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Merthyr Tydfil to increase homeless housing and cut B&B reliance

A PLAN to increase the amount of suitable supported housing for the homeless including more HMOs to reduce the reliance on B&Bs in Merthyr Tydfil has been agreed.

Full council on Wednesday, April 19 agreed the recommendations of a report which were to develop further units of supported accommodation to meet the local need to ensure the council can meet its statutory obligations.

They also agreed to increase the number of HMOs (House in Multiple Occupation) as part of aims to increase the availability of suitable accommodation to reduce B&B use, avoid costly and timely legal challenges and assist in meeting statutory duties.

And full council approved the recommendation to refocus the priorities of the Housing Support Grant to meet the ongoing need for further supported accommodation in offering suitable accommodation and reducing over reliance on B&B provision.

The report for full council mentioned the increasing pressures on the council’s homelessness service and the challenges faced in carrying out the council’s statutory duties under the Housing (Wales) Act 2014 and it mentioned the lack of temporary and temporary supported accommodation.

It said how the council has become over-reliant on the use of bed and breakfast accommodation and more supported accommodation is needed to enable the authority to meet its duty under the Suitability of Accommodation Order 2015, whilst reducing its temporary accommodation costs.

The report said there has been increased demand on the homelessness service and the need for affordable properties or social housing as well as the need for supported accommodation for those who are not yet ready to sustain independent tenancies.

It said that single bedroom homes and additional supported accommodation are particularly required to meet the need in Merthyr Tydfil.

In March 2020 the “No-one left out” approach was introduced during the pandemic and this saw a further significant increase in demand for temporary accommodation, the report said.

The report said an average of more than 167 people accommodated at temporary and supported accommodations, of which over 100 people are currently accommodated in unsuitable B&B placements and homeless presentations also continue to grow which can be attributed to wider socio-economic issues.

Changes to the Housing Support Grant and funding Marsh House

It said the strain extends to the Housing Support Grant (HSG) which funds many schemes that support services to help prevent and reduce the threat of homelessness.

Changes to legislation have placed duties on councils to continue providing temporary accommodation for anyone who is homeless until suitable, affordable and permanent accommodation can be found.

Welsh Government has plans for councils to transition to a Rapid Rehousing Model over the next five years or so which means it has become necessary to refocus the funds in order for the council to meet its statutory obligations on temporary supported accommodation and there is currently “insufficient availability” to meet the local need and move people out of B&Bs.

The council has received £1.5 million for a 22 bed unit of supported accommodation for the lease of Marsh House with work due to start in February 2023.

The council needs to find £500,000 to commission a support provider for the facility which is expected to be ready by September.

Welsh Government have confirmed that no additional Housing Support Grant funding is available and the council is unable to find core funding to meet this £500,000 cost.

The council carried out a review of all existing HSG funded projects and specific projects were ended, there was a reduction in funding on some and one project not continued due to not meeting eligibility criteria set by Welsh Government.

The costs involved

The report said that the use of bed and breakfast for the length of time required is unlawful under The Homelessness (Suitability of Accommodation) (Wales) Order 2015 but added that Welsh Government recognise that the need to use bed and breakfast is essential while councils seek to address the exceptional levels of those presenting as homeless and the high numbers of people currently needing to stay in bed and breakfast due to the lack of suitable accommodations to move on to.

The report said that the demand for temporary accommodation is at unprecedented levels in Merthyr Tydfil and often there are times where additional booking of guest houses is needed.

It said that without action to find other sources of temporary accommodation, total costs for 2022/2023 are projected to be £2.876 million against an historical annual budget of £181,000 for core accommodation costs.

Welsh Government approved a grant claim for pre-booked temporary accommodation to the value of £1.85m in 2021/2022 to secure B&B accommodation up to March 31, 2023.

The projected end of year council core expenditure for 2022/23 is estimated to be £252,000, which includes a recent additional grant award of £547,018 from Welsh Government on top of the claim and also assumes housing benefit income of £213,000.

There is a Welsh Government grant award for 2023/2024 towards temporary accommodation costs of £474,986 which is £1.38million less than the grant offered in the previous year.

The report added that if the council continues to use B&B for temporary accommodation based on current demand, the estimated gross cost after the grant is around £2.4 million.

The need for the council to meet its statutory duties

A recent audit has been done which highlighted “significant gaps, weaknesses or non-compliance” on meeting the statutory duty around permanent or suitable accommodation and the report said this is mainly due to the lack of affordable single person accommodation and limited supported accommodation provision.

The report said: “In order to meet our statutory duties, we must develop more units of supported accommodation and enhance our temporary accommodation offering urgently, we propose doing this through increasing the current units of HMOs, as we currently have only two properties available (at around half the cost of B&B).

“We must develop more supported accommodations looking at conversions of existing buildings in the short term and including provisions on areas of land or new development sites for the medium and longer term.”

There is a proposed criteria to find appropriate buildings and move quickly to avoid losing properties due to the buoyant housing market but also to look to reduce the unnecessary stigma of who is placed there.

The report said that failure to support this course of action will effectively prevent officers’ ability to meet the recommendations of the audit report as well as meeting the council’s statutory duties going forward.

The views of councillors

Councillor Clive Jones had suggested an amendment to the recommendations around consulting with ward councillors when the council is considering buying a property to convert into an HMO but when the leader Councillor Geraint Thomas said that he would do this, Cllr Jones withdrew the amendment.

Councillor Michelle Jones said there needs to be more education on the stigma around homelessness.

She said: “We’re aware that there’s a massive issue with the chronic lack of social housing because for decades governments have failed to build enough houses.

“Having a home is a human right and we must protect this and fight for it.”

Councillor Paula Layton said she’s all for helping whoever needs support in this town but said she has got concerns around the use of HMOs due to what’s happened previously.

She said the use of HMOs will predominantly be in high volume residential areas because prices are cheaper there.

She said if this passes tonight and there are issues at one of the HMO properties those issues need to be sorted out straight away and that this is not what has happened previously.

Councillor Darren Roberts said they all support the need for HMOs adding that they do need more properties and they do need to meet their statutory responsibility but he said the concerns that have been raised can’t be ignored.

Councillor Louise Minett-Vokes said decisions over the decommissioning of services, under the Housing Support Grant, that holistically support residents in the community should not have been made by officers in isolation and should have come to full council adding that pushing the button to decommission key support services will potentially have a “catastrophic” effect on communities.

Councillor Claire Jones said she takes her hat off to all those working on the issue of homelessness as she’s seen the struggles first hand and asked what can they do when HMOs aren’t under their jurisdiction.

Councillor Clive Jones said for properties with 8-10 beds or 8-20 units: “There needs to be safeguards and assurances how registered social landlords will supervise and monitor these units. They have an obligation to monitor them properly.”

Councillor Jamie Scriven said they’re trying to uphold democracy and that’s where the amendment came from and thanked everyone for coming to a resolution.

The mayor Councillor Declan Sammon said he fully appreciates the difficulties the housing department have.

He said that when he has been called on a Friday or Saturday and help was needed there was no one there.

The leader of the council Councillor Geraint Thomas said: “We have to support it. This is only right. We have to get people into the homes that they deserve. It’s a human right.”

He said they’d had a great discussion about it and that he has faith in the housing team saying lessons have been learned over the years and going forward they are there.