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Photo: Russell Jacobs.

Tackling Hastings’ problems of housing and homelessness

The arrival of Covid-19 has worsened the chronic problems of homelessness and rough sleeping which already afflicted Hastings. HOT’s Nick Terdre talked to Cllr Andy Batsford, Hastings Borough Council’s lead for housing and homelessness, about how the situation has been tackled since the virus turned our lives upside down, and the worrying prospects now looming up.

Andy Batsford on a construction site with HBC colleagues.

Cllr Andy Batsford has had the housing and homelessness portfolio for about two and a half years. Previously his responsibilties also included community engagement, but since the June Cabinet reshuffle this is now embedded in all portfolios.

“Hastings is one of the leading lights when it comes to homelessness provision, and our models are replicated around the South-East,” he says. “We chair all the important meetings around this, and we coordinate the homelessness approach across Hastings, Rother and Eastbourne.”

The council has a statutory duty to find accommodation for certain categories of people threatened with homelessness, including families with children, people with disabilities and people suffering from mental health problems. And although one of the government’s first lockdown acts was to ban evictions by private landlords, the number of local residents facing homelessness has increased during the lockdown, putting increased pressure on the council’s already stretched resources.

Responding to those facing homelessness is a two-stage process – first finding them temporary accommodation and then seeking a longer-term solution.

Not all rough sleepers in Hastings are willing to move off the streets (photo: Russell Jacobs).

“We were pretty much in dire straits with our housing provision before Covid, and obviously this has made it even worse,”  Batsford says.

According to a report to the Cabinet meeting on 7 July, from 205 homeless households living in emergency accommodation at the start of lockdown, the number had climbed to 240 by the end of June. The cost to the council of providing emergency accommodation is currently expected to amount to £343,000 more than the original 2020/21 budget projection.

Emergency accommodation fully occupied

The available temporary accommodation is already fully occupied. “Of those 240 households about a hundred are occupied by families, so we’re talking about children, about the devastation to their everyday life: how do you get your kids to school if you’re nowhere near the school that they were going to, what about the whole turmoil into which their lives are thrown?

“Then there are 51 units occupied by entrenched rough sleepers that we’ve taken off the street. They present an incredible mix of different issues, different support needs.”

Ten years of austerity have driven up the number of people sleeping on the streets. “In the mid 1990s and early 2000s we had an average of eight or nine rough sleepers, last summer we hit 64.”

In late March the government allocated £3.2m to local authorities in England to get rough sleepers off the street and minimise the risk of the virus spreading in their ranks. Hastings’ share was around £85,000.

It was suggested that they could be put up in hotels which at the time were banned from having normal guests. “Luckily we did not have to use hotel accommodation for rough sleepers,” Batsford says. “Historically hotel rooms have been just a room with a microwave. And now that the economy is coming back to life, hoteliers want their accommodation back – therefore we would just have ended up with these people back on our books.”

Instead the council worked hard with the private sector to identify landlords willing to provide accommodation. “As long as the accommodation they’re in at the moment continues to be funded, or is sustainable, then they are not going to be moved on until they go, hopefully, to permanent and proper accommodation.”

But it doesn’t come cheap, as extra incentives have to be offered to landlords. The full year net cost to the council of providing temporary accommodation for rough sleepers is estimated at £643,000. The Department of Communities and Local Government recently put up £266m to help keep vulnerable people including rough sleepers housed. Hastings ls leading a bid for a share of this pot on behalf of Rother and Eastbourne.

Outreach process

The council funds an outreach process carried out by Seaview which is aimed at getting rough sleepers off the street. “The longer homeless people are on the street, the more they become used to it and the more difficult they find it to revert to living under a roof,” says Batsford.

Twice weekly a rough sleepers identification team go out at 4am to identify anyone who is sleeping outside and persuade them to come back to the Seaview centre where representatives from various agencies are present to offer support. Most are now housed, but there are still a dozen or so who refuse the offer of a roof over their head.

“It’s been a really great effort from our officers and partners and we’ve managed to catch a lot of people, but the challenge will be how to move them on to suitable accommodation – that supported accommodation just isn’t out there any more with the complex support that a lot of rough sleepers need, so the challenge will go on.”

As lockdown restrictions have been eased, homelessness has continued to increase, with the number of households presenting themselves to the council rising from 16 to 25 a week. These are mainly, Batsford says, family evictions, as the pressure of being stuck in the same house with the same people, often in over-crowded conditions, eventually becomes unbearable.

In normal times most evictions are due to private landlords turning out their tenants – sometimes for rent arrears, not unusually from a desire to raise the rent. Under current legislation they don’t have to give a reason for turfing out the tenants.

Worrying prospect

While the government has been deaf to appeals to change this unjust law, under lockdown it has put a stay on courts dealing with possession orders and lengthened the period of notice landlords must give tenants when telling them to leave from two to three months. The stay on court proceedings is due to end on 24 August. And the furlough scheme, which has provided many people with a source of income while their jobs have been suspended, also began to be phased out this month, leading to the fear that many jobs will be terminated. It’s a worrying prospect for Batsford.

“Our biggest fear is a tsunami of legal evictions, financial difficulties, people’s jobs not returning when the furlough comes to an end. The need and demand on our services is just going to escalate wildly once the eviction notices start coming in thick and fast.”

Andy Batsford is worried about a possible tsunami of people being made homeless when the stay on evictions is lifted in late August (photo: Russell Jacobs).

“Landlords have had the benefit of mortgage holidays. The renters haven’t had any kind of holiday, at best they’ve been offered a postponement of rent, which then gets added to a future rent payment. I think not offering the same kind of help to renters as to mortgage will prove to be the biggest problem, because people just can’t afford the rents as they are, let alone a double payment when you’ve had a month off.”

This appears to be a problem mainly confined to the private sector. “Optivo, the housing association, are reporting that they haven’t got any major problems with rent arrears, they keep in touch with their tenants quite closely, they’ll be sending out emails, they’ll be finding out before any major problems arise,” Batsford says.

The council’s Social Lettings Agency also comes into play as part of the effort to improve the supply of emergency accommodation. Last October it was decided to increase the number of properties leased from private landlords from 20 to 56, of which six had been leased when activity was halted by the lockdown. It has now been resumed.

Capital grant

Batsford welcomes the capital grant which the government has offered towards tackling homelessness. “Hastings will receive just short of £1m in capital investment. This is great as it will enable us to purchase houses to place our temporary families in – it’s cheaper to buy a house and pay the mortgage on it than to place them in private accommodation.

“That £1m will buy around eight houses. In the grand scheme of 240 units it’s a little blip – it doesn’t make any money but it saves us a great deal of money. It’s two, three, four-bedroom houses we’re concentrating on because it enables us to house families. These cost us the most, up to £750 a week in private accommodation.”

The council already has a policy of buying houses for use as social housing, but the supply is scarce. “Before Covid the average number of houses suitable for this purpose coming up for bidding was two a month.”

There is a chronic shortage of housing anyway, as much for those seeking a permanent place as those needing emergency accommodation.

“We’ve got just short of 2,000 people on the housing waiting list. About 350 of those are Band A, the highest priority: people with chronic health issues, mental health issues, living in overcrowded homes. I get horrendous emails from people who are desperate to move.”

The waiting list is constantly replenished as the private rented sector proves unable to help solve the housing crisis. “In the private sector rents have gone up so much – in the last two years a two-bed property has gone up about 40%. Meanwhile there’s wage stagnation in Hastings – wages pretty much haven’t gone up in the last 10 years.”

Houses nearing completion on Gemselect’s Archery Ground development, which is due to deliver 28 affordable homes (photo: Nick Terdre).

Affordable housing quota

For Batsford the only option for meeting housing demand is for the council to pursue large housing developments which yield a quota of affordable homes. “In a development like the proposed one on Bexhill Road, of 192 houses, 78 will be affordable. If I’m lucky I’ll perhaps get 60 that will go on the actual housing list as council houses – 60, that’s a lot better than two!

“Every single affordable house counts. The council is now in the market to start building them because we can’t rely on the private sector to deliver the affordable housing that we need.

“Bexhill Road will be a joint development with a housing association, though we haven’t yet finalised which one it is going to be yet. But because this is our first ever development for years, it makes sense to work alongside an experienced housing developer.”

The development has been criticised for its location on land liable to flooding. “The planning application, which is due to be lodged shortly, will outline the flood risk and the mitigation scheme,” Batsford says. “We’ve got a £6m grant to bring that site up to development standard, and I’m confident that it will be both compliant and flood-safe.”

It will be the council, and not its housing company, that will build houses. Batsford acknowledges that all the houses it builds will be subject to the much criticised right-to-buy policy introduced by the Thatcher government in the 1980s. “We’re working on how to avoid that. But it’s still the theme music from national government. Theresa [May] was definitely signalling that it was not a priority any more, but Boris unfortunately is cut of the same cloth as Cameron, he’s got an obsession with ownership rather than dealing with the issue at hand.”

Proposed layout of the Bexhill Road development, to be managed by the council together with a housing association.

So will the council be dependent on the Public Works Loan Board for financing? “It depends on the development. In the case of Bexhill Road, we own the land, so the land value goes into the pot without us having to borrow money for it. A development like Bexhill Road will cost about £25m to build. A section of the houses will be for sale, and that will help repay the loan, and then we can use the money for another development.”

Housing and homelessness is one of the most important portfolios, Batsford says. He is clearly proud to be entrusted with it, despite the challenges it presents. And he is relishing the prospect of council house-building.

“I’m looking forward to standing outside a half-built house with a hard hat on. Legacy is the most important thing – have you changed anything for the better? I’m looking forward to changing things for the better.”

 

Posted 10:18 Wednesday, Aug 19, 2020 In: Local Government

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