Waiting lists are becoming political devices

It’s a long time since waiting lists did what they say on the tin. But the changes resulting from the latest DCLG guidance mean they will soon be more a barometer of local politics than of housing need.

Back in the good (or bad?) old days, anyone could put their name down on the waiting list for a council house and many people used to do so as an insurance policy. The last Labour government arguably had contradictory lines on this. In its quest to reverse the 1996 Tory homelessness legislation, its Homelessness Act in 2002 made waiting lists open to anyone (except those ineligible because of their immigration status). However, it later began to backtrack and encourage councils to adopt a ‘housing options’ approach to housing applicants. Some councils implemented this enthusiastically, notably Portsmouth who by reviewing old applications cut their waiting list from 12,500 to 2,500. Nevertheless, the 2002 requirements stayed in place.

The coalition saw the rise in waiting list numbers over recent years in England as resulting partly from these open lists, which in its view encouraged people to register even when they had ‘no real need of social housing’. The Localism Act 2011 introduced the concept of ‘qualifying persons’ who would be eligible to apply for housing, and gave considerable discretion to local authorities to decide who they should be. That said, the initial guidance wasn’t very different from the previous government’s: both emphasised a ‘housing options’ approach.

This changed last December when the government more specifically encouraged councils to give preference to local people, or those who have ‘a close association with the local area’. Its recommended ‘residency requirement’ is now two years. As a result of the various changes different councils have been trimming their lists (while equally some have done nothing). For example, Bournemouth seemed to follow similar practices to neighbouring Portsmouth in cutting its list from 9,425 to 3,177.

There is a difference between applying a residency test for entry to the list, and applying one before an allocation is made. It’s relatively common, for example, to have a local connection test like Dover’s which requires applicants who get an offer to show that they’ve lived there for three out of the last five years.

However, the changes seem to have launched a war of attrition in London, with various Boroughs implementing increasingly tough criteria before people can even get onto the list. Most now have a three-year test. But last year both Hammersmith & Fulham and Brent introduced five-year residency requirements for entry to the list. In Hammersmith’s case, this enabled them to cut its numbers by a gigantic 90% to only 768 applicants. Then Hillingdon upped the ante by introducing a ten-year residency requirement. Barking and Dagenham have just followed on by also adopting a ten-year test.

It is interesting to read the paper to B&D’s cabinet meeting on 8 April on its housing allocations review. Officers put forward options of having two-, five- or ten-year residency tests. In their assessment of the variable impacts, they judged even the five-year test would have a disproportionate impact on BME residents (they form three-quarters of those affected), with other affected groups being young people and those with jobs. Nevertheless officers recommended a five-year test.

They appeared very concerned about the impact of a possible ten-year test, because of those who would then qualify 80% would be white British – even though they now form only an estimated 40% of B&D’s population. Their equalities impact assessment indicated that it would not only disproportionately affect BME groups, but that these are also (on average) in greater housing need. It concluded that there was a potential impact on community cohesion in the borough as well as risk of a legal challenge.

Guess what Barking & Dagenham’s brave councillors decided to do? – they went for the ten-year test. Facing UKIP challengers in all wards in the coming elections, they decided a policy change was needed which would (on the advice of their own officers) give clear preference to white British housing applicants over the majority of the borough’s population.

We’ll have to see if the more extreme residency tests remain in place after next month’s polls. But whether they do or not, it’s clear that housing need is again becoming a political plaything. Of course local politicians should be able to decide their waiting list criteria and allocations policies, but they shouldn’t be able to throw objective tests of housing need out of the window. Surely the best response to UKIP is to get out the black, young and working voters who’ll be penalised by the sort of policies they’ll introduce if they get into power?

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