Homelessness Reduction Bill House of Commons, Second Reading, 28 October 2016
The LGA has worked productively with Bob Blackman MP following the first drafting of the Bill. We look forward to working to ensure the Bill delivers on our collective ambitions to better help prevent and resolve homelessness.
Councils want to end homelessness and are already doing everything they can within existing resources to support those who become homeless to get into accommodation and to prevent it happening in the first place.
Legislative change will only deliver on our ambitions if implemented alongside housing, employment and welfare reforms that tackle the broader causes of homelessness. If we are all to succeed in ending homelessness, then all new and existing duties on councils must be fully funded.
There are a number of structural and personal factors that make homelessness more likely. Faced with increasing demand, reducing budgets, falling social housing and wide-ranging welfare reforms, it is clear that councils cannot tackle this challenge alone.
Effectively tackling homelessness will rely on a collective effort from all partners. This should involve addressing the gaps between household incomes and rising rents, bringing together local housing, health, justice, and employment partners and allowing councils to resume their historic role as a major builder of affordable homes.
The meaning of homelessness (Clause 1): The availability and cost of suitable housing to the local authority should be taken into account as a relevant factor in local authority decisions on whether to advise applicants to remain in their home. This is currently the case in the existing Code of Guidance.
The duty to provide advisory services (Clause 2): Councils share the Bill’s ambition to prevent homelessness through timely advice and bespoke personal housing plans. It is important that all relevant public services work together to achieve this for households. Given this, there should be a duty on other public services to cooperate with councils in fulfilling duties resulting from Clauses 2 and 10.
Duty to assess all eligible applicants’ cases and agree a plan (Clause 3): The focus on developing a personalised model of support is welcome. The prescribed process should allow councils to flexibly meet the wider needs of households without being too prescriptive. The resources needed to develop this approach for all eligible applicants must be fully met by the Government.
Duty in cases of threatened homelessness (Clause 4): Councils are committed to efforts to prevent homelessness within existing resources. Additional responsibilities must be fully funded. It is important that other elements of the Bill does not detract from the emphasis on prevention, and that there is clarity on the consequences for non-priority need applicants that refuse to cooperate with efforts to prevent homelessness.
Duties owed to those who are homeless (Clause 5): This clause places a duty on councils to relieve homelessness for all eligible households, which should be fully funded. We are also seeking clarification that the interim duty to accommodate an applicant in apparent priority need ends once a council is satisfied that the applicant is not in priority need, rather than enduring for a period of 56 days. There may be significant financial risks to councils should this point not be clarified.
Clause 4 and 5 should also clarify the right of households to reapply once their circumstances have changed materially, reducing speculative reapplications from applicants that may have refused to cooperate.
Deliberate and unreasonable refusal to co-operate (Clause 7): The Bill intends to create parity of service for everyone. However, unlike in Wales, this Clause places a duty on councils to offer applicants with priority need that do not cooperate a six month tenancy. Those that are not priority need and do not cooperate with the local authority do not have access to this support. This may impact on priority need applicants’ cooperation in a preventative approach. There is a risk that this may encourage local authorities to target limited resources away from prevention activities, as they would have a duty to accommodate priority need applicants regardless. It would be preferable to replicate the Welsh model in this case.
BACKGROUND INFORMATION ON HOMELESSNESS
A shared ambition to end homelessness
It is a tragedy when a person becomes homeless. Councils want to end homelessness and are already doing everything they can within existing resources to support those who become homeless to get into accommodation and, where they can, to prevent it happening in the first place. This includes helping people develop the skills needed to find work, improve their health and wellbeing or gain access to family or relationship support.
There are a number of structural factors that make homelessness more likely, including the availability of affordable housing and the rise in the number of people struggling as rents increase at a faster rate than incomes. However, there is no silver bullet. Faced with increasing demand, reducing budgets, falling social housing and wide-ranging welfare reforms, it is clear that councils cannot tackle this challenge alone.
Legislative change will only deliver on our ambitions if implemented alongside structural housing, employment and welfare reforms that tackle the broader causes of homelessness. Crucially, this is a collective effort that should address the gaps between household incomes and rising rents, bring together local housing, health, justice, and employment partners and allow councils to resume their historic role as a major builder of affordable homes. If we are all to succeed, then all new duties proposed in this Bill will need to be fully funded.
The need to build more homes: The Bill places a number of new duties on councils. Realistically, these will only help to end homelessness if they are accompanied by measures that address the national shortage of housing supply. 3
Around 139,000 new homes were built in the year to June 2016, whilst estimates of the housing need of people across the country indicate that we need to be building up to 250,000 homes a year.i Stable social housing is therefore increasingly important for housing people who are homeless or at risk. However, the availability of social rented council housing has halved since 1994, dropping from 3.6 million properties to 1.6 million properties in 2016.ii
The private rented sector has doubled in size over the last decade and the growing uncertainty of the sector increases the significance of providing a sufficient supply of genuinely affordable housing options for helping reduce homelessness. The Communities and Local Government Select Committee’s recent report into homelessness highlighted that the ending of a private sector assured shorthold tenancy (AST) is now the leading cause of homelessness in England.iii It is likely that this trend will continue to grow and it should be a focus of future policy.
Addressing gaps between household incomes and housing costs: Alongside a shortage of housing supply, two thirds of local authorities in England have reported that falls in household incomes relative to rents have increased homelessness in their area.iv In our Autumn Statement submission we argue that the freeze on the Local Housing Allowance rate should be lifted as part of a strategy to reduce Housing Benefit by building more social rented homes.v
Focus on prevention: Councils want to ensure that any legislative changes contribute to their existing focus on prevention. Local authorities are delivering homelessness strategies that seek to respond to local conditions. Local approaches, led by councils, are best placed to succeed in reducing homelessness, as they are able to shape housing markets and target the delivery of services to prevent and respond to homelessness. In 2009/10, 85 per cent of 165,200 cases where action was taken were successful in preventing homelessness. In 2015/16, 93 per cent of 212,600 cases were successful in preventing homelessness.vi
Collective local effort: For individuals at risk of homelessness there is a need for any legislative changes to be accompanied by coordinated action to bring together local housing, health, justice and employment partners to tackle the broader causes of homelessness. Since 2009/10 in the number of people who are found statutory homeless because they are vulnerable due to old age (up by 47 per cent), have a physical disability (up by 62 per cent) or because of mental ill-health (up by 56 per cent) has risen.vii Councils cannot address this challenge alone.
Fully fund new duties: Local authorities are facing significant financial challenges. Therefore, any extension of legal duties on councils would need to be accompanied by sufficient powers and funding from the Government. Without this, local government will continue to find it difficult to deliver on our ambitions to end homelessness.
DETAIL OF THE LEGISLATION
The meaning of homelessness (Clause 1)
Clause 1 sets out the circumstances whereby households would become homeless. It integrates a series of tests from the existing Homelessness Code of Guidance into judgements about when it might be appropriate for applicants to remain in their home after the expiration of a section 21 notice.
The existing wording does not take into account the availability of suitable housing in the local area, or the costs to the local authority in securing accommodation as relevant factors in local authority decisions on whether to advise applicants to 4
remain in their homes. The existing Code of Guidance allows for this, and it is important that councils are able to factor such local circumstances into their decision-making. We would therefore welcome clarification that the availability and costs of suitable accommodation can be taken into account in the decision-making process under the new reforms. This might be achieved by including ‘(iv) the local authority’ under 3F (a) and (b) in Clause 1.
In order to help councils to focus on preventing homelessness it might be useful to consider and accept an applicant as homeless once they have been issued a section 21 up to the expiry of a possession order, rather than upon granting of any order of the court. This will enable councils the opportunity to negotiate a solution with tenants landlord, maximise the amount of prevention work the council can undertake with the tenant, and reduce the chance of them presenting late after the expiry of a section 21.
If councils are unable to factor in the costs of accepting applicants as homeless upon the expiration of a section 21 notice, then the increased numbers of homeless acceptances will increase the overall costs for housing authorities. This new burden should be recognised as such and met by the Government.
The duty to provide advisory services (Clause 2)
Councils share the Bill’s ambition to utilise local expertise to prevent homelessness through timely advice and bespoke personal housing plans.
It is important that public services work together to achieve this for households facing varied circumstances. For instance, the existing Code of Guidance advises joint working between prison staff, probation officers and housing providers to identify housing options for prisoners or youth detainees on release, to prevent homelessness and enable them to make a smooth transition from prison, or remand, to independent living.
There is a risk that the singular duty on councils to design housing plans for persons released from prison or youth detention (in addition to Clause 10 which enables other services to refer households onto councils) incentivises other services to ‘pass on’ vulnerable households to councils without having a responsibility to work with councils to meet their overall needs. This could discourage the provision of earlier support to households. The singular duty could also potentially increase costs for housing authorities. If this is the case, this burden must be fully met by the Government.
In our view, there should be a duty on other statutory services to cooperate with preparing the actions and working in partnership to take actions relevant to them to help prevent or relief homelessness.
Duty to assess all eligible applicants’ cases and agree a plan (Clause 3)
Clause 3 sets out in some detail the process that councils and applicants must go through in agreeing a homelessness plan. While we welcome the focus on developing a personalised model of support, it is important that the prescribed process is not too overly prescriptive and allows councils to meet the wider needs of households. The resources needed to develop this approach for all must be fully met by the Government.
Duty in cases of threatened homelessness (Clause 4)
Clause 4 sets out duties on councils to take reasonable steps to prevent homelessness for all eligible applicants threatened with homelessness. A lesser duty is owed to those deemed to be threatened with homelessness intentionally and those deemed in non-priority need. It also sets out circumstances under which an authority’s duty to prevent homelessness may be brought to an end by the service of a written notice.
Councils are committed to efforts to prevent homelessness as far as possible within existing resources. Additional responsibilities must be fully funded. Furthermore, it is important that other elements of the Bill do not detract from the emphasis on prevention. There should also be greater clarity in the Bill around the consequences for an applicant owed a prevention duty but where that duty has been brought to an end if they refuse a suitable offer of accommodation, or become homeless intentionally from accommodation secured for them
Duties owed to those who are homeless (Clause 5)
Clause 5 would place a duty on councils to relieve homelessness for all eligible households. This would involve taking reasonable steps to help the applicant to secure suitable accommodation over a period of 56 days.
Clause 5 also states that homelessness applicants in apparent priority need are entitled to be placed in interim accommodation for the duration of the 56 day relief duty. We would welcome clarification that the interim duty to accommodate an applicant in apparent priority need ends once a council is satisfied that the applicant is not in priority need, rather than enduring for a period of 56 days.
As drafted, the requirement that councils must accommodate apparent priority need applicants “until the later of” a decision on their priority need status or 56 days appears to replicate the 56 day accommodation duty for those with nowhere safe to stay regardless of priority need, which was removed from the previous draft of the Bill. As we set out in our policy briefing on the previous draft, there is insufficient supply of suitable accommodation to discharge the 56 day accommodation duty. Attempts to do so would have relied on councils sourcing expensive temporary accommodation, which would have detracted from their prevention work.
Reapplying for assistance following a duty ending on a previous application (Clause 4 and Clause 5)
There is no clause in the Bill or the original 1996 Housing Act to deal with reapplications following the ending of a prevention, relief or main homelessness duty to an applicant. This would mean an applicant would be able to refuse council assistance at any of these stages and reapply to the same local authority, or any other local authority, as soon as any new facts emerge about their circumstances, such as a change of address or medication, thereby restarting the whole process.
The Welsh Government brought in new homelessness legislation in 2015. The statutory law was amended to clarify that an application is not triggered unless the person’s circumstances have changed materially. This is a higher threshold than the any new facts test set by existing case law. The Welsh legislation recognised the risk that applicants would be able to refuse help and avoid any consequences of their actions by simply reapplying. A solution along these lines is required in England if the Bill is to achieve its ambitions of ending homelessness through a focus on prevention.
Deliberate and unreasonable refusal to co-operate (Clause 7)
Councils support the original rationale behind the main changes to homelessness law contained in the Bill, which was to create a parity of approach for all households approaching councils at risk of homelessness, focussing on prevention. 6
There is a risk that the Bill will not achieve this aim as it places a duty on councils to offer a six month tenancy to applicants with priority need who deliberately and unreasonably refuse to cooperate, while those that are not priority need do not have access to this support. There is insufficient understanding of how this form of sanction is likely to impact on the behaviours of priority need applicants to ensure cooperation in a preventative approach -this approach was not adopted in Wales.
This duty also increases the risk that councils will struggle to target their limited resources towards prevention activities, given that they will be responsible for funding the symptoms of non-cooperation regardless. This concern is exacerbated by the fact that there is no further sanction for applicants with priority need who continuously fail to cooperate with local authorities as they try to find them six month tenancies.
In Wales, any applicant who ‘unreasonably fails to cooperate’ with prevention or relief assistance cannot progress to the main homelessness duty. We would like to explore whether or not the same approach should be adopted in England. It is strategically important to treat all households equally in relation to their responsibilities to co-operate, regardless of their priority need status.
Local connection of a care leaver (Clause 8)
We welcome further discussion with councils and partners about the implications of local connection for care leavers. We want to ensure that councils can work together to best support every care leaver access safe, secure and suitable accommodation.
Homelessness Reduction Bill, as introduced [21 October 2016]
Homelessness Reduction Bill Explanatory Notes [24 October]