Regime change

By Jules Birch, Inside Housing


Anyone applying to their local authority as homeless faces a new regime from today and there are real doubts about how it will work on the ground.

The new power for local authorities to discharge their duty to homeless people into the private rented sector represents a fundamental break with the system established in the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act in 1977.

Under the previous law, anyone accepted as homeless could wait for a social tenancy and the council had to provide temporary accommodation until one came up. Increasingly, councils have offered applicants private tenancies under housing options work but people could still choose to reject them and apply as homeless instead.

The crucial change under the new regulations is that councils now have the power to discharge their duty into the private sector without the applicant’s consent. The private tenancy must be for at least 12 months and if the family becomes unintentionally homeless again within two years then the duty recurs.

This would once have been hugely controversial. The 1977 Act was the end product of a long campaign that followed Cathy Come Home and the establishment of Shelter. When the Conservative government introduced something similar in the 1990s there were a record number of objections and the legislation was quickly repealed under Labour. This time around protests have been much more muted and few people are even talking about it. The change seems to have quiet acquiescence from most of the housing world and enthusiastic support from local authorities in high demand areas.

The new regime comes complete with regulations and guidance that in theory should provide some protection and guarantees of basic standards for homeless people. However, nobody really knows how it will work out in practice. The government estimates around 18,000 homeless people a year will go through the new system but that’s only an estimate. It’s even possible, ironically, that this could lead to a reduction in homelessness as more people accept housing options offers rather than apply as homeless and risk getting no help if they are turned down.

The final version of the supplementary guidance on the suitability of the private accommodation was only published yesterday. This stresses that this is a power, not a duty, and councils should consider whether to arrange a private tenancy based on individual circumstances and have clear policies on its use.

On location – the most controversial aspect of the new regime after successive controversies about London councils exporting their homeless people – the supplementary guidance significantly strengthens previous guidance. This follows the pledges by Grant Shapps in response to the Newham controversy in April that homeless people would not be sent miles away from home.

The supplementary guidance says that ‘in so far as is reasonably practical, secure accommodation within the authority’s own district’. Where that is not possible ‘the authority is required to take into account the distance of that accommodation from the district of the authority’. The accommodation is ‘not likely to be suitable’ if other accommodation is available nearer to the authority’s district.

Authorities are also required to:

try to secure accommodation ‘as close as possible to where an applicant was previously living’ take into account ‘the significance of any disruption’ to employment, caring and education and links to medical facilities and other support. This has to include consideration of the applicant’s need to reach their normal workplace, the education of young people especially at critical points like GCSEs.

There are also clauses covering the physical condition of the property, health and safety, landlord behaviour and managemement and tenancy deposits.

In its now familiar style the government published its response to the consultation on the suitability order today – after the new regime had already come into effect. Among the dissenting voices, a quarter of consultees wanted stronger guidance on health and safety and a number of local authorities wanted guidance on affordability updated to reflect welfare reform and the balance between affordability and location. It’s perhaps telling that although 57 per cent of local authorities were in favour of strengthening the guidance on suitability of location, 33 per cent felt it should not be changed on the grounds that it would make the new discharge power more difficult to use.

In its response, the government stresses that the power is not a requirement and some authorities may choose not to use it at all. It argues that ‘the order strikes the right balance between the protecting of the individual and allowing local authorities the freedoms they need to effectively use the Localism Act power and better manage their housing stock’. On location, it says:

‘Government has made it clear that it is neither acceptable nor fair for local authorities to place households many miles away from their previous home where it is avoidable. Given the vulnerability of this group it is essential that local authorities take into account the potential disruption such a move could have on the household. This Order will strengthen existing legislation in that it states the specific matters local authorities must take into account when considering the suitability of accommodation. This Order does not prevent or prohibit out of borough placements where they are unavoidable nor where they are the choice of the applicant. Some households will wish to leave their current district as such a move can have a positive effect for those escaping violence or those seeking to move to take advantage of employment opportunities.’

All of which sounds great in theory and like it should be enough to stop homeless people being put in sub-standard homes and prevent councils like Newham and Westminster from sending their homeless people to places like Stoke and Nottingham.

Or will it? This is the crucial question examined in this week’s report by the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) and to which the answer could well be no based on The Guardian’s story about London councils acquiring properties in cheaper areas all over the country. The crucial thing, which I examine in more detail on my other blog, is the interaction between the new homelessness regime and cuts in housing benefit. It is already impossible in many parts of London to find private tenancies affordable within the local housing allowance cuts and caps introduced in April 2011 and this situation will get dramatically worse with a new round of cuts in April 2013.

Given the conflict between affordability and suitability of location, the CPAG report says that authorities will be caught between a rock and a hard place and could face a wave of legal challenges. For individual families it will all boil down to individual circumstances and some heartbreaking questions such as: is disruption to a child’s education significant if it is not a GCSE year; does travel from home to job reflect the cost of train fares; is being miles away from family a significant enough impact on caring responsibilities and so on.

Clearly many London authorities feel they have to look outside London to find affordable temporary accommodation and private tenancies. The consequences of this for the homeless families concerned remain to be seen as does the long-term potential for even greater concentration of deprivation in poor areas. Add the April 2013 cuts to the equation and things look even bleaker.

In the Lords this week, welfare reform minister Lord Freud gave his optimistic gloss on things. He suggested rather disingenuously that the latest round of stories about people being sent out of London concerns people who arrive in the capital from elsewhere without a local connection. In fact, as Baroness Lister reminded him ‘we are talking about people with local links that matter to them for all sorts of reasons. This policy will destroy those links’.

Freud reiterated that under today’s homelessness changes ‘the council has to consider whether the location is suitable for the household’s individual circumstances, including the significance of any disruption to employment, education and caring responsibilities. Local authorities are required to carry out a full impact assessment before moving people out to other boroughs.’

On the particular issue of temporary accommodation, he said that the DWP was consulting on how rents and management costs will be paid under universal credit – while quietly ignoring the fact that it will not even begin to be introduced until six months after the April 2013 cuts that will cause the problems that councils are worried about.

All of which means an uncertain future for homeless families and some tough choices for local authorities. However, trapped as they are between sky-high private rents, rising homelessness and cuts in housing benefit they do still have choices. In the short term, they can choose how to spend their discretionary housing payments. In the longer term they can choose how they manage their scarce social tenancies. Do they prioritise basic housing need or people who are working? Do they retain and increase their social stock or sacrifice it to new development? As Westminster plans new council homes for people earning £40,000 to £60,000 and Newham plans to knock down a council estate to build a new university campus, it seems some have already decided.