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September 13, 2023

How our value for money framework is transforming UK efforts to end homelessness

Matthew Wilkins

Central to the work of our value for money programme is the goal of helping to improve how well public money is spent on tackling homelessness. We have developed a value for money framework for measuring spending on homelessness, starting with temporary accommodation. Using this, we are seeking to make recommendations to the governments of the United Kingdom, and we are working with individual local authorities to ensure that our insights on value for money are used as practically as possible by people working on the front line of tackling homelessness. 

An example of the practical impact that this approach can have at a local level is from our work with Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole (BCP) council earlier this year.

These towns on the south coast are - quite rightly - renowned for their scenic beaches and tourism. Yet BCP is a large conurbation which, like so many others in the UK today, has seen considerable growth in recent years in the number of people experiencing homelessness whom it places in temporary accommodation. According to government data, at the end of March 2023 BCP had more than 500 households in temporary accommodation, almost half of these with children. In common with many other coastal communities across England, BCP also has a high number of people sleeping rough.

At the invitation of BCP, on a glorious sunny day at the beginning of the summer of 2023, we visited the council in person. During our visit, together with the leaders of BCP council’s housing and homelessness team, we conducted a day-long CHI value for money “sprint.” This involved spending several hours using BCP’s data on its spending on temporary accommodation and mapping this out across different categories of people experiencing homelessness and across different types of temporary accommodation. Based on this, we collectively identified the areas where the council was seeking to improve the value for money of this spending, and identified potential solutions to explore. Despite this being a rapid and relatively light touch exercise, during our early VFM work we have found that local authorities across the UK face increasing demand for homelessness services at the same time as their resources have been significantly reduced. As a result, they have little time to conduct proper analysis of how to respond strategically to homelessness demand pressures. 

During our value for money sprint, we very quickly identified the value for money situation that BCP faces with its use of temporary accommodation, key points of which include that: 

  • like so much of the UK, BCP has seen a rise in homelessness driven in part by increasing rents in the private rented sector, exacerbated by local issues including the high number of holiday lets and relatively small amount of available social housing stock; 
  • BCP’s ability to respond to these pressures is constrained by its temporary accommodation stock being filled, often for months if not years, by households for whom this is now anything but “temporary”. Their ability for individuals to move on is, in turn, constricted by the high cost of rents and limited amount of social housing available locally; 
  • as a result of this “silting” up of temporary accommodation, BCP is increasingly placing households experiencing homelessness into emergency short term accommodation, such as hotels and bed and breakfasts. This is more expensive than longer term forms of accommodation, and a use of public money which is of great concern to BCP. As Ben Tomlin, Head of Strategic Housing & Partnerships, memorably put it, this is “dead money, unregulated”. The council now considers itself to have little choice other than to place people in what it regards as precarious interim housing settings without firm housing move-on arrangements, causing instability in all aspects of their lives.
  • BCP’s ability to respond strategically to homelessness pressures is further constrained by a high level of repeat placements among single people presenting as long-term homeless. This group has increased recently, and can move in and out of different temporary accommodation placements quite regularly. This has considerable workload implications for frontline staff; 
  • although there are still empty properties in the BCP area, there are challenges in procuring these for temporary accommodation, in part due to the stigma attached to homelessness in some communities; and
  • that they have found it challenging to fully spend money allocated to conducting prevention work with the private sector. 

Our workshops also provided valuable insight into the fact that the data used by local authorities and national government about the use of temporary accommodation may not entirely match. This could provide a block to national governments’ grip on trends in homelessness services in local communities. 

Our work with BCP led to the council’s homelessness team taking some immediate steps to improve the effectiveness of their support to people experiencing homelessness. Based on our initial analysis, BCP undertook more work to identify the number of households moving within temporary accommodation between different bed and breakfast placements. This reached 49 couples and single peoples and 19 families in January 2023 alone - a figure which Ben Tomlin described as “staggering” for its impact on cost and staff time. As a result of this, BCP immediately put additional controls in place to reduce unnecessary movement, build capacity in the system, and understand more about the reasons for moving between different types of accommodation. Also as a result of our initial work with BCP, the council is looking to work with private landlords to secure additional supply of temporary accommodation. 

These were immediate gains. Moving forward we will seek to work with BCP to fully embed the value for money framework in its use of temporary accommodation.  It would of course be naive to suggest that it is possible with a small piece of strategic horizon scanning and simple analysis to identify the silver bullet that corrects the structural issues that cause people to experience homelessness. However, as the council acknowledged after our time in Bournemouth, these initial first steps would not have come about without the time and space that CHI facilitated.

CHI’s VFM work on temporary accommodation and homelessness is in development but, as the example of BCP demonstrates, it has the potential to add value. If this is something that you would be interested in learning more about, please contact me directly at matthew@homelessnessimpact.org.

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

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