A step in the right direction
The Homelessness Reduction Act presents the possibility of meaningful assistance for many homeless applicants, but there are still some doubts about how effective it will be in practice, writes Giles Peaker
The Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, which received royal assent just before the dissolution of parliament, promises a significant change in the obligations of local housing authorities to the homeless and those threatened with homelessness when it comes into force, which is likely to be in 2018.
In addition to the current statutory housing duties, owed only to those who are eligible, homeless, in priority need, and not intentionally homeless (which is becoming homeless through a deliberate act or omission), the Act provides for two new duties and extends the time for being ‘threatened with homelessness’ from 28 days to 56 days.
Early versions of the Bill sought to end the practice of councils telling those in private tenancies facing eviction to stay put until a date for eviction by the bailiffs was set – after court proceedings and a possession order (and the costs of those being on the tenant). This change did not make it into the Act. A council can insist on a possession order, or a warrant, before accepting that the applicant is homeless. However, the new prevention duty applies from 56 days before the expiry of a valid section 21 notice, through to the point of homelessness.
New duties for councils
The Act amends part VII of the Housing Act 1996 to provide for the duty to take steps to prevent homelessness.
Councils will have to help people at risk of losing suitable accommodation as soon as they are threatened with homelessness within 56 days, or if a section 21 notice has been served by the landlord which expires within 56 days. The council will have a duty to assess the applicant’s situation and needs and then help them to secure accommodation that should last for the next six months. This should mean assistance for people to either keep their current accommodation or to find new accommodation. It is not a duty for the council to provide accommodation.
If the applicant then becomes homeless, or is already homeless, then arises the duty to take steps to relieve homelessness.
This duty, unlike the present one, extends to all eligible applicants, regardless of priority need or intentional homelessness. Councils will have to help those who are homeless to secure suitable accommodation. However, this does not extend to a duty on the council to provide accommodation, except for those who are in priority need and not intentionally homeless. This duty lasts for 56 days.
The existing duty to secure accommodation for those in priority need and not intentionally homeless then also applies.The new duties can be ended by the council if there is a ‘deliberate and unreasonable refusal to co-operate’ by the applicant. This is a high threshold and councils should not be tempted to end the duty because they think the applicant isn’t doing everything they should, or has missed an appointment.
Statutory guidance on the new duties is to be issued by the communities and local government minister before the Act comes into force.
There are a number of concerns about how the new duties will operate in England and how successful they will be.
The last government committed funding of £48m to councils to support the introduction of the new duties. However, there are real questions about whether this will be sufficient. A funding shortfall will impact heavily on both councils’ ability and willingness to adopt the new duties in an effective manner.
While the adoption of a similar model in Wales saw both a large increase in the numbers of people assisted and a large decrease in the numbers eventually owed the full housing duty, saving large sums, this is inevitably tied to the housing situation in Wales.
Whether that success can be replicated across England will have to be seen, but in London, where councils are already struggling to secure affordable private sector accommodation as either temporary accommodation or for permanent homes, it is hard to see how the additional duties will have a significant impact. Indeed, there is the risk that it will instead result in an increase in the offers of ‘out of London’ private tenancies that have seen Londoners being told to go to Telford, Stoke, and Birmingham.
The new duties are enforceable, either by judicial review or, internally, by review then appeal to the county court on a point of law. However, legal aid deserts for housing solicitors are increasing, with large parts of the country now having only one or no housing practices.
However, these doubts aside, for single or childless homeless applicants, the Act does present the possibility of meaningful assistance to try to obtain accommodation. With the exception of a few councils, this has not existed before, and certainly not as a statutory requirement. If the Act goes even some way towards its aim, substantial numbers of people should avoid becoming homeless.
Giles Peaker is a partner in the housing and public law team at Anthony Gold Solicitors. He was part of the Crisis panel that resulted in the first draft of the Homelessness Reduction Bill