The Government’s plans to remove the homelessness safety net are proceeding apace. There is only a month left to respond to the consultation about the suitability of accommodation when local authorities discharge their main homelessness duty by securing private rented accommodation for a homeless household.
By definition under the Act, households to whom local authorities owe a ‘main homelessness duty’ are not intentionally homeless and fall within a priority group, mainly households with children or those who are vulnerable due to old age, disability or other reason. Despite a backdrop of much tighter gatekeeping and an increasing refusal rate, after many years of declining numbers homelessness has started rising steeply again, leading for example to the greater use of bed and breakfast hotels.
Although local authorities can still discharge their duty by offering social housing, most will avail themselves of the power they now have to secure ‘suitable’ private rented accommodation instead. There has been a long softening up process going on to make it seem that this policy is fair. The common characterisation that the homelessness legislation is all about young women getting pregnant to jump the queue to get a council flat and live on benefits has been extremely damaging. The belief that the problems in social housing are caused by the allocation of homes according to need, and especially to the homeless, has even infected the housing intelligensia.
Even the Government appears to have some doubts about the risks being created by their policy to accommodate an estimated 18,000 homeless households a year (but it could be double that) somewhere in the private rented sector. The Impact Assessment, published with the Consultation Paper, notes:
The changes, without some additional checks, could risk local authorities placing homeless households in poor quality accommodation with negative consequences for the households and the risk of repeat homelessness…….Placing a household in a poor quality accommodation is not only stressful but brings with it the potential to damage health. Cold, damp housing harms children’s health and can contribute to post-natal depression. It can increase rates of asthma, respiratory and skin allergies, and other lung diseases. It is linked to physical accidents and injuries, to social and mental effects including depression, isolation, anxiety or aggressions. Noise-related stress, exposure to toxins, lead, asbestos or carbon monoxide can have very severe health impact. The development of babies and young children in poor housing conditions can be significantly affected. Children growing up in such conditions are 25% more likely to suffer severe ill-health and disability during childhood or early adulthood.
Quite. The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health notes that 1.5 million private rented homes fail to meet the Government’s decent homes standard and, of these, 971,000 fail because they have serious ‘Category 1’ hazards under the Housing Health and safety Rating System (HHSRS). Given that local authorities will be looking to place households in accommodation that is affordable under the housing benefit caps, inevitably families with children and vulnerable people will be placed in the cheapest, and therefore the poorest, accommodation, which may well be a house in multiple occupation.
The Consultation Paper sets out what, in the view of the Government, constitutes ‘suitable’ accommodation. In some respects this is what you would expect: homes should meet existing requirements for gas electrical and fire safety and should have protection against carbon monoxide poisoning. Tenants will be entitled to a written tenancy agreement, which at least is one step ahead of many other private tenants.
However, a house that is an HMO or that contains a Category 1 hazard would not necessarily be deemed to be unsuitable. Given that this involves a local authority pursuing its statutory duty to a vulnerable household, the Government’s view that ‘an inspection by a qualified person will not be a requirement’ is disgraceful. Under pressure of numbers, checks will be weak. Landlords will need to be ‘fit and proper’ persons, which means that will have to self-certify that they do not have convictions for a range of serious offences. This will not cut out many rogues and councils will not have the resources to identify front men and other scams. We have been here before, and the desperate shortage of accommodation means that many under-pressure councils will take a ‘flexible’ approach.
The most controversial part of the definition of suitability concerns ‘location’. Here the Government has been forced into a position of tightening up following the large number of stories of councils, mainly in London but of all political persuasions, looking to secure accommodation as far afield as Stoke on Trent, Hull, Walsall and elsewhere. Scandalous though it was, it was mainly a sign of the desperation that councils feel about their ability to find accommodation in or near their local areas that will be below the new benefit caps.
As with their stance on the use of bed and breakfast hotels, the Government goes into full hypocrisy mode on this. Having set all the conditions that make it so difficult for councils to behave reasonably, they put on their moral high hat by appearing to be outraged by the practice whilst also leaving the door open for it to happen. So they say:
‘The Government considers that it is not acceptable for local authorities to make compulsory placements automatically hundreds of miles away, without having proper regard for the disruption this may cause to those households.’
Look at the word ‘automatically’. They do not define ‘proper regard’ except to say that councils should ‘take into account’ location, distance, disruption, access to amenities, and established links with support and services.
The wording in this Consultation Paper is open to considerable abuse. The standard of accommodation on offer may be extremely poor. Landlords may still be rogues, just without criminal convictions. Accommodation may be secured many miles away, just not ‘automatically’ and after a bit more research into an individual’s circumstances. Most people will not be aware of their rights or be in a position to argue.
I hope people will respond to the consultation demanding improvements.