In this special guest blog, Neil Morland argues why free, accessible, quality housing advice is key to ending homelessness.

Neil Morland is the Managing Director of Neil Morland & Co, recognised throughout Great Britain as a leading authority on housing needs, homelessness, housing allocations and housing support.

Data published by the UK Government1 shows that 60% of prevention casework interventions are successful (with households that are threatened with homelessness), compared to only 40% of relief casework interventions (with households who are homeless). Furthermore, only 18% of prevention cases result in someone becoming homeless, whereas 39% of relief cases result in a person going on to become homeless. Statistics collected by Welsh Government2 shows a similar trend, with a 67% prevention success rate and a 41% relief success rate. Figures from the Scottish Government3 show that 20% of people that approach local government homelessness services are seeking general housing options advice, the most common reason recorded. The provision of housing advice and tenancy rights, in 34% of cases, is the common prevention activity, with 22% of approaches resulting in a person being able to remain in the current accommodation.

This demonstrates that the earlier someone is helped to put a stop to their homelessness, the more effective that intervention is. It also shows there is an appetite from the public for decent and effective housing advice. We know from numerous studies about public policy, that prevention interventions are better public value, when compared to the cost of making a response at the point of crisis.

Given that prevention duty casework in England and Wales is three times more successful when compared to the relief duty, it’s reasonable to assume a similar relative impact again could be achieved by providing the right advice before a prevention duty comes into force. Therefore, it is essential that local authorities need accessible and high-quality housing advice.

Every local authority throughout England4, Scotland5 and Wales6, has a duty to ensure advice is freely available to anyone in their district about homelessness. Unlike other duties that might be owed to persons who are homeless or threatened with homelessness, the duty to provide advice is universal. This means any person, at any time, has the right to seek advice. This is particularly important for people who might be ineligible for homelessness assistance, for those who might not be homeless or threatened with homelessness within the legal meaning of the term, or for anyone whose duty has come to an end.

The advice duty can be used to compliment any other duty a local authority might owe, for example, to prevent or relieve homelessness. Advice given under this duty can be provided in a variety of formats using a mixture of media. Local authorities can supply this advice via their own homelessness services, and/or be outsourced to a third party (e.g. a housing association or a voluntary organisation). The purpose of the advice duty, to ensure any individual has all the facts they might need to stop themselves from becoming homeless, understand their housing options and get support to avoid a reoccurrence of homelessness.

Requirements of local authorities to provide advice varies slightly between nations, with expectations of English and Welsh councils being more explicit in legislation, than those of Scottish councils. Following legislative reforms in the aforementioned nations 2017 and 2014 respectively, local authorities in England and Wales must provide targeted advice to groups of people who are more likely to become homeless, such as individuals leaving prison, care, the armed forces, hospital, etc).

A recent study7 found that most local authorities believe they satisfactorily fulfil their advice duty. The evaluation, which involved interviewing 224 local authorities, went on to highlight that the advice being provided by local authorities primarily used existing materials that were in place prior to the introduction of the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017.

This reinforces the importance of keeping advisory materials up-to-date and relevant. To do so is time-consuming and when there is a lack of authoritative knowledge, advice can easily become inaccurate. Key to discharging the advice duty, is giving members of the public that high-quality advice which is straight forward to understand. This means providing tailored, quality and consistent general housing advice direct to the public on local authorities’ websites, alongside councils being able to issue personalised housing advice in writing (e.g. email and/or letter). Homelessness legislation requires local authorities to written confirmation of decisions about duties owed. It’s equally important that housing advice is provided in writing, so the recipient can understand the options available to them, what rights to assistance they might have, how to contact agencies that might be able to help them and the next steps they might wish to take.

The ongoing coronavirus outbreak has cemented an existing trend, that digital platforms are essential to ensuring that government services are accessible for all. Online self-service modules are now commonplace in the provision of public services and are a legitimate method of providing advisory services. Web-based advice should be viewed as an essential counterpart to the provision of advice via the telephone or in person.

Providing more and better advice at an earlier stage provides better outcomes for local authorities and public. When administered correctly, the advice duty can reduce demand on the local authority homelessness service at latter stages, which often are costlier and more time-consuming for a local authority to deal with. When made accessible, the advice duty can help equip people to take control of their circumstances to end their homelessness.