Steve Hynes reports from the conference, where, despite the new Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, speakers and delegates alike remained pessimistic about the future, given the lack of funds earmarked for housing and advice.
Andrew Arden QC believes ‘local authorities don’t have the resources they need to do the job they want to do’ to meet the need for housing.
LAG launched the 10th edition of renowned housing law expert Andrew Arden QC’s book, Homelessness and Allocations, co-authored with Justin Bates and Toby Vanhegan, at the recent LAG/Arden Chambers Homelessness Conference on 13 July. In his keynote speech at the event, Arden argued that ‘basic shelter is on a par with food and health’ and blamed the policy failures that have led to ‘over 100,000 children living in temporary accommodation’.
Private sector landlords were not spared the QC’s wrath as he reproached them for seeing a house as something to be ‘exploited as a financial asset, as opposed to a home’. Arden asserted that the ‘most common reason for homelessness’ involved private sector tenants with assured shorthold tenancies (ASTs) that landlords terminate so they can achieve a higher rent for their property.
According to Arden, successive governments have failed to get to grips with the chronic undersupply of affordable housing. ‘Housing ministers come and go,’ he said, and, apart from one or two, they are ‘not the heavy-hitters of government or opposition’. He believes that housing as an issue lacks representation at cabinet level and that ‘local authorities don’t have the resources they need to do the job they want to do’ to meet the need for housing.
The conference was attended by a mix of local authority officers, lawyers and not-for-profit organisations. Many of the local authority homelessness officers Legal Action
spoke to echoed Arden’s comments, expressing concerns about the lack of affordable homes, which is leading to families being housed in temporary accommodation for long periods. The latest figures from the Local Government Association (LGA), which represents 350 councils in England, show that there has been a net increase of 37 per cent in the number of children provided with temporary accommodation since the second quarter of 2014 (‘Councils house extra secondary school’s worth of homeless children each month
’, LGA news, 22 July 2017).
The LGA says the net cost of providing temporary accommodation has tripled in the past three years, with councils facing a total £5.8bn deficit in funding by 2020. LGA housing spokesman, councillor Martin Tett, said the ‘current situation is unsustainable for councils, and disruptive for families’. While he said councils are encouraged by the government’s willingness to explore more ways to build new homes, these ‘can’t appear overnight, and the demand is urgent’.
Andrew Arden QC: policy failures have led to ‘over 100,000 children living in temporary accommodation’
Homelessness Reduction Act 2017
One of the last pieces of legislation passed before the general election was the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017: it received royal assent on 27 April, five days before the dissolution of parliament. The Act places a new duty on local authorities to help prevent homelessness for all families and single people eligible for assistance, regardless of priority need. Secondary legislation, expected next year, will need to be agreed by parliament to implement the provisions of the Act.
The legislation had an unlikely genesis as it was originally a private members’ bill, but received full government support in its early stages. Bob Blackman, the Conservative MP who proposed the bill, argued that the Welsh legislation on which the bill was based had led to a 16 per cent reduction in the use of temporary accommodation in Wales to house homeless people. According to Blackman, London ‘accounts for 72 per cent of temporary accommodation’ and he argued that if the legislation was successful in only reducing the use of temporary accommodation by eight per cent, half the amount achieved in Wales, this would produce a saving to London authorities of £37m a year (Homelessness Reduction Bill second reading, Hansard HC Debates vol 616
, 28 October 2016).
Christopher Baker, head of Arden Chambers, addresses delegates on the key issues regarding allocation
At the conference in July, delegates heard from barrister Justin Bates, who assisted parliamentarians in the early drafts of the legislation. Bates explained that the new legislation makes amendments to the Housing Act 1996. He believes that the Act is intended to encourage local authorities to do more to prevent homelessness at an early stage by increasing from 28 to 56 days the period of time in which a person is likely to become homeless and can apply to a local authority for assistance.
According to Bates, the more controversial part of the legislation is that a person should be treated as threatened with homelessness if s/he has been given a valid notice under Housing Act 1988 s21. ‘This is clearly aimed at stopping the practice whereby some authorities refuse to accept a homelessness application before the court has made a possession order,’ he explained. Bates is concerned, though, that unless they receive legal advice, many tenants will not know if the eviction notice is valid.
LAG is concerned about the continuing impact of the benefit cap, especially on tenants with ASTs.
Budget not enough
The government initially earmarked £48m (£35.4m in 2017/18 and £12.1m in 2018/19, rounded up) to go to local authorities to fund the cost of implementing the Act (‘Government backs Homelessness Bill with £48 million for councils
’, Department for Communities and Local Government press release, 17 January 2017). This has now been increased to £61m over the two years (Hansard HC Debates col 626
, vol 620, 27 January 2017) but with no guarantees around any future funding. Many in local government believe the cash will not be enough.
Justin Bates: concerned about the budget levels set for implementation of the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017
The Association of Housing Advice Services estimated that, in London alone, the costs of implementing the legislation would be £161m. Speaking at the time the initial budget of £47.5m was announced, Andy Slaughter, then shadow housing minister, said: ‘Particularly worrying is that the funding falls to zero within two years. There is no evidence provided by the government that savings will offset costs by this time’ (Jessica Elgot, ‘Councils get £48m to expand homelessness provision
, 17 January 2017).
Bates is concerned that the legislation is likely to lead to more appeals against local authority homelessness decisions and possible judicial reviews. He argued that the money from government fails to cover the likely legal costs to local authorities arising from increased litigation.
Like many organisations, LAG is concerned about the continuing impact of the benefit cap, especially on tenants with ASTs. The cap should either be abolished or, at least, as the LGA is asking for, it should not apply to people placed in temporary accommodation by local authorities. At the conference, Bates pointed to another problem with benefits and homelessness. He observed that, in 2015, the government announced that 18–21 year olds, apart from some exceptions, would not qualify for the housing element of universal credit (subsequently brought into force by Universal Credit (Housing Costs Element for claimants aged 18 to 21) (Amendment) Regulations 2017 SI No 252 reg 2). He believes ‘this gives a worrying indication of the future direction of government policy and the implications for homelessness’.