Development Department Research Programme
Methodology for Assessing the Implications of Expanding Priority Need
Valerie Strachan, Laurie Naumann, Chris Adams,
Jane Elrick and Francesca Richards
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The Homelessness etc. (Scotland) Act 2003 enables Scottish Ministers to abolish the priority need distinction, so that accommodation and services currently available to those in priority need are available to all those assessed as homeless. The 2003 Act adds to the list of households that should be considered to be in priority need now. It also requires Ministers to publish a Statement which sets out the measures which they and local authorities are taking, and will take, in order to enable the priority need distinction to be abolished. This must incorporate a target date of 2012 for abolition, as well as interim objectives. This research project was undertaken to assist with this process, and in particular to develop a methodology that would enable authorities to assess their capacity to meet the new requirements.
- Very few authorities have produced an estimate of future levels of homelessness within their homeless strategies. Where projections have been included, these tend to refer to the increased level of temporary accommodation needed to respond to the changes brought in under the Housing (Scotland) Act 2001. No authority has quantified the expected change in those assessed as priority need homeless over the period to 2012.
- Three approaches to phasing the abolition of the priority need distinction emerged during the research:
- A big bang approach, whereby the distinction was removed completely at some point before the 2012 target date.
- A two-stage approach, as recommended by the Homelessness Task Force. This would add a further set of priority need categories to the definition around 2007/08, with the distinction removed completely in 2012.
- A gradual phasing out of the distinction, against individual local authority targets.
- There was strong support, in principle, for an approach that would continue to prioritise according to need. However, consultees found it difficult to identify sufficiently large additional needs categories to provide a stepping-stone to full abolition. Support therefore tended to fall to the big bang and gradual phasing options. A number of authorities noted that capacity problems would prevent them from implementing the big bang within the next few years.
- A number of potential risks associated with achieving the priority need target were identified. These included: inadequate capacity, stock management issues, inadequate support services, risks associated with stock transfer and increased use of the 'not homeless' assessments, as a means of reducing the number of households assessed as homeless.
The Housing (Scotland) Act 1987 places statutory duties on local authorities to assist households assessed as homeless or threatened with homelessness. Those assessed as in priority need must be secured housing with a Scottish Secure Tenancy or an Assured Tenancy. Following the work of the Homelessness Task Force (HTF), which considered there was a strong case for extending the rights possessed by those assessed as priority need to all homeless households, the Homelessness etc. (Scotland) Act 2003 gives Ministers the power to determine that the priority need distinction be abolished. It was appreciated that authorities will need time to adjust their services, so Ministers are required to publish a Statement which sets out the measures that will be taken, in order to enable the priority need distinction to be abolished. This must incorporate a target date of 2012 for abolition, as well as interim objectives.
Local authority assessments of capacity
Very few authorities have included an estimate of future levels of homelessness in their homeless strategies. Where projections have been included, these tend to refer to the increased level of temporary accommodation that will be needed to respond to the changes brought in under the 2001 Act. No authority has quantified the potential change in the number assessed as priority need homeless over the period to 2012.
This finding is perhaps not surprising, given that the guidance on producing homelessness assessments and homelessness strategies does not include a specific requirement to include an estimate of priority need homeless to 2012. Instead, the guidance focuses the assessment on developing a clear understanding of the level, nature and causes of homelessness across different client groups and geographies.
Following the submission of their strategies, authorities have increasingly begun to develop estimates of priority need. Many authorities are moving towards a clearer understanding of some of the components that they will need to understand, but none had begun to comprehensively quantify the changing level of homelessness and the services that will be required.
The approach to assessing capacity to meet changing need
Local authorities need a methodology that sets out the various elements they must assess in order to reach a view on their capacity to meet the changing requirements under the new legislation, and to inform any additional measures they may need to take to enable them to meet their duties under the 2003 Act. This methodology should comprise the following stages:
- Estimate the level of homelessness The level of homelessness should be projected forward from the current level using an estimate of the growth in the rate of homelessness, adjusted to take account of the impact of prevention and support measures, and any change predicted in the growth of the local household population.
- Estimate the level of priority need The level of priority need should be projected forward using the current proportion of homeless households assessed as in priority need as the base, and calculating the annual increase required to achieve 100% priority need assessment by 2012.
- Estimate housing services required This estimate must encompass both the support services that will be required, and the number and profile (size and location) of dwellings required to meet need in each year. The effect of displacement (households that would previously been housed through the waiting list, but will now be housed as homeless) should be taken into account, when determining the net increase in dwellings required.
- Estimate housing supply The number, size and location of dwellings that will become available to meet needs should be estimated. This should include RSL dwellings that will be available, together with any private sector housing that would be suitable and available.
- Calculate the overall impact The balance between need and supply, taking account of dwelling size, type and location, should be assessed.
Options for phasing out priority need
Three broad approaches to phasing the abolition of priority need were considered: a 'big bang' approach whereby the distinction would be abolished without any phasing sometime before 2012; a two-stage approach, following the approach suggested by the HTF; and a gradual phasing approach, based on local targets, whereby the proportion of homeless households assessed as not priority need would decline on an annual basis.
Big Bang Generally, consultees were split between the big bang approach and the gradual approach. The rationale for adopting a big bang approach was partly practical _ being unable to establish a set of additional categories that would effectively prioritise housing supply _ and partly ideological _ "if someone's homeless, they're homeless". However, it was recognised that 'big bang' presented real problems for many authorities in that they may not have the housing supply and services available, both from their own stock and from partners, to meet needs. Big bang was therefore considered, even by its advocates, as an option for a few years hence.
Two-stage phasing The 2003 Act already expands the definition of priority need by including most of the 1998 Code of Guidance categories. The HTF recommended that further expansion of the definition could be undertaken around 2007/8 prior to full abolition in 2012. However, although the study consultees agreed in principle with the extension of priority need approach, they generally found it difficult to identify sufficient additional 'in-need' groups. Options considered, such as expanding the age groups and removing the vulnerability test where it currently applies, were not considered effective ways of prioritising services.
Gradual phasing There was support for the gradual phasing option because it minimised sudden large increases in the number of priority need households requiring housing and provided as much time as possible to respond to the capacity requirements. A number of possible approaches to effecting the phasing were considered, including approaches that sought to prioritise resources. The option that appeared to be the most feasible and practical was the one where authorities set local targets to achieve the 2012 abolition target.
However, it was appreciated that the gradual phasing approach would mean that authorities will be offering different levels of service (as indeed they do now). As further changes from the Act become implemented (local connection and intentionality), homeless households may choose to 'shop around' local authorities for the one in which they have the best 'chance' of being housed.
Risks associated with achieving the 2012 target
Capacity The key risk to achieving the 2012 target was inadequate supply of suitable housing. However, the capacity issue is not a simple matter of insufficient lets to meet overall homeless need. Pressure on smaller dwellings is increasing as a result of increasing single homelessness and a rise in waiting list applications from single people. There may also be a mismatch in the location of available housing and the location of homeless households.
Management of stock Even assuming a substantial increase in the supply of lets from alternative sources (increased RSL referrals and use of the private rented sector where appropriate), it is likely that most authorities will have to increase the proportion of lets made to homeless applicants, and reduce the proportion made to the general waiting list. There are concerns that some authorities will be reluctant to make this change, either for political reasons, or because of concerns for the stability of local communities. There are also concerns that best use is not being made of RSL stock, first, because some local authorities and RSLs have not yet developed protocols and working arrangements for homeless referrals to RSLs; and second, because some RSLs need to develop the skills and housing management systems to work with a much more vulnerable client group than they may previously have dealt with.
Support services An essential plank of homeless strategies is that repeat homelessness will be reduced/prevented through the use of tenancy support/other services, while other forms of homelessness will also be reduced through the availability of prevention services. There is a concern that sufficient funding to provide essential support services will not be available.
Stock transfer There is evidence that arrangements for homelessness services take some time to bed in following stock transfer. The forthcoming community ownership programme therefore poses a risk to the achievement of the priority need targets _ or at least to achieving the medium term targets.
Increase in 'not homeless' assessments Authorities might attempt to 'manage' their priority need target by assessing more people as not homeless, thereby reducing the number of priority need households to be rehoused.
About the research
The research was undertaken during 2004 by Tribal HCH. The overall objectives of the study were to identify a methodology for assessing the capacity of local authorities to respond to the demands from the legislative change and recommend next steps for achieving the abolition. A number of specific tasks were identified, including: to review the extent to which councils have made estimates of additional demand and their capacity to meet this demand; development of a consistent methodology that authorities can employ to estimate future levels of demand; identification of options for expansion of priority need; and identification of the possible risks to achieving the 2012 target.
The study was carried out in conjunction with another piece of work to inform the implementation of the 2003 Act - this considered the operation of the power to modify the local connection provisions.
The study drew on a mix of data collection methods, starting with an overview of the analysis that had been undertaken (e.g. homelessness statistics and the Homeless Strategies produced by local authorities). There was a substantial qualitative component: interviews with six key stakeholders identified by the Research Advisory Group; a discussion with the Scottish Housing Best Value Network Homelessness Sub-group; a stakeholder workshop; and eight case studies, which involved interviews with local authority officers and stakeholders from local housing organisations. The quantitative work comprised a postal survey of local authorities (26 of the 32 councils responded), analysis of HL1 data and development of projections of priority need households under different scenarios.
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