For those of us who are getting a little long in the tooth, the passage of the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act in 1977 was one of the most significant moments in post war housing policy. Sponsored by a Liberal, the late Stephen Ross MP, supported by most Labour MPs and quite a few Tories, the Act was a triumph for the campaign led by Shelter and SHAC and others. The Act placed clear statutory duties on local authorities to assist the homeless based on the central principle that households in ‘priority need’ (mainly families with children and vulnerable single people) who are unintentionally homeless would be found a settled home, in practice usually an offer of social rented housing. The Act was seen by many as the last brick in the creation of a comprehensive welfare state.
The homelessness section of the Localism Bill, currently in Committee in the House of Commons, drives a coach and horses through the legislation. It will allow local authorities to discharge their main homelessness duty by providing privately rented accommodation (subject to there being a minimum 12 month fixed term).
Practice in homelessness has changed a great deal over the past few years. Partly driven by the well-intentioned but ultimately counter-productive target of halving the number of households in temporary accommodation, ‘gatekeeping’ the homelessness duty has become an art form. The growth in ‘housing options’ services has substantially improved practice in the prevention of homelessness, but has also led to a huge increase in the diversion of homeless households into the private rented sector, often without troubling the homelessness statistics collector. Up to now the homeless household, if they knew their rights, had a choice: they could either go into the system and wait for a social letting or be found a private let straight away. Given the option of a lengthy spell in temporary accommodation, many chose an early move into a private letting. Now they will be required to take private accommodation even if it is against their wishes or best interests.
Responses to this element of the Bill are varied. Not surprisingly, many councils support anything that reduces the burden on them and some are proud of the quality of the housing options service they provide (see Camden for a good example).
Shelter’s assessment is that “this measure will ultimately strip the homelessness legislation of its force and leave the most vulnerable families ….. facing a cycle of insecure accommodation, eviction and reapplication to the council.”
Citizens Advice stress that the policy will create a revolving door for the homeless because the ending of a private rented tenancy is already a significant – and increasing – cause of homelessness, and that this will get worse as the changes to the Local Housing Allowance come in. They also argue that private renting is not well suited to many homeless people – the characteristics of homeless households and the profile of existing private tenants are very different, with the latter tending to be younger, single, and less likely to be vulnerable.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation argues that ‘given that homeless households are often also experiencing poverty and other forms of social disadvantage we would be concerned about the impact on homeless households achieving stability, the increase in housing costs for individuals and the welfare benefit bill.’
The Housing Law Practitioners Association goes to the heart of the issue: ‘We suggest that the aim of a homelessness policy should be to bring the applicant’s homelessness or a cycle of homelessness to an end.’ They also argue that the burden placed on social lettings by the Act is acceptable even with the current dearth of supply: ‘If 21% of social lets are to those owed the main homelessness duty, we think that is a welcome feature, not one requiring change.’
The Chartered Institute of Housing broadly accepts the changes but this seems a contrary conclusion given their enormous list of ‘concerns’ about the proposal – the poor quality of the private rented sector, affordability, its inappropriateness for homeless families and vulnerable single people, the lack of support services, the revolving door problem, and the growing concentration or ghettoisation of poor private tenants. They should know that the government will do nothing about any of these things.
It may be clever politics to include these measures in a jumbo Bill with plenty of other controversies for people to focus on, but this section deserves major scrutiny. The ‘Big Society’ should be outraged.