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Homelessness: changing the law, changing the culture

As England moves to follow Wales on homelessness prevention, Tamsin Stirling says that success requires more than just legislation.

 I received an email today from Home Connections publicising its HOPE software. This is case management software that aims to support the implementation of the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 which will come into force in England in April 2018.

This prompted me to do some reminiscing about the development of the homelessness legislation in Wales that formed part of the Housing (Wales) Act 2014. I was a member of the team that undertook the review of homelessness legislation that fed into the Act and between April 2012 and April 2014 worked with Huw Lewis and Carl Sargeant on the Housing White Paper and the development of the Act itself. It was a salutary experience.

Turning something that is so easy to say in policy terms, ‘we want to see more homelessness prevented’, into the precision that is needed for legislation is challenging to say the least. This was all the more so because Wales was the first country to develop such legislation. I remember lots of questions along the lines of ‘what exactly is the duty?’, ‘when does it come to an end?’, ‘on what basis can someone challenge a decision?’

Developing and refining the legislation required a many staged iterative process, involving lots of formal and informal conversations with stakeholders within and beyond Welsh Government. This was followed by the formal scrutiny processes which again involved a range of stakeholders. And the research that informed the legislation was also wide-ranging, importantly drawing on the practical experience of local authority housing options/homelessness teams across Wales and their views as to how things could work. Practitioners played a vital role in ensuring that the legislation would be deliverable.

What we were able to keep coming back to during the process was an agreement amongst all stakeholders that we wanted to see a cultural change; moving from processing people to working with them to resolve their housing problems. And helping more people who faced the threat of homelessness. Yes, we all did want to see more prevention of homelessness.

Getting to where we have – recently published Welsh Government statistics for 2016/17 showed that 62% of households threatened with homelessness had their homelessness prevented for at least six months[1] – has taken a massive amount of effort:

  • extensive debates about the detail of the legislation itself
  • Welsh Government, local authorities, researchers and third sector agencies co-producing a statutory code of guidance
  • securing funding to support implementation by local authorities
  • the provision of training
  • setting up a system to collect data and making improvements to this
  • enabling practice to inform policy eg changes made to the code of guidance drawing on the early experience of local authorities using the legislation
  • parallel policy work aiming to improve the experience of specific groups such as people leaving prison
  • work to better align Supporting People-funded services with homelessness prevention.

And added to this, (not by any means definitive), list, constant reminders from, and to, all of us about why the legislation was developed in the first place and what we were collectively trying to achieve. We have been able to draw on existing networks and informal relationships to develop significant levels of trust based around a real sense of shared endeavour.

It is this use of what the PPIW report The development and implementation of Part 2 of the Housing (Wales) Act 2014: Lessons for Policy and Practice in Wales[2] refers to as ‘soft’ policy instruments which appears to be in stark contrast to the situation in England where the focus has largely been on the development of the legislation itself which was introduced as a Private Members’ Bill, with the legislative process extensively supported by Crisis.

To quote the PPIW report:

‘The Welsh Government developed an inclusive and co-productive approach to homelessness policymaking which enabled different skill sets to be brought to bear on a number of practical tasks, and supported cultural change.’

The main lesson to be drawn…is that changing the culture of practice is, though achievable, a slower and harder task than developing the legislation.’  

The recent homelessness statistics indicate that prevention is getting more challenging in the context of an increasing number of people coming forward for help, changes to welfare provision and levels of poverty, amongst other factors. A recent blog from Jennie Bibbings calls for a more inventive and tailored approach to prevention and support for frontline staff to enable this to happen. It appears that a second stage of culture change is required here in Wales.

It remains to be seen if, and how, culture change is supported within English local authority homelessness/housing options teams to embrace the spirit of the new legislation, or whether they will predominantly adopt an approach of compliance. The learning from Wales is that culture change requires far more than simply changing the law and is very much a process rather than an event.

Tamsin Stirling is on Twitter @TamsinStirling1  

[1] http://gov.wales/docs/statistics/2017/170727-homelessness-2016-17-en.pdf

[2] http://ppiw.org.uk/files/2017/07/PPIW-Homelessness-Policy-Reunion-Report-July-2017-final.pdf


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