Cllr Rock Feilding-Mellen is the Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Housing at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
When it’s your job to provide accommodation for homeless people in the midst of a housing crisis, and your borough contains some of the most expensive housing on the planet, you need all the help you can get.
The very least you would hope for is that the legislation that shapes housing, planning and welfare all pulls in the same direction and in a way that sets the stall out to help you live within your means while helping put a roof over the heads of vulnerable people. Because if it doesn’t (and I don’t think it does) it proves to be incredibly costly, both financially and in human terms when the legislation is unclear and even contradictory.
In this case when I talk about homeless people I don’t mean rough sleepers, important as this group is and with whom we do a great deal of good work to help alleviate their problems. What I’m talking about is those who have a roof over their head but for a multitude of reasons, very familiar to all in the housing field, are about to lose it. A person often finds themselves homeless when parents or friends are unable or perhaps unwilling to accommodate them. Relationship breakdowns and unfortunately domestic violence also contribute to the problem as does the loss of an assured shorthold tenancy (AST).
The ending or non-renewal of ASTs brings a lot of business through our door, in fact it is increasingly the main cause of homelessness and it’s not difficult to understand why. There is a huge demand for private rented accommodation and, particularly within London and the south east, that is pushing rents far beyond both Local Housing Allowance levels and indeed beyond the level of affordability for a growing number of working households.
It may prove extremely difficult to prevent the ending of an AST if cost is the underlying issue. In my own Council we simply don’t have the resources in either our general fund or our Discretionary Housing Payments budget to prevent such homelessness on a sustainable basis. Moreover, throughout much of London (and doubtless in other cities too) it is proving increasingly difficult to secure local, affordable accommodation in order to relieve this homelessness.
Other legislative spanners in the work, when it comes to my Council’s ability to address homelessness, can be found in some aspects of the Housing and Planning Act, and in particular, proposals concerning what are referred to as higher value voids or, to the average man and woman on the street, expensive council homes. If you know much about Kensington and Chelsea then you’ll know that quite a few of our precious Council homes will fall into this category. It comes with the territory.
Our analysis demonstrates that we could be forced to sell well over 100 such houses and flats each year. So that’s 100 fewer social homes to offer people on our housing list which as you can imagine is a long and slow-moving one. This is a big deal for us as it would represent almost a quarter of our average annual lettings. How can we (and other local authorities) be expected to meet our current duties with regard to homelessness while social housing stock is being sold off to fund other Government commitments?
The present rules leave us with little room to build our way out of trouble. It’s hard enough when you are a small densely packed borough, but when our ability to fund construction of new social housing is curtailed by the debt cap on the Housing Revenue Account the result is it is impossible for us to find sufficient, affordable local accommodation within Local Housing Allowance subsidy caps while our grant from central government is reduced year-on- year.
If all this didn’t make our job hard enough, there are proposals from respected organisations that would make it more difficult – by widening the pool of people to whom we would have a duty to provide affordable local accommodation. Here I’m talking about the Crisis recommendation that responsibilities to provide emergency accommodation should fall on councils regardless of an applicant’s connection to that local authority.
This is something we strongly oppose. We are known for delivering good services and we are a desirable place to live. For these two reasons people with no connection to the borough will turn to us for help. Our desire to free ourselves from any such future commitment is driven not by disregard for people’s difficulties but by financial necessity and the need to make sure we deliver for those who already have real connections with the borough.
I admit that by viewing homelessness through the lens of legislation I’ve taken a rather narrow view of the issue. But this legislation is what sets our parameters and determines what we end up paying. Of course there are far wider factors at play when it comes to homelessness. The economy, employment levels, educational attainment, mental health, physical health and I could go on. What is clear to me however is that the Government, and indeed Parliament, cannot keep giving local government more responsibilities for sorting out homelessness but ever less funding and ever more restrictions on its ability to act.
If the Government wants councils to continue housing local homeless households locally, even in expensive parts of the country, then it must not force us to sell large proportions of our existing social housing. It must free us from the current restrictions on prudential borrowing and the use of Right to Buy receipts, and it must provide us with the funding to pay more in rent for private rented sector properties in those high-value areas.
Conversely, if it is unwilling to make those changes, the Government must acknowledge the consequences and take responsibility for the fact that councils will no longer be able to house homeless households in expensive parts of the country.