Our Christmas reading included this recently published report by the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government, that examines the operation of social housing waiting lists and makes a series of interesting recommendations in relation to new policies that need to be applied to ensure transparency and fairness in the provision of social housing.
The report is valuable in highlighting some of the shortcomings of the current social housing list and allocation system and in making some relevant and specific recommendations that could go some way to improving transparency and consistency in the provision of social housing.
For example, the report notes a contradiction at the heart of the HAP system: HAP tenants are categorised as both housed and in need of housing. This is because on a reading of the legislation, a recipient of HAP is deemed to have their social housing need met, yet local authorities have committed to operating a HAP transfer list so that such HAP recipients can remain on the social housing list via a transfer list. The considerable confusion in relation to the operation of such transfer lists is referred to in the report.
The Committee heard that local authorities are calling for a clarification or review of the definition of homelessness that is currently set out in Section 2 of the Housing Act 1988. The report refers to a “consensus” amongst witnesses that the definition of homelessness currently in use should be expanded and applied across local authorities. Such a review and expansion of the definition would support equal access for all individuals who are experiencing homelessness. It would also ensure local authorities take into account large groups who constitute the “hidden homeless” who are rough sleeping, or sleeping on sofas and who are currently unaccounted for in the homeless figures.
A review of the Section 2 definition would be most welcome and an expanded definition seems eminently sensible to ensure that the needs of all homeless individuals are known and local authorities can work towards meeting those needs. Our own experience is that the discretionary language in the related Section 10 provision in the 1988 Act has been relied on by local authorities and used as a basis not to provide emergency accommodation to individuals and families presenting as homeless. The provision states that local authorities “may” make provision, rather than “should” make provision of homeless accommodation to individuals recognised as homeless under Section 2. MLRC recommends a tightening of that provision also to ensure that, short of a broader right to housing, local authorities would be compelled to provide emergency accommodation to individuals who are homeless.
The report notes a lack of consistency across local authorities in a number of areas including in the operation of priority lists, treatment of emergency cases and policies applied in relation to succession of tenancy. In our recent casework, we have noted the very stark differences in the succession of tenancy policies between even neighbouring local authorities: such differences may mean eviction for one family and succession of tenancy for another. The lack of consistency combined with misconceptions amongst the general public about the social housing sector raises an issue of transparency and this is highlighted in the report. In our experience, a lack of transparency certainly contributes to a malaise with the system amongst applicants and a general mistrust of local authorities, which may well be misplaced.
There is an interesting discussion in the report of the application of income thresholds in the social housing assessment. An applicant for social housing must evidence an income below a certain level and the report notes that these levels are particularly low, leaving many ineligible to access social housing supports but unable to afford private rented accommodation. The report highlights a particularly unfair scenario, which we have encountered in our own casework, where families in receipt of Family Income Supplement (FIS), may be deemed ineligible for social housing support as the additional welfare support takes them above the relevant income threshold. We welcome the Committee’s clear recommendation that FIS should not be included in the calculations of income thresholds for eligibility.
The report also considers a situation where an individual on the social housing list does not take up any overtime offered, fearful that it will take them outside the income threshold and put their social housing application at risk. It is noteworthy that Departmental guidelines exist titled “Social Housing Support: Household Means Policy” issued 30 March 2011. These may not be widely known but cover that exact scenario of temporary or short-term additional income and state: “In assessing household income for the purposes of the household means policy, a housing authority may decide to disregard income that is once-off, temporary or short-term in nature and which is outside the regular pattern of a person’s annual income.” It is important that local authorities are sufficiently familiar with the guidelines and apply discretion where possible in relation to income thresholds. The report also notes that the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government confirmed that a review of income thresholds is currently under way and we look forward to an update in that regard.
The recommendations are to be welcomed and we note the preface of the Chair, Maria Bailey, who states that the Committee is fully committed to monitoring progress being made on the on-going implementation of the recommendations contained in the report. We welcome in particular the call for a new definition of homeless to be developed and hope that it will be developed in consultation with relevant stakeholders and taking account of the experiences of the many individuals and families who have fallen outside the relatively rigid definition for many years. We also welcome the recommendation that national policies be developed for the determination and dealing with emergency cases and successor tenancies.