The hard-hitting National Audit Office (NAO) report out today provides official acknowledgement of the significant rise in homelessness in England since 2010-11, as reported by successive Homelessness Monitors, and is also quite explicit about the underlying drivers. Focussing, rightly, on the unprecedented rise in private tenancy terminations as a cause of statutory homelessness over this period, the NAO analysis lays bare the impact of cuts in Local Housing Allowance (LHA) which have made private rents unaffordable for many at risk of homelessness and severely hampered English local authorities’ rehousing efforts. It is also overtly critical of DCLG’s ‘Localism’- driven ‘light touch’ model of working with local authorities on homelessness, commenting that ‘It is difficult to understand why the Department persisted with such an approach in the face of a visibly growing problem’ (p. 10).
As the NAO analysis demonstrates, these policies, popular or not, do not represent good value-for-money for the public purse. The shift in expenditure towards temporary accommodation, and away from homelessness prevention and social housing, is clearly retrograde. While the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, coming into force next year, is an important and positive measure, which seeks to rebalance local authority intervention towards a more preventative model, it can only be truly effective if the structural conditions are in place to let it be so. Welfare policies are at least as important as housing and targeted homelessness policies in this regard, and the NAO findings are appropriately damning of government failure to properly assess the homelessness impacts of post 2010 welfare reforms. Again, this chimes very much with the findings of the Monitor, and especially the results of our national local authority surveys which have repeatedly indicated a strong association between LHA and other welfare cuts and rises in homelessness in London and the South in particular.
The immediate hope has to be that these critical NAO findings prompt parliamentary scrutiny via a Public Accounts Committee Inquiry. Certainly, many in the homelessness sector will be calling for that. Longer-term, and more ambitiously, we might even dare hope that this powerful report will give pause for thought in the ongoing implementation of welfare reforms that are otherwise set to push homelessness up even higher in England in the coming years.