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March 30, 2023

Assessing value for money in homelessness services

Matthew Wilkins

The cost of temporary accommodation for families at risk of homelessness reached £1.6 billion last year in England. This is a very large sum.

Most recent data showed 99,270 households were staying in temporary accommodation, including 125,760 children - equivalent to 1 in every 100 children in England. This figure has risen by 30% since 2017.

All parts of the United Kingdom have experienced similar recent surges. There were another 15,414 families living in temporary housing in Scotland, 4,465 in Wales and 3,658 in Northern Ireland, where there has been an increase of 74% since 2019.

Again these are huge numbers. The use of Temporary Accommodation is not of itself a bad thing: after all, it means that local authorities housing people who would otherwise be at risk of homelessness. If these risks rise, then so too should the support offered. But we do know that some of the cost has been spent on the most expensive types of short-term housing, such as bed and breakfast or other nightly purchased accommodation, and some of the housing is of poorer quality.

Do we know if this intervention represents value for money, especially in different parts of the UK? The fact is that we do not. 

This lack of an evidence base is the reason that the Centre for Homelessness Impact is launching a new programme of work focusing on value for money. The Centre’s mission is to act as a catalyst for evidence-led change to enable people working in and around homelessness to accelerate progress to end homelessness for good. Our value for money programme, which I will lead, is an example of how we seek to do this.

Economy, efficiency and effectiveness

So, what actually is value for money? Value for money work in the United Kingdom was officially established with the 1983 National Audit Act. This sets out the “Three Es”: economy (spending less); efficiency (spending the same but in a better way); and effectiveness (using money to get better outcomes). When taken together, and put as simply as possible, value for money is about ensuring that we get the best possible use of our resources. 

We intend to take these high level principles and tailor them to the subject of homelessness, with the aim of helping to drive practical improvements. First, we will develop a value for money framework for how to measure spending on homelessness, starting with temporary accommodation. 

Initial questions that we will ask will include how prepared have local authorities been for the recent increase in homelessness that some of them have experienced? What do they know about the costs of temporary accommodation? What measures exist to guarantee the quality of this housing? Also, to what extent has the increase in temporary accommodation blocked local authorities from conducting the prevention work they would like to do to support people at risk of homelessness?

As our programme develops, and as we listen to local authority leaders and homelessness teams in the course of this work, further questions will arise that we will seek to answer. 

We want our value for money work to be used as practically as possible by people working on the front line of tackling homelessness. 

Listening to local authorities

I will therefore be visiting local authorities throughout the United Kingdom. When I do I will work with housing and homelessness teams to understand the value for money issues that they face with temporary accommodation. To get a full, grounded understanding of the issues local authorities are experiencing, these are likely to feature visits to properties used as temporary accommodation and interviews with frontline workers and, by agreement, with some of their residents. They are also likely to involve discussions with local authorities about their understanding of costs and the information they use to make spending decisions when placing families in temporary accommodation. These visits could also involve working with local authorities to adapt the framework for measuring and improving the value for money of temporary accommodation and homeless to their services locally. I will report updates from these visits and what I find in them as I go. 

We also want our value for money work to be as impactful and influential as possible at the national level. We aim to use these visits, alongside other pieces of research that we will commission, as the evidence sources for accessible published reports making practical recommendations to governments and agencies involved in homelessness with the aim of improving value for money in this field. 

In so doing, we will build on the work I have already done in this field. In 2017, I was one of a team at the UK’s National Audit Office who published a report on the value for money of government’s efforts to tackle homelessness. I followed this in 2021 with another report investigating the rehousing of people who had been sleeping rough or in shelters and other communal settings during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic under the 'Everyone In’ initiative. 

None of this work will be easy. We are in the midst of a surge of demand for emergency housing in many parts of the country and need among people at risk of homelessness that few have witnessed before.  

Our aim is to provide all involved in responding to this surge, in local authorities and in government, with practical actionable insights on how to do so as effectively and cost-effectively as possible. To help me with this, we want to hear from as many practitioners as possible. If this sounds like something you would like to be involved in, please email me at: matthew@homelessnessimpact.org

Matthew Wilkins is Head of Value for Money at the Centre for Homelessness Impact

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