The Principles of Effective Housing Options Services
The Housing (Scotland) Act 1987, as amended, the homelessness legislation, provides the legal framework for homelessness and gives rights to homeless people and places duties on local authorities. The Code of Guidance on Homelessness is a statutory code issued by Ministers 'in relation to homeless persons and persons threatened with homelessness, a relevant authority shall have regard in the exercise of their functions to such guidance, Housing (Scotland) Act, s37(1). This Housing Options Guidance has not been issued as statutory guidance but is to be used as a tool for local authorities when developing their approach to Housing Options. It has no effect on the status of the legislation or the Code.
The Scottish National Standards for Information and Advice Providers continue to be the standards to which all advice must be given. This guidance does not change the role or status of the National Standards.
Housing Options is:
"a process which starts with housing advice when someone approaches a local authority with a housing problem. This means looking at an individual's options and choices in the widest sense. This approach features early intervention and explores all possible tenure options, including council housing, RSL's and the private rented sector.
"The advice can also cover personal circumstances which may not necessarily be housing related, such as debt advice, mediation and mental health issues. Rather than only accepting a homelessness application, local authority homelessness services will work together with other services such as employability, mental health, money advice and family mediation services, etc, to assist the individual with issues from an early stage in the hope of avoiding a housing crisis." (Scottish Government).
The detailed delivery of Housing Options is dependent on local circumstances. How Housing Options is delivered will legitimately differ from one local authority area to another. However, Housing Options should be founded on a number of principles that are common to its delivery throughout Scotland's local authorities. This Guidance is about those common principles and the overarching framework of Housing Options delivery.
The common principles on which all Housing Options service delivery are founded are:
Appropriate Links between Housing Options and Homelessness
The statutory right to make a homelessness application is unaffected by Housing Options. The local authority's homelessness duties are not diminished or undermined by Housing Options. If the local authority has reason to believe that an applicant is homeless or threatened with homelessness, they must conduct appropriate enquiries. This Guidance indicates how homelessness rights are maintained whilst Options approaches are being explored, through robust record-keeping, monitoring of activities and outcomes and audit practice.
A Supportive Organisational Culture
The effective delivery of Housing Options is dependent on a supportive, reinforcing organisational culture. It is important that the whole local authority (elected members, senior managers, and frontline managers and team members) is engaged in this culture; this is referred to as the 'golden thread' of Housing Options delivery, and shows that it is not just the remit of housing services. The embedding of an Options culture is supported through appropriate training and development at all levels of the council, robust policies and procedures and appropriate performance management and reporting.
Robust Policies and Procedures
Effective Housing Options requires to be underpinned by robust and clear policies and procedures. Policy development will require to be done alongside the review and amendment of relevant existing policies and procedures where necessary, thus ensuring cohesion.
A Well-Trained Workforce
The success of Housing Options will be determined by investment in the knowledge, skills and understanding of not only officers delivering the service, but also managers and elected members. Led by the West of Scotland Housing Options Hub, a comprehensive Housing Options Training Toolkit of six modules has been developed to equip Housing Options teams with the required knowledge, skills and attitudes.
Effective Partnership Working
Staff responsible for Housing Options are required to advise on a broad range of housing issues, in addition to personal circumstances, healthcare, employment, education, personal income, etc. Collaborative working with internal council departments, health, Police Scotland, in addition to a host of private and voluntary sector organisations is therefore necessary in order that high quality advice and effective referral pathways are available. Housing Options teams should identify these resources, develop and maintain positive relationships and agree effective referral protocol arrangements.
High Standards of Customer Service
Housing Options should be delivered to high standards of customer satisfaction. Clear sets of service standards should be agreed and published. Attention should be given to the length of time that customers are required to wait prior to an Options interview or for the provision of follow-up services following an interview. Advice and information provided should be of a high-quality and attention should be paid to providing advice in formats that are accessible to the customer. Housing Options services should be subject to customer satisfaction surveying, at least to the same extent as other service provision.
The delivery of an effective Housing Options service is dependent on the ability of statutory and third sector organisations to recognise housing need and the potential difficulties being faced by individuals. It is also dependent on their ability to intervene at the earliest opportunity in order to avert crisis. It is in recognising that the issues that lead to homelessness are rarely solely about housing but rather a range of issues which impact on the individual's ability to either sustain or access accommodation. With sufficiently early intervention, it may be possible to support a customer to continue living in their current home. This option must only be pursued in situations in which there is full confidence, following a risk assessment process, that the customer will not be in danger by remaining there.
The starting point for the delivery of Housing Options services is customers' rights, needs and aspirations, as well as the local authorities' duties towards them. Whatever housing options are eventually pursued, this decision must be made by the customer, fully informed and fully supported by the Housing Options adviser.
Housing Options is about the delivery of sustainable housing outcomes. In order to deliver housing solutions, Housing Options must consider far more than just the housing needs of the customer. The sustainability of a housing outcome may require the input of other services to address wider issues such as health, or employment, or the development of independent living skills. Therefore the Housing Options service must consider and address all the relevant needs of the customer.
Housing Options is holistic and comprehensive. It considers, advises on and supports the delivery of sustainable housing solutions in any sector: social renting; private renting; or home ownership dependent on the customer's circumstances.
Links with Housing Support
Local authorities have a statutory duty to ensure homeless persons' support needs are met. This statutory duty does not extend to customers of Housing Options services who are not homeless. However, the successful application of Housing Options will often require an assessment for and the provision of housing support. It is good practice to respond to the support needs of a customer regardless of their statutory homelessness status.
Fully Auditable Record-Keeping
Housing Options must be underpinned by comprehensive and accurate record-keeping. This is important for the local authority but also for the customer in order that they are wholly aware of their full range of housing options. In particular, accurate record-keeping must evidence that the application of Housing Options approaches has not in any way undermined a customer's statutory homelessness rights. The use of mandates can be useful in such circumstances but must be used appropriately.
Appropriate Performance Indicators
The performance management of Housing Options services should focus on appropriate targets. For example, the delivery of sustainable housing solutions would be an appropriate performance indicator. Reducing levels of homelessness applications would not be an appropriate target and must not be applied as a measure in isolation of other contextual measures. Homeless applications may indeed increase as a result of the application of a Housing Options approach as more customers become better informed about their statutory homelessness rights.
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