12th February 2021
Feedback for the Allocations Policy Consultation
Dear Bedford Borough Council,
We welcome the Council’s commitment to review the Allocation Policy and for the opportunity to provide feedback, and welcome many of the changes already proposed.
We identified 6 themes that our feedback fell into:
- Issues surrounding the quota for homeless households being set at 40%.
- There recurring question of the level of evidence that will be required to demonstrate circumstances around domestic abuse, care and support needs and mental health issues in relation to accepting applications and assessing their banding.
- The ambiguity around how this evidence will be assessed in terms of applicants’ level of need, residence and banding, and there is a lack of clarity around review / appeal processes as well as the lack of ability to review certain decisions.
- The language and approach underpinning some elements of the policy relating to support needs, supported housing and assessing applicants’ ability to manage their tenancy which seems to unfairly presume incompetency on the part of the applicant when we know how unaffordable the private rented sector is.
- That some groups of applicants acting in good faith (e.g. care leavers and homeless applicants) have very little choice on the bidding system before being placed on auto-bid.
- The sanctions on those with a history of ASB, abandonments, rent arrears and sub-letting does not seem to be set fairly and there does not seem to be a formal system set out for identifying those with support needs / disabilities so that they can be supported adequately through the process.
- Although the increase to the homeless household quota from 33% to 40% is very welcome, it is not clear that this increase will be enough to ensure adequate access to social housing for homeless households. The fact is that many people applying to the Housing Register may be homeless through unaffordability of their accommodation, risk of domestic abuse, overcrowding or disabilities so if these cases are correctly picked up as homelessness applications then 40% does not seem enough to give them appropriate priority.
- We welcome the new ability to adjust this quota in future but believe criteria for doing so should be set out in the policy.
- There is also a concern that ‘hard-to-let’ properties will be disproportionately allocated to this quota.
- this all leads to a big discussion around the cross-over of people who have / haven’t triggered a homelessness application – most of the higher categories for need would be homeless – so in effect only giving homeless households access to 40% pf the stock is a huge bottle neck and means that households applying under Part 6 and transfers, who are by definition in less priority, are given access to the majority of the housing stock (and given far more choice). The 40% figure is, in my opinion, the single most important factor in reducing homelessness in the Borough.
- The lack of clarity around assessing risk of domestic abuse is a recurring theme throughout the policy. For example, the level of risk someone is at would decide whether they are placed in Bands S, A and B, but there is no detail of how this is assessed, and it is very difficult for Council staff to do this consistently because domestic abuse is so complex. It may be that relying on DASH scores may be a workable way to differentiate between levels of risk, although that in itself would still be very clumsy – it may be a new risk assessment is required to identify the aspects of risk that need to be focussed on achieving the aims of the policy – and this risk assessment would need to be created in partnership with the applicant so their views are fully incorporated and they can challenge assessments if they disagree with them. It may be that the Council could create its own risk assessment framework for housing staff that would be very useful for a variety of purposes.
- There are also important questions over how an applicant can prove or disprove that the harassment or abuse will continue and will require specialist training for staff. The policy needs to set out in detail how evidence is considered and make the point that unless there is a good reason to doubt the evidence from the applicant, their reports of abuse should be believed. We think more clarity and formalised assessment tools will help staff administer the scheme fairly and consistently.
- There is a lack of clarity as to how injury / poor physical / mental health is assessed. For example, in 6.1.5 it states, ‘a person who is serving or former served members of the regular armed forces or reserve armed forces who are suffering from a serious injury, illness or disability sustained because of their service’ – the word ‘serious’ needs defining clearly.
- There is too much ambiguity about how medical needs are assessed – how ‘adverse’ do medical and welfare needs need to be to qualify? Could a new definition be created based on something like the Equality Act definition of disability?
- The proposed policy does not mention the right to review for applicants assessed as not being eligible.
- The concept of residence seems to exclude time spent living in the area as a child, so would put young adults at a disadvantage as they would not be deemed to have lived in the area out of choice. This does not seem fair and seems an ineffective way to judge someone’s connection to the area. The issue comes up again in para 6.1.5 – someone may have lived in the borough their whole life as a child, but this would be discounted as they didn’t ‘choose’ to live there.
- There is ambiguity within the definition of residence through family support – Where the reduction from 5 years to 3 years is welcome the draft scheme has now replaced the word “support” with “care” and insists that this “care arrangement” be the only arrangement available. This limits a person’s freedom of choice to choose their own care arrangements. The draft scheme also suggests receipt of carers’ allowance as evidence of care. This does not consider the vast numbers of unpaid carers, and in the past a supporting letter has sufficed. It may be beneficial to discuss this with the Council’s Social Care teams as unpaid carers play a vital role in meeting individuals’ care and support needs.
- We think it is vital for the policy to focus on the importance of close-knit communities as a crucial factor in the health of our communities in the borough – the criteria for assessing this needs a lot of expansion. Many people who need to be near family for informal support may fall foul of this criterion.
- Proving residence through employment may be difficult for someone on a zero-hour contract – is the 16 hours per week an average over a specific period of time – if so, it is not clear how the average is calculated.
- It is not clear why ‘Reasonable preference will not be awarded to applicants requiring temporary or floating support’.
- In terms of the council not fettering its discretion, do officers get training on what this means in any detail? Is training given to ensure the culture of the team involves fairness?
- The language and understanding around support needs and supported housing requires much wider analysis – the whole concept presumes people who resort to hostels are incompetent and can only escape the system where a staff member assesses that they are ready for move on. Assuming that ‘managing a hostel place’ is a good indicator for ability to manage a tenancy also needs carefully examining.
- Most people are ready for move-on from day one and the hostel environment does not reflect the reality of living in your own home. As little as one week could be enough to assess whether someone is ready for move-on. The discretion written into the policy where individuals can be referred from a hostel earlier does not appear to be open to appeal.
- It would be helpful to list the accommodation projects which are classed as ‘registered providers of supported housing’ in an annex.
- Some applicants including care leavers and homeless applicants have very little choice on the bidding system and could be placed on auto-bid after just 2 unsuccessful bidding rounds, even if they were bidding in good faith. This seems to be far too restrictive.
- It is not clear why those in the transfer and housing register categories get to have more bids – there seems to be something inherent in the urgency of homeless applicants vs. transfers and housing register applicants that is not reflected in the proposed scheme – surely those in the homeless category should be prioritised as much as possible and if transfer and housing register applicants don’t bid on suitable properties it would suggest their needs are much less urgent, meaning the 12 month review of their applications seems far too long.
- There is much less choice for victims of domestic abuse to choose where they lived compared to other applicants. Whilst the reality of needing to move people quickly in some circumstances in unavoidable, it seems that the policy could require that in those circumstances the victim is given as much choice as possible. If an applicant is assessed and deemed to be in emergency need presumably a homelessness application would be immediately triggered anyway, therefore entitling them to TA and removing them from imminent risk. They can then have more freedom of choice over settled accommodation.
- There is a gap throughout the proposed policy as to how applicants with support needs that would impede their ability to complete the process are identified and flagged as needing more support. For example, in para 2.2 someone who did not keep the application up to date could have their application cancelled, but there will be some situations where the council needs to take additional steps to support the individual instead of just cancelling their application. Applicants could be asked within the application process whether they think they will struggle to manage the process.
- Assessing housing-related debt in para 6.2.5 means the council is potentially making a rod for its own back – particularly with coronavirus and the expected depression there will potentially be many people who have arrears that accrued through no fault of their own and will be owed the main homelessness duty but then will be excluded from the housing register. It seems the formulation of the law around intentional homelessness should be mirrored more closely here (particularly para 9.17 of the Homelessness Code of Guidance). The stipulation of applicants doing training to get skills to manage a tenancy infers that they are incompetent, but we already know that if UC drops again then nearly all private rented accommodation in the borough will not be affordable, so falling into rent arrears in no way automatically means the person can’t manage a tenancy.
- Perpetrators of domestic abuse are excluded for less time than someone who sub-let their property, this does not seem to reflect the seriousness of the two offences.
- There are blanket exclusions on people who may have a protected characteristic or another good reason for acting in a certain way. For example, in para 6.3 people who are deemed to have abandoned their previous home are automatically excluded, but in many cases there may have been legitimate reasons for doing so, e.g. very poor mental health, harassment from neighbours etc.
- The allocation policy should set out a target time for the assessment of applications to be completed.
- The online system does not currently allow for large documents to be uploaded to the system.
- The draft scheme does not mention 3 other statutory guidance documents: the 2020 version of Guidance for Local Housing Authorities England, Improving Access to Social Housing for Victims of Domestic Abuse and Improving Access to Social Housing for Members of the Armed Forces
The JustUs Team