Housing the Homeless

The Assembly’s independent auditor, Mr John Dowdall, published a report today on services provided to the homeless by the Housing Executive (NIHE). The statutorily homeless population in Northern Ireland has risen steadily since the current homelessness legislation was introduced, and stood at approximately 6,500 in 2000-01. This is the highest ratio in the United Kingdom. NIHE estimated that the total cost of providing temporary accommodation and other services to the homeless in 2000-01 was £23.6 million, met mainly from Housing Benefit and Special Needs Management Allowance.

The report includes the following key findings:

  • Although it has statutory obligations to prevent homelessness, NIHE’s prevention role has been restricted to providing information and advice. The report recommends that a formal prevention strategy should form a key component of any action plans that NIHE puts in place following completion of its Fundamental Review of homelessness services, which was launched in May 2000 and issued for public consultation in September 2001.
  • The Audit Office considers that there is scope for NIHE to take more direct action to avoid homelessness in relatively straightforward cases. For example, in discharging its responsibilities under the Housing Benefit regulations, a mother and six children lost their £600-a-month rented home because NIHE capped Housing Benefit at £433, which it considered an appropriate rent for the property. The family was eventually placed in a private rented house costing £1,400 a month.
  • Lengthy stays in Bed and Breakfast-type (B&B) accommodation have a detrimental effect on the health of occupants, particularly children, as well as providing poor value for money. In 2000-01, 56 per cent of NIHE’s homeless placements were made to that sector, compared with 35 per cent in Scotland. NIHE does not know how much it spends annually on B&B, but the estimated cost in 1998-99 was £7.5 million. The Audit Office considers that "the absence of proper plans has contributed to a shortfall in hostel capacity available to meet current demand".
  • Rent paid by NIHE for 87 per cent of the private sector/B&B properties it used exceeded rent assessment levels set by the Valuation and Lands Agency. As Housing Benefit is restricted to the rent assessments, NIHE had to pay subsidy costs of approximately £1.23 million in 1999-2000.
  • The most expensive of the private sector properties used by NIHE, which was visited by Audit Office staff, "exhibited evidence of unsatisfactory standards, including poor hygiene and obvious health and safety risks". There had also been numerous complaints from residents, including alleged drug use and dealing on the premises.
  • NIHE had stopped using the property, and re-introduced it after assurances about its management standards, but has now ceased using it.
  • During 1999-2001, the average length of stay in private sector accommodation in Northern Ireland was 115 days, compared with an average of 26 days in Scotland during 2000-01. One family had spent almost three years in B&B, at a cost of over £23,000, and such stays are not uncommon in the Belfast and West Areas.
  • The report says that "there is an obvious need for good quality interim accommodation to supplement hostel provision and reduce long-term B&B occupancy" and estimates that leasing 20 houses for homeless families could result in annual savings of approximately £59,000, in addition to providing higher quality accommodation. A number of case studies are used to illustrate accommodation provided by NIHE that did not meet the needs of individual homeless clients.
  • NIHE allocated almost £0.3 million to a voluntary sector hostel project for rough sleepers without ascertaining its future viability or carrying out the required economic appraisal. Subsequent rent increases for the building could result in payment of an additional £1 million in Housing Benefit over the tenure of the lease. This case underlines the need for NIHE to develop written policy guidelines for voluntary sector funding.
  • NIHE’s Fundamental Review estimates that £20.8 million (£19.8 million capital and £1 million revenue) is needed to deliver proposed new temporary accommodation, plus a further £6 million (£3 million capital and £3 million revenue) annually. The Audit Office says that, if the best accommodation options are to be selected, it is essential that final proposals are subject to economic appraisal.
  • The Audit Office examination highlighted a number of shortcomings in essential management and costing information produced by NIHE, and says that NIHE needs to move quickly to plug the gaps identified, in order to manage the homelessness service properly and to measure its performance in delivering improvements.