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Ombudsman highlights council failings in relation to homelessness reduction legislation

Failures to meet new housing duties on councils have worsened the plight of some homeless people, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has found.

In a report, Home Truths, Ombudsman Michael King said: “When people are in the very vulnerable position of being homeless or at risk of homelessness, even a small administrative failure can have a significant impact on their situation.”

But the Local Government Association (LGA) said councils had overspent by £140m on homelessness services and faced severe cost pressures.

The report looked at the first 50 cases investigated under the Homelessness Reduction Act 2018.

Mr King said these predated the Covid-19 pandemic but his guidance was “all the more pertinent as temporary, emergency measures introduced to reduce homelessness during the [virus’s] peak come to an end”.

Problems included councils delaying help and difficulties in issuing personalised housing plans (PHP) – which set out what has been agreed between the homeless person and local authority.

Simple communication issues could also leave people unsure of their rights and of what was expected of them.

Mr King said: “Our cases show that, while people are not being made homeless by councils failing to meet their new duties, their problems are very much compounded – and often left homeless for longer than they might have been, when councils do not get things right.”

He said there was also evidence of good practice and urged councils to assess what they could learn from the report.

The Ombudsman said the Homelessness Reduction Act had been “a significant change for councils” as it gave homeless people - and those threatened with homelessness - new rights to homelessness prevention services.

This widened the range of people councils were expected to help and the type of services they must provide.

One common failing was cases where councils had told people they were owed the wrong duty.

Most commonly, they were told they were owed the prevention duty instead of the relief duty when they were already homeless.

This usually arose when a council failed to realise someone was already homeless - for example when they had an address but it was not reasonable to remain there.

It was also important for councils to explain clearly the appeal and review procedures, as not doing so can make applicants erroneously believe the council’s decision is always final.

There were also cases where PHPs were not copied to applicants or not issued at all.

Since these were the basis upon which people could challenge a council, failing to issue them, “could lead to significant injustice”, the report said.

David Renard, Conservative leader of Swindon Borough Council and LGA housing spokesman, said: “Councils fully support the principles of the Homelessness Reduction Act.

“However, significant and ongoing funding challenges have limited their ability to fully deliver the Act and prevent homelessness.”

Cllr Renard said that in 2018-19, councils overspent by £140m on homelessness services due to increased demand and a lack of affordable housing.

Since the pandemic started councils had housed nearly 15,000 rough sleepers, which had exacerbated funding issues, he said.

The Government should temporarily remove the 'no recourse to public funds’ condition to reduce public health risks and pressures on homelessness services by enabling people to access welfare benefits, Cllr Renard said.

Mark Smulian

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