Scenes from a disaster

The Commons Communities and Local Government Select Committee has begun an enquiry into homelessness. The written submissions from Councils, charities, campaigners, professional organisations and others are a stark illustration of a homeless system that is, at least in some areas, in complete crisis – overwhelmed, unable to cope with rapidly rising demand, let alone provide suitable accommodation.

Exhibit A. Bristol City Council’s evidence sets out a rise in homeless acceptances per quarter from 66 in quarter 1 2012/13 to 282 in quarter 1 2015/16 (and in addition a rise in s.20 Children Act homeless acceptances from nil in quarter 1 2012/13 to 13 in quarter 1 2015/16. The biggest increase is in ending of PRS tenancies.

Bristol homeless stats

Exhibit B.  Westminster City Council, amidst various hopes/requests that the Housing and Planning Bill does not go ahead in its present form and further reduce social housing, are desperate to have their homeless obligations, well, ‘reformed’ to enable them to send people out of borough and out of London, because they can’t cope.

9.1 We believe that current homelessness legislation and guidance needs to be reviewed to be more aligned with the objectives of the Housing and Planning and Welfare and Work Bills and welcome government’s recent announcement in this area. We suggest a full review of homelessness legislation, regulation and guidance in the following key areas:

Suitability of accommodation – we aim to place homeless households in private rented accommodation which they can afford. However the law requires local authorities to offer housing ‘in borough’ where it is ‘reasonably practicable’[4]. While every effort is made to do this, we simply cannot procure enough affordable TA or PRS accommodation in-borough (or even very close to the borough). The expectation that homeless families should be placed ‘in borough’, or very close to the borough, also applies to those who do not have longstanding connections to Westminster. Many of our out of borough placements are challenged. While we acknowledge that some households need to be able to remain in Westminster – we suggest that the law or code of guidance should be changed so that affordability is a key issue when making placements and offers, so that people can live in good quality private rented homes which they can afford in areas where they can set down roots. Currently a number of households can only remain in Westminster as they receive Discretionary Housing Payment which is not a long term solution. The offer of private rented housing in an area which is affordable in the long term is often preferable to a wait of many years for a social home.

Reviewable duty – currently, the homelessness assessment is geared towards deciding whether a household ‘qualifies’ for a housing duty or not. Once taken, that decision cannot be reviewed even if circumstances change, or if a social home is not the best outcome for that person. We believe the housing duty should not be fixed indefinitely but reviewed periodically and that it may include the offer of supported housing. This could help us to offer homeless households more rounded and tailored support to address their needs and to make the best use of resources when demand is very high. There should also be a requirement for applicants to engage with services and support (such as employment or skills services) offered by the local authority as a condition of accepting a duty, where they are able to work.

So, that would be asking to do away with precisely the tricky suitability issue on which Westminster lost in the Supreme Court

Organisations like HLPA and Z2k raise gatekeeping by local authorities to try to avoid homeless duties, and Z2K and Shelter highlight the financial crisis in both PRS renting and in homeless temporary accommodation provision – because it is, in the end, about the money, in both preventing homelessness and responding to it. A 250% increase in households becoming homeless by the ending of a PRS tenancy between 2009/10 and 2014/15 tells it how it is.

But the starkest gulfs in visions of what can and must be done are between on the one hand homeless campaigners and some housing lawyers and on the other hand some councils and some council officers. The issue is funding (and a changed approach) on the one hand, against a desire to further restrict and/or dilute statutory duties on the other.

As well as Westminster wanting a dilution of statutory obligations, there is the evidence of the Association of Housing Advice Services (no, me neither, but I gather they represent ‘operational managers’ in council homeless units). AHAS have some proposals on extending the definition of intentional homelessness to include:

a) Homelessness in consequence of failing to move into suitable accommodation that is offered by the local authority or a private landlord, which would have ended a threat of homelessness within 28 days.  (Currently families can refuse all offers of suitable accommodation and chose to become homeless before they are formally assessed and accepted as homeless). 

b) Homelessness in consequence of not following advice provided by, or on behalf of, the local authority that would resolve the threat of homelessness. (For example not following employment advice that would enable the family to increase their income through employment and benefits so as afford rent payments and avoid rent arrears).

Oh so much of the wrong. They have not thought this through. ‘Suitability’ means a right of review, and so does a decision of intentionality. Such proposals would mean a doubling of the numbers of review officers at least… Mind you, this does illustrate why I think that any attempt to import the Housing (Wales) 2014 model of a prevention duty dischargeable when ‘the local housing authority is satisfied that the applicant is unreasonably failing to co-operate with the authority’ needs to be, at the least, carefully limited and specified.

And of course the AHAS think Nzolameso is unfair…

Because of the lack of affordable housing in London, the reduction in the overall benefit caps & rising PRS rents, LAs need greater flexibility to place households in affordable areas. The case of Nzolameso v Westminster has made it too difficult. Government should review the Suitability of Accommodation Order and guidance, in order to reduce the burden on expensive LAs.

Because of course any review of the operation of homeless obligations should focus on minimising the burden on local authorities at the expense of the homeless.

This is just scratching the surface of the many (and occasionally very, well, various) evidences filed with the select committee inquiry. But almost all, no matter from what position, have an air of desperation – laying out the facts of a situation that is getting worse, with no end to the downwardness in sight.





Posted in Homeless, Housing law - All.

About Giles Peaker

Giles Peaker is a solicitor and partner in the Housing and Public Law team at Anthony Gold Solicitors in South London. You can find him on Linkedin and on Twitter. Known as NL round these parts, and still is Nearly Legal on Google +


  1. Leave aside the homeless law / interpretation issues for a second.

    The London Boroughs are socially and economically dumping their cases on any other local council thereby causing greater costs for those councils and frankly buggering up any LA strategies be they housing, education or whatever.

    This f#ck you I’m alright Jack attitude and strategy and practice is public authorities shafting others and evading their own duties and drinks to high heaven.

    Imagine for one minute that roles were reversed and this social and economic dumping saw London Boroughs as the victims…. Ah!!

  2. From an unashamedly local authority perspective, something has to give. Here in the SE of England, the private sector is already pretty much closed to benefit dependent clients, even before the LHA cap, reduced benefit cap and UC has had a chance to really kick in. On the rare occasions we do find an affordable PRS property, it is common for clients to refuse it they only want social housing.
    We try to resolve the situation for people as early as possible in the process, but in the absence of a prevention ‘duty’ there is nothing we can currently do to stop someone turning down an available, suitable and affordable PRS property outside of the 28 days homelessness trigger.

  3. I think you’ve hit on the key issue here. Everybody agrees that there is a problem with providing accommodation for the homeless, but do we solve it by increasing the funding or reducing the burden on local authorities? In the current climate and with this government’s ideology I can’t see any likelihood that we’re going to start spending more money on sorting it out.

    It seems to me that the problem with the “cheap” option is that it doesn’t solve the problem – it just changes (or moves) the problem, and I believe it’s likely to cost more in the long term because of the effects it will have on people’s lives, on communities, and on society generally.

    Having said all that, and having spent several years working on the side of the homeless and the tenants (until my funding ran out), I think there is a valid moral argument that homeless applicants ought to be obliged to try to help themselves. But I think we have to be really careful about how such a thing is designed – I worry that it would just become another way for unscrupulous LAs to get rid of applicants without really offering them any genuine help. I worry that homeless applicants will be offered a PRS tenancy in another part of the country and be told it’s a final offer, and accept it (or just walk away). And because there is a lack of Legal Aid and specialist housing advice generally, the LA’s would just get away with this – it is a numbers game.

    For a long time I’ve believed that if PRS is going to be any sort of solution for homelessness then it needs to be properly regulated and have rent controls. But there is no political will for this because the Tories don’t care, and Labour haven’t been willing to upset private landlords (although I suspect New Labour didn’t really care).

  4. Rather than rent controls, how about putting the costs of securing a new PRS tenancy – where the tenant is not being given notice for any misdemeanour but, as so often happens, merely because the landlord thinks he can get a higher rent off a new tenant – onto the landlord? The landlord would have to pay the agency fees, credit check and stump up for a month’s rent in advance (the tenant could pay their old bond forward). I think this would make landlords think twice before giving their tenants notice and it feels fair and in line with what happens in the market for sales – we don’t expect purchasers to pick up the vendor’s selling fees after all, and those are willing purchasers, not people being displaced from their homes. It might also help cut off a sizeable chunk of this problem at its source – PRS landlords. For those who might say this will just put up rents, as landlords try to pass on those increased costs, that’s incorrect; the market sets rental levels, and a move like this could actually make them fall.

  5. So, Westminster are required to perform the impossible, re house all their applicants in accommodation either in, or close to the borough. Although it’s not affordable and landlords don’t want the trouble when others can and will pay much higher rents. So Westminster keep people for longer and longer periods of time in squalid and unsuitable accommodation. The same scenario takes place in the other London boroughs. No one should be sent away to an affordable home in some squalid northern ghetto like Bletchley. Even though good quality housing is available in many parts of this Country we can’t send people to fill these homes for fear that it would breach the human rights of solicitors to garner fees from Councils rather than actually work for a living.

    • Wow.

      When you say “this Country” do you just mean England, or are you also advocating filling some of the good quality empty homes in Scotland, Wales and NI with Cockneys?

      And why do you stop there? Why not send these people (who are probably entirely devoid of feck) to fill up affordable cabins on ships and then export them to fill good quality housing all around the world?

      You lack ambition. This is a common failing for creatures that live under bridges.

    • Eian,
      Look at the first paragraph of my post. I don’t think anyone disagrees that in some part of the country, particularly London, the operation of statutory homeless obligations is becoming all but impossible. The question is what one does about that. And that is a political (small p) choice.

      Do you take upwards the issue of resourcing, of housing policy, of temporary accommodation provision and make those arguments seriously, looking for allies and agreements.

      Or do you blame the homeless for their inconsiderate inconvenience of being homeless, and seek to erect higher barriers to access and reduce the extent of the statutory obligations to them.

      You have made your choice. You prefer to punch down. Do not expect sympathy for it. There is a lot of sympathy for the position that councils find themselves in, a vast amount, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that that sympathy will extend to whatever way they might chose to react to that crisis.

      As for the ad hom at legal aid solicitors, I have little doubt that you earn more than most of them do and also work fewer hours. (I’m not including myself, legal aid is only a part of my practice, and my usual rates are much higher than the pittance that legal aid pays)

  6. Jenny – who do you think pays agency fees for new tenants along with credit checks etc? It costs me every time I have to find a new tenant. Oh, and introduce rent controls for the PRS by all means, – the exodus of landlords out of the business will create the biggest homelessness problem you have ever seen.

    • They would just leave them empty out of spite.

      Or they would sell them; creating a massive oversupply of properties in the market; thus driving down property values, and causing an economic crash which would lead to the end of capitalism.

      Or they would pull up their socks or roll up their sleeves or something, and just get on with doing their jobs properly (not like all of those fast-living Legal Aid solicitors).

      Oh, and I think the answer to Jo’s question is tenants. Tenants pay agency fees. Usually they have to pay £300 or more around here. Perhaps your agents are charging you as well, which doesn’t sound very fair. But you would need to take that up with them.

    • I think the answer is that both landlords and tenants pay agency fees. having researched this locally, landlords can expect to pay an agent £800 – £1000 for their help in sourcing and signing up a new tenant. This doesn’t include what the agents then charge the tenants.

  7. Current homelessness legislation is just a mess.

    I have clients wanting to appeal decisions of intentional homelessness, but unfortunately the merits of a review are often questionable at best. It’s become the case where I look at the Local Authority’s decision and I know it’s legally reasonable, but morally repugnant.

    Besides, I know the Local Authority will routinely refuse to extend interim accommodation pending a review anyway, a decision the LA will make knowing full well that there are no private landlords in the area willing to consider Housing Benefit tenants.

    To top it all off, I now have a case where Childrens Services are refusing to accommodate children because there are no safeguarding concerns even though the household is about to become homeless!

    So you have different local government bodies refusing to take responsiblity to help households in need (not our problem they say) and yet there’s no private sector accommodation the household can turn to either.

  8. I used to provide about 25 low cost properties in Westminster. I stopped because the Salvation Army unit which used to provide me with support was closed by the coalition government in 2011, and WCC itself has been obstructive on many levels. They have no genuine interest in housing people without homes, or they would be cooperative with the PRS where the homes are. I didn’t withdraw my 25 (which are now 13 upmarket flats for professionals) out of anger, petulance or obstructiveness, but simply because WCC were driving me to bankruptcy.

  9. From the Westminster response regarding Eastern European homeless:

    “Many sleep rough so they can maximise the remittances they can send to their country of origin, although some have support needs”

    Do they really?

    How can any select committee carry out any kind of objective review when faced with this sort of response. The clear lack of boundaries in the reporting process only serves to give authorities the opportunity to submit this kind of editorial twaddle.

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  13. Michael, you are correct in your comment that Local Government bodies refuse to take responsibility and in fact, what happens is the ‘to me to you’ situation where whichever body chickens out first gets the homeless household. These are people’s lives we’re dealing with here. I’ve worked in housing and homelessness for many years and whilst, for a while there, it was looking like we were about to do the whole ‘revolving doors’ of homelessness funding from Government yet again I feel it is actually now worse than it has been for many years and where will it end?
    Regulation of the PRS is certainly one of the best options but by no means the complete answer. One of my concerns is that we now have the additional problem of RSLs being thrown into the mix of ‘the right to buy’ chaos that has, I believe, been the catalyst for the homelessness situation in the UK. Not content with selling off most of the Council stock, RSLs will now be selling off their stock too! Maggie Thatcher and her ‘nation of home owners’ has a lot to answer for however there have been many after her who have failed to correct the issue and end the sale of Council properties. Is it ‘Cathy Come Home’ time again??

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