The UK has long been unique in providing legislative entitlements to settled housing for at least some groups of homeless people. The core provisions of the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 have survived 40 years of Conservative, Labour and Coalition Governments, but post-devolution divergence saw first Scotland (in 2003) and then Wales (in 2014) significantly strengthen the rights of homeless people beyond those in England.
That picture changes dramatically today with the passing into law of the Homelessness Reduction Bill, the centrepiece of which is enhanced legal entitlements for single homeless people in England. The origins of the new Act lie in the recommendations of an independent review panel, convened by the homelessness charity Crisis in summer 2015. The Panel, which I chaired, focused on two key problems with the existing statutory arrangements in England.
First, the distinction between ‘priority’ and ‘non priority’ groups embedded in the 1977 Act meant that most single homeless people were entitled to only advice and assistance, with research and case law repeatedly demonstrating that the support they received from local authorities was often very poor. Second, the growing emphasis since 2003 on informal ‘housing options’ interventions by local authorities sat uncomfortably alongside the formal statutory framework, raising concerns about unlawful ‘gatekeeping’ in some areas. Equally, there were concerns that local authorities engaged in good-quality prevention work could be left exposed to legal challenge.
While in Scotland the priority need criterion has now been abolished altogether, so that virtually all homeless people are entitled to rehousing, such an approach seemed unlikely to be politically or practically viable in the much more pressured housing market context of England. More feasible, the Panel judged, was the approach encapsulated in the Housing (Wales) Act (2014), which introduced robust homelessness prevention and relief duties owed to all eligible households, regardless of priority need status.
The key Panel proposals were incorporated into a Private Members Bill sponsored by Conservative backbench MP, Bob Blackman, in June 2016. The Homelessness Reduction Bill subsequently received backing from the Government, the Communities and Local Government Select Committee, and peers and MPs from across the political spectrum. With the odds stacked against Private Members Bills reaching the statute book, this cross-party support was crucial to its eventual success.
Echoing the Welsh legislation, the Act introduces a universal homelessness ‘prevention’ duty on local
authorities, as well as a ‘relief’ duty to take ‘reasonable steps’ to help to secure accommodation for eligible homeless applicants regardless of priority need. It also extends the definition of those considered ‘threatened’ with homelessness to encompass people likely to lose their home within 56 days, rather than 28 days as at present. Thus, compared to the current system, which focuses the key legislative duty at the point of crisis when people are already homeless, this model brings preventative work into the heart of the statutory framework.
Other provisions in the 2017 Act cover enhanced advisory services, the establishment of personalised housing plans, and a new duty on public services to make a referral to a local housing authority if they come into contact with someone they think may be homeless or at risk of becoming so. The Secretary of State will also have the power to issue codes of practice in relation to the performance of local authorities’ homelessness duties.
The ‘right to housing’ encompassed in the UK statutory homelessness system, that owes so much to the profile generated by Ken Loach’s seminal drama, Cathy Come Home, has been pretty effective in protecting those ‘inside’ this unique safety net. However, 40 years on, the time was long overdue to address the exclusion of single people from its main entitlements, and to take account of the realities of the more informal ‘housing options’ interventions that now shape local authority day-to-day practices.
The new Act won’t ‘fix’ the key structural problems driving up homelessness in England, which include increasing housing market pressures, and deep cuts in welfare benefits and local government finance that are hitting the poorest areas hardest. But it should enable local authorities to intervene earlier to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place, and give them increased flexibility in the solutions they can offer to those already in housing crisis, making the most of the resources they do have to help people facing poverty avoid the devastation of becoming homeless too.