On Friday the 25th October, I attended the Northern Homelessness Conference in Leeds. What exactly is the Northern Homelessness Conference you might ask?! On the surface, it was 10 speakers, 8 sessions, 60 delegates and 2 very baffled recruiters. However, once we’d attended the days’ presentations and managed to digest the wealth of information provided (along with an excellent buffet lunch!) we left understanding what an important conference it actually was. It really was a must attend conference for officers working in the area of homelessness.
The day was kicked off by Ian Peacock, a go-to counsel for local government litigation. He regularly appears in the County Court, the Administrative Court and the Court of Appeal. His career has seen him appear in a number of homelessness cases in the Supreme Court including Nzolameso v Westminster County Court in 2015, and Samin v Westminster County Court in 2016. He is a true expert in homelessness and allocations law, and also has experience of all aspects of housing law, including possession claims, and injunctions to restrain anti-social behaviour and disrepair. Thus there was no one better to start the conference, or to outline the recent developments in allocations and homelessness case law. During his presentation we looked at how the Supreme Court sought officers to assess affordability. Ian also expanded on a few of the key homelessness decisions in the Court of Appeal as well as looking at the various problems with disqualification criteria.
Following Ian came the centrepiece of any homelessness conference, a look at the Homelessness Reductions Act, 18 months after it was passed. This presentation was delivered by Andy Gale, one of the best known names in the field of homelessness and lettings. Andy trains and advises local authorities around the country. He has a wide range of local government experience having worked as Housing Needs Manager for Harrow Council and with the DCLG. He has also become an expert advisor on how to use the private rented sector to prevent homelessness or to discharge. This presentation was a fantastic insight into the post-HRA world. We heard about council workers being driven to heavy alcohol use (a joke, we hope!), as well as how to effectively write Personal Housing Plans to meet the requirements of recent case law and finally how to combat the most common HRA problems. Particular praise must go to the Homelessness Toolkit developed by Andy, which gives you access to all legal letters.
Minos Perdios piece on the extremely relevant Brexit and Eligibility, was structured, well thought out and wonderfully put together (I’m sure the irony isn’t lost on you!). Each delegate was shown how to assess eligibility in easy to follow steps. Minos highlighted that there are 4 different groups of persons (a) Persons Subject to Immigration Control, (b) Zambrano Carers, (c) EEA nationals and (d) British Nationals, each with their own criteria when it comes to assessing eligibility. To assist delegates Minos produced easy to follow flowcharts for assessing the eligibility of Persons Subject to Immigration Control and EEA nationals. Minos challenged officers to use the flowcharts and assess eligibility in 30 seconds.
Minos also demonstrated the HOPE software, which has been designed by Home Connections and Housing Reviews Ltd to provide solutions for delivering the Housing Act 1996, including the changes brought by the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. Minos showed how, with just a few seconds, an officer using the software could assess the eligibility of a person subject to immigration control.
Ian then reappeared to explain to us what makes a Section 21 notice invalid, as well as helping us to understanding the difference between pre October 2015 tenancies and post October 2015 tenancies. Ian’s presentation brought us right up to date as it detailed the recent changes brought in by the Tenant Fee Act 2019.
Lunch was then served and we all gathered round a splendid buffet to chat, network and forge some great new connections.
The first presentation after lunch was given by Jade Alsop from Policy in Practice. She spoke about predictive analytics in identifying risk of homelessness, or to put it simply (for you sci-fi fans), ‘Minority Report’ meets Homelessness. It centred on the idea of identifying vulnerable households early through local authority household level data. They analyse the living standards of households now, and modelled their 2023 predicted living standards. This model allows them to identify households who are coping now, but will be struggling in the future. One of the key solutions was maximising the income a family could receive through benefits. Maximising income means that households are in a better financial position to tackle any problems that may arise, thereby reducing the risk of homelessness. Some of the councils who have experienced the benefits of this software include Croydon and Luton.
Holly Reid, the Warwickshire Trailblazer, followed Alsop. Her presentation demonstrated how Warwickshire has implemented a Government funded initiative, led by Holly that is working with both landlords and tenants to prevent homelessness. This initiative targets homelessness at the very root of the problem. During the presentation, Holly was able to pinpoint warning signs of homelessness, such as debts, bereavement and job losses. She was also able to demonstrate how the project was able to prevent cases of homelessness, through income maximisation, training and employment and giving people realistic advice. The results were exceptional, with 83% of the 689 people who came through the project managing to stay in their homes. Sadly the initiative is now running out of funding and unless more can be found, it will have to close down.
Cath Miller and Heidi Wilson delivered a presentation they had put together with Andy Furness demonstrating how Calderdale Council works together with different partners to prevent homelessness. They truly understood the importance of joining the dots in order to solve the problem, and so they brought all services together under one roof, recruited 5 prevention officers to help. Made sure that all services were in agreement before starting, and that they had one unified vision and a goal they were all committed to working towards. They also recruited a specialist young person’s team and opened winter shelters – really demonstrating what good looks like in terms of working together to prevent homelessness. One of the core mantras for them was to ensure that they were working with people earlier and for longer.
The final presentation of the day comprised of John Donaldson and Donna Harkins from Kirklees Council, who showed us how they are seeking to prevent homelessness. These guys had taken a slightly different tactic, successfully bidding on a number of government funds including the rough sleeper initiative, rapid rehousing pathway and ensuring provisions were made during severe weather. They had also set up the Kirklees Better Outcomes Partnership and championed a Private Rented Access Scheme.
I hope I have done the conference justice and been able to demonstrate just how much incredible expert information was facilitated throughout the day. In 2015 we saw significant changes in the way Housing Options Services work. This came about from judgements in the courts and the Ombudsman decisions. The introduction of the Homelessness Reduction Act in 2018 brought fresh challenges to every local authority, against a backdrop of rising demand and budget cuts. This conference was able to offer practical advice and solutions in the areas of homeless prevention as well as how to meet all the challenges of the Homelessness Reduction Act.
On a final note, I have to congratulate Minos, Lucia and the rest of the Housing Reviews crew for putting on such a great event, and we are looking forward to seeing as many of you as possible at the London Homelessness Conference 2020 !
Author: Richard Bucklow