Tackling Poor Housing and Homelessness in Birmingham


Local authorities have a duty to provide accommodation for families with children and other vulnerable people who are either homeless or threatened with homelessness. Until now, Birmingham City Council has operated a banding system which gives priority to re-housing families who are staying in temporary accommodation provided by the City Council, over families who are also homeless but staying with friends. This means that Council officers will try to re-house a homeless family with one child, living in Council provided bed and breakfast accommodation, before they will try to re-house a different family with two children who literally don’t have any bed to sleep in at all but are sleeping on a friend’s floor. Clearly both families are homeless and both have urgent needs. The problem is that the Council’s current policy does not try to assess which family’s needs are more urgent or the conditions in which they are living. It looks, instead, at who is providing the temporary accommodation in which the homeless families are staying.

Official statistics only record people as staying in temporary accommodation if that accommodation has been provided through a statutory agency – such as a local authority. However, up and down the country, there are thousands of hidden homeless – like the families who end up sleeping on floors or elsewhere. Local authorities like Birmingham have targets to meet in reducing the numbers living in temporary accommodation. That is a good thing if doing so means actually reducing the level of homelessness. The problem is that by only counting those who live in officially provided temporary accommodation, and then concentrating on getting them into permanent homes, the position in Birmingham can look better than it actually is.

Birmingham City Council has reacted with dismay to a ruling in the Court of Appeal last week which could force it to change the way it operates aspects of its housing allocation policies in future. The City’s Cabinet member for Housing has suggested that the ruling will force the Council to treat someone without a roof over their head in exactly the same way as someone who already has somewhere to live. That argument may suit the City Council but the reality is much more complicated than that. We cannot tackle the scourge of homelessness unless we also address the problem of hidden homelessness. If the Court of Appeal ruling encourages Birmingham and other local authorities to recognise that problem more in their allocation policies, then it will be welcome.

Of course, simply exchanging one set of allocation criteria for another does not actually increase the amount of houses and flats that are available. There are many thousands of people on housing waiting lists. Many of those may not be homeless. But they may be living in damp, chronically overcrowded or unhealthy conditions. So the real answer is both to increase the amount of affordable homes that are available and the access of those on low or fixed incomes to decent homes. This requires a big increase in house building – of homes to rent as well as those to buy. I am pleased that this is now a high priority on the Government’s agenda.

We also need to help people increase the housing options available to them – for example by doing more to help them identify pathways into work. Press reports of a speech by the Housing Minister on the relationship between housing and employment have caused a great deal of controversy. Although in reality the content of her speech was a lot more balanced than some of the press reports of it, the fact remains that it would be neither practical nor fair to use exclusion from council housing lists as a threat to force people to look for work. However, I also know from my own casework that poor housing and unemployment or low wages go hand in hand. Both local and national government can do a lot more to get organisations like Jobcentre Plus and local housing departments working more closely in the advice and support they give to people approaching them for help.

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Richard Burden

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I was Labour Member of Parliament for Birmingham Northfield between 1992 and 2019 and a former Shadow Transport Minister. I now chair Healthwatch in Birmingham and Solihull, and the West Midlands Board of Remembering Srebrenica. I also work as a public affairs consultant. I am an effective community advocate and stakeholder alliance builder with a passion for human rights. I am a trustee of the Balfour Project charity and of Citizens Advice Birmingham, and a former Chair of Medical Aid for Palestinians.

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