Councils owed more than £33m in ‘potential unlawful’ temporary accommodation charges
The total debt owed by individuals to local authorities that charged for temporary homeless accommodation in Scotland is in excess of £33 million, new figures have revealed amid suggestions that the practice could be unlawful.
The data has been published in a new report by the Legal Services Agency (LSA) which examined the practice of charging for temporary homeless accommodation in Scotland, and whether local authorities are acting lawfully in this area.
Having submitted freedom of information (FOI) requests to all local authorities in Scotland for information on their charging regimes, the LSA found that the charging practices vary across Scotland, resulting in a “postcode lottery” for individuals.
Most local authorities do not currently take individual circumstances into account but do consider affordability when setting their charges, the LSA added.
According to the research, the total debt owed by individuals to local authorities for these charges totalled upwards of £33.3m. The “conservative figure” is likely to be lower than the correct amount as three local authorities did not provide information on debt owed and some only provided a figure for a single calendar year, or for current tenants, rather than the total outstanding debt.
On the individual local authority level, the FOI responses showed a great degree of variation. The reported outstanding debt ranged from £0 in East Lothian to £12,711,641 in Edinburgh. The mean debt owed to the 30 local authorities who provided data was £1,286,067.
Anecdotal evidence from LSA’s clients indicates that a single household or individual may owe thousands of pounds to a local authority – and that charges can be issued with little reference to their affordability for any given individual.
Individuals in Scotland who make a homelessness application to their local authority are supposed to be provided with temporary accommodation.
However, the provision of temporary accommodation is costly for local authorities. The Housing (Scotland) Act 1987 allows local authorities to make “reasonable” charges for temporary accommodation. The accompanying statutory Code of Guidance on Homelessness requires that individual circumstances must be taken into account when setting the charges.
The report, ‘Charges for temporary homeless accommodation in Scotland – law and reality’, explains that the practice by local authorities of failing to consider individual circumstances to ensure that any charges are affordable may be unlawful.
According to the LSA, the practical implications of the current system are that charges are unaffordable, leaving many people with high levels of personal debt, leading to considerable hardship for individuals who find themselves in this situation, as well as contributing to mental health issues.
The report recommends that in the short-term, local authorities should review and update their policies on charging for temporary accommodations to ensure that they are in line with the Code of Guidance on Homelessness and the human right to adequate housing. In circumstances where individuals may have been subject to unaffordable charges for temporary accommodation, housing advisers are advised to challenge such charges with legal action where necessary.
In the long-term, the report recommends that charges for temporary accommodation should be removed altogether. Failing that, tighter regulation for temporary accommodation charges are recommended, with the addition of such mechanisms as affordability assessments to ensure that all charges are affordable.
An article on the LSA research was published by The Ferret in tandem with the Sunday National.
Councils contacted by The Ferret insisted they acted according to Scottish Government guidance and took individual circumstances into account.
A City of Edinburgh Council spokesperson said it followed the Scottish Government Homelessness Code of Guidance on accommodation charges and affordability.
They added: “Households accommodated in temporary accommodation by the council are assisted to apply for housing benefit where they qualify and to maximise their income. We take into account each individual’s circumstance, their weekly incomes and outgoing in setting the charge to ensure that they are affordable.”
A spokeswoman for Glasgow’s homeless services added: “The council is permitted to make a reasonable charge for the provision of temporary homeless accommodation. When setting the rental charge for homeless accommodation the council has regard to the Homelessness Code of Guidance 2019. However, the guiding principle…is to set a charge which reflects the cost to the council in providing interim homeless accommodation.”
Stephen Llewellyn, head of housing solutions with North Lanarkshire Council, said: “Being homeless or being threatened by homelessness is very distressing for anyone.
“We meet our statutory responsibility to assist people facing homelessness as an absolute priority. Everyone has different circumstances and we are committed to making sure any charges are reasonable, appropriate and aligned with individual circumstances following a full financial assessment. We are here to help and nobody should worry about facing homelessness on their own.”
A spokesperson for Highland Council said it had noted the contents of the report, adding: “The council considers that it is meeting its legal duties in providing temporary accommodation, including taking into account the affordability of accommodation for individual households.”
John Mills, head of Fife Council’s housing services, added: “We review rents for temporary accommodation every year as part of our wider rent setting policy. There is no scope to charge different rental rates, but we help people who are having difficulty paying rent with support to make affordable payments.”
A spokesperson for the Scottish Government said it expects local authorities to follow existing guidance, which “includes looking carefully at the needs and situation of the household before making any decision about any reasonable charge”.
“Local authorities share our ambition to ensure stays in temporary accommodation are short-term, and we will be working with them to achieve this. We encourage local authorities to take a person-centred approach and to take individual circumstances into account when deciding how much to charge.”