Targeting change

The government has told him to cut the number of homeless
families dumped in bed and breakfast hotels, but B&B tsar
Ashley Horsey is not setting himself any targets – yet.
Anabel Unity Sale reports.

It is Ashley Horsey’s first day as head of the government’s new
bed and breakfast unit, and in his eighth-floor London office his
posters and photos are already up. Above his tidy desk hangs an
unusually flattering caricature of himself, and from his window
there is a clear view of MI6’s glittering green headquarters across
the River Thames.

Announced last May, the B&B unit is the government’s latest
weapon in the fight against homelessness. Part of the Department of
Transport, Local Government and the Regions, the unit will devote
the next two years to reducing the number of people living in
B&B accommodation by encouraging statutory agencies to find
alternative solutions.

When I ask him how his first day is going he pauses before
replying: “It’s interesting.” Interesting is putting it mildly. The
unit follows in the footsteps of the controversial rough sleepers
unit (RSU), which was set up in 1999 under Louise Casey to reduce
the number of people sleeping on the country’s streets. While the
RSU insists it is on track to meet its target of reducing the
number of rough sleepers by two-thirds by 2002, its methods have
been criticised by some, while others have questioned whether the
unit has succeeded in targeting those people with the most
intractable problems.

But while rough sleepers are a highly visible social problem,
people living in B&Bs are the hidden side of homelessness. Will
Horsey’s new baby have the scope and clout to bring the issue into
the limelight?

There are currently 11,000 households in B&Bs, including
8,000 in London, and the number is rising. In fact, the problem was
sizeable enough for Labour to include a pledge to reduce it in its
manifesto for the general election earlier this year.

“What you’ve have at the moment is a situation where B&B
usage is high and it is not a situation that anyone could consider
to be acceptable,” Horsey says. He adds that housing single people
and families in B&Bs is not only expensive but also has
unacceptable long-term effects on their well being, including
ill-health, poor educational attainment and mental health

The key question is by how many the unit plans to reduce the
number of people living in B&Bs. Although the unit has agreed
in principle to set a target, Horsey will not be drawn on what the
figure may be. He insists that such a target will only be announced
after the sector has been consulted, which the unit is currently
doing. “It would be completely wrong for me to come in and to say
to local authorities, the housing world and the world in general,
‘I know what you need to do, and the target is XYZ’,” he says.

Horsey stresses he is keen to discuss what the unit’s target
should be with councils, housing associations and private
landlords, because they are the agencies that will house the people
being moved out of B&Bs. He says: “Any target that we set, if
it isn’t accepted and if isn’t bought into by the sector, could
well end up being meaningless.”

So will the unit follow in the RSU’s footsteps and try to
eradicate two-thirds of the problem? Not necessarily, says Horsey.
“The unit is operating in a very difficult set of circumstances and
we need to be realistic.” However, this does not mean the unit will
aim low and he suggests the sector will be pulled up short if it is
“too timid” in setting a target, suggests Horsey. “Most people like
challenging targets and the skill is in setting challenging but
achievable targets,” he adds.

But while it is inevitable that Horsey will have to keep one eye
on his targets, will he be able to keep the other on ensuring that
vulnerable people with additional needs are not left behind in
B&Bs? Horsey insists he will: “One of the things has got to be
about the access to care and support provision. The system should
be in place to make sure that they area getting the level of
support they require.”

Like the RSU, the B&B unit has a finite lifespan – currently
set at 24 months, because as Horsey puts it: “The ultimate,
long-term goal is that local authorities, registered social
landlords, the private sector and government machinery in general
will be working in such a way that we don’t need a specialist unit
to sit on people’s shoulders and be their conscience.”

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