.