Through our Housing Benefit Casework Service, NextDoor has provided advice and assistance to over 200 households threatened with homelessness as a result of the government’s changes to Local Housing Allowance (the housing benefit paid to the majority of private tenants), and have assisted with the completion of nearly 100 Discretionary Housing Payment (DHP) applications to the City of Westminster. Through this experience we have become increasingly concerned at the way in which Westminster is using its DHP fund to protect vulnerable tenants.
As local authorities have almost complete discretion in how they use the money and are not subject to any significant reporting or monitoring requirements, there is no consistent standard or benchmark with which to judge them. However, our direct experience has shown that Westminster is failing to protect some of their most vulnerable tenants by applying a rigid DHP policy, which is not flexible enough to meet the varying circumstances of all. Indeed, it would appear that Westminster are failing to sufficiently focus on outcomes, and are instead wasting taxpayers money which could have been used to prevent homelessness.
For example, in a recent meeting with one of Westminster’s Housing Benefit officers, it was admitted that the local authority had focused overly on using DHPs to reduce rents, and that this had not been entirely successful in practice. It was also accepted that for some families accessing a DHP was insufficient to meet their needs because they faced eviction in any case.
NextDoor has suggested and continues to press Westminster for an answer on whether they would be willing to agree to in-principle DHPs that could be used to allow families to search for private accommodation that is more affordable but still above the LHA caps. Such a DHP could be used for the very small handful of cases where a move out of the borough is not appropriate but they cannot remain in their current home either. It was noted to me by the same officer that they were restricted by the policy itself, and the officer stated that the Committee process prevented any easy amendments to it.
In our opinion, it would be better to focus DHPs on specific outcomes and then evaluate the Scheme against how well these are being achieved. However, there is nothing within the DHP Guidance, which indicates that local authorities may want to review their policies and/or gather data on outcomes. If outcomes are not properly monitored there is a risk that taxpayers’ money is not being spent effectively and/or efficiently. Most organisations would be required to justify the use of any funds granted and we do not see why this should not be the case for local authorities. It could also provide extremely useful data for the DWP, and help them to better develop their Guidance in the future.
Another example of this can again be found in the way in which Westminster have and continue to use DHPs to provide households with additional time to move. While this is admirable, it does not appear that they have any regard for whether the families are in fact moving before the DHP expires. If they are not, then one must ask what value has been achieved by granting the DHP in the first place.
In our experience, the overwhelming majority of the 200 families we have worked with would do anything not to move. This makes their moving before the DHP expires very unlikely, and we see this played out with most of our clients. If Westminster were minded to focus on outcomes, they would quickly see that it is a better outcome to house one needy family for 12 months than it is to delay the moves of four less needy families for 3 months. However, if Westminster is not adequately monitoring outcomes, how will they know?
Following on from this point, monitoring DHP outcomes would provide valuable information about why these objectives are not being met. If a referral is made to the authorities’ Housing Department, and they are aware that a DHP has been granted for a specific purpose, if that is not achieved, for example, because the family does not move, perhaps it is the failure of the Housing Department to adequately assist the family that is leading to the failure. But again, if outcomes are not monitored, how are local authorities to know?
Although the Guidance does suggest that Benefit Departments work closely with social services and housing to achieve the best outcomes, this fails to account for the often appallingly un-corporate approach that many local authority departments take. All departments should be working towards the same objectives, but often this is not the case because they have competing priorities or they are contracted out services, as is the case with Westminster’s Housing Options Service, which is run by a private company. More emphasis should be placed on cross-departmental working arrangements that empower Benefit Departments to seek assistance with achieving their presumably shared outcomes.