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Innovative collaboration will improve support for homeless households

Mark Baigent, divisional director of housing & regeneration at London Borough Tower Hamlets and chair of the London Housing Directors’ Group, reflects on how the collaborative workforce for the Capital Letters scheme is tackling homelessness in The City.

Although the housing crisis affects the whole country, it’s particularly severe in the capital. There are 55,000 London households living in temporary accommodation – and almost 44,000 are families with children. Seven out of 10 households living in temporary accommodation in England have been placed by a London borough.

The accommodation options available for these households are often far from ideal. Too many hostels and B&Bs are utterly unsuitable for families. And while boroughs do their best to find accommodation as close as possible to their local area, the extremely limited supply means this is challenging to achieve.

An added and unique complication, of course, is that London comprises 33 separate local authorities. That means 33 local authorities are all trying to find accommodation for their residents who have become homeless or are at risk of homelessness in close proximity. Boroughs are therefore competing against each other and driving up the price of accommodation.

This situation is bad for boroughs, bad for taxpayers, and, most importantly, bad for homeless Londoners. It can’t continue – which is why London boroughs have come together to launch Capital Letters. Driven forward by the London Housing Directors’ Group and the umbrella body London Councils, Capital Letters is a new, collaborative approach to our procurement of private sector tenancies and temporary accommodation.

Rather than carry on with the costly inefficiencies of duplicating systems and work while competing over accommodation options, Capital Letters Ltd has been created as a not-for-profit company collectively owned by the boroughs that will procure private sector tenancies and temporary accommodation on behalf of its member boroughs.

This will make much better use of boroughs’ collective market position at a pan-London scale, procuring more homes and producing better outcomes for homeless households in the capital. Central coordination of allocations will help ensure families are placed as close their home boroughs as possible. We also believe it will increase the supply of high-quality, family-sized accommodation and facilitate a move away from unsuitable nightly paid B&B or hostel options.

It’s an ambitious project. Collaboration on this scale is never straightforward. After all, if it was easy to achieve it would have been done already. But there are three key reasons why I’m confident Capital Letters will succeed.

Firstly, we have the enthusiastic support of central government. Capital Letters is one of several initiatives that the Ministry of Housing, Communities, and Local Government is supporting across the country to reduce homelessness and rough sleeping, and it has been allocated £38 million of Flexible Homeless Support Grant over three years. James Brokenshire, the communities secretary, has described Capital Letters as “an inspiring example of unprecedented collaboration.”

Secondly, having researched the viability of this sort of collaboration, Capital Letters is following successful examples from elsewhere in the housing sector. In 2015, four boroughs (Waltham Forest, Redbridge, Enfield, and Newham) together launched WREN – a shared online platform where landlords can list their available properties for the individual boroughs to procure. Capital Letters takes the WREN approach a few steps further by pooling the procurement activity into one body and eventually providing tenancy & property management services.

Thirdly, London boroughs are committed to making this work. There are currently 13 member boroughs participating and it’s anticipated more will join in annual phases. Boroughs have agreed to provide staff (in most cases, via secondment) to work for Capital Letters and to procure at least half of their in-London accommodation for homeless households through the scheme.

Agreeing the governance arrangements for a collectively-owned company could be fraught with difficulty, but we’ve established a model that is both fair and robust. Given the number of owners, it is impractical to have each member borough appoint a director to the board. Therefore, two tiers of high-level governance are being set up.

At the boroughs’ representative body, which will meet only to take strategic decisions including the company business plan, each borough will appoint a representative. Sitting beneath this and running the company on a day-to-day basis is a board of directors. Housing officers from London’s five housing sub-regions will each recommend a director to the board, and a chair and vice chair will be appointed by the boroughs’ representative body.

Capital Letters was incorporated as a company in December last year and the first member boroughs formally joined in March. We are currently setting up the systems that will enable the inter-borough approach, including procuring a property listing platform through which families can be matched to properties, properties can be managed, and fees collected. Capital Letters aims to start procuring properties by summer 2019.

It is still relatively early days for Capital Letters, but we’re making good progress in turning our vision into a reality. The coming months promise to be a busy and exciting time. Through working together, London boroughs are pioneering a new approach that promises to deliver greater efficiencies and important improvements to the way accommodation is found for homeless households.


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