A New Housing Bill: Fragmenting The Opposition?
The imposition of new measures to remove the statutory right of ‘proirity need’ homeless people to permanent housing has been in the pipeline for a while. It now appears that it will manifest itself in law as part of a new Housing Bill. Joe Oldman, from CHAR (Housing Campaign for Single People), reviews the likely contents of a further erosion of the opportunities for homeless people.
Squall 10, Summer 1995, pp. 14-15.
It has recently been announced that the Government’s review of homelessness legislation will form just one component of a large housing bill, likely to be scheduled for the next session of Parliament. The review is primarily designed to abolish the statutory right of certain groups of homeless people deemed to be in “priority need” of access to permanent accommodation.
Proposals for the complete bill were not included in the Government’s consultation paper - “Access to Local Authority and Housing Association Tenancies”; instead the Government appears to have made a series of individual consultations on the different elements that are likely to appear in the Bill.
This breaking up of the bill into different element suggests another, now familiar, attempt to fragment opposition to its overall impact. The Government may well consider it advantageous to cloak the homelessness review within a larger housing package including a superficially attractive revival of 'Right to Buy’ for occupiers of housing association homes.
Although the proposals contained in the homelessness review element of the bill will have an immediate and adverse effect on the rights of homeless people, the rest of the bill may have an equally devastating effect on the long term interests of homeless people. Particularly the ‘Right to Buy’, which although populist in the short term, in fact translates as a further erosion of social housing.
This article anticipates the release of a Government White Paper, due out this summer, and is designed to assist as many readers as possible to respond as soon as it becomes available.
ALLOCATIONS VIA THE WAITING LIST
There are few indications that the Government has shifted from the basic position that waiting lists should be the sole route into permanent social rented accommodation. The Department of the Environment (DoE) is attempting to take the debate away from an examination of the overall decline in social housing and towards an agenda concerned with the allocation of a continuingly diminishing supply of social rented housing.
The DoE continues to argue that the statutory homeless gain an unfair advantage over waiting list applicants, despite recent evidence showing that the majority of local authorities do not give automatic priority to ‘statutorily’ homeless people. There is widespread concern among homelessness charities, including Shelter and CHAR, over the further narrowing of the definition of statutory homelessness.
The Bill is concerned with the redistribution of a dwindling stock rather than any measures to increase the overall supply. The Government is hoping to feed on the frustration of those who have applied for housing through the waiting list, a transparent attempt to use homeless people as scapegoats for the lack of supply. The Bill is likely to focus on ad hoc, short term initiatives and the removal of the statutory right to housing in the face of new regulations restricting the payment of housing benefit.
DEFINITIONS OF PERMANENT ACCOMMODATION
The DoE has already it made clear that it would like to see a redefinition of the right to long term permanent tenancies in the social rented sector. This has also been the basis for some local authorities to argue that the granting of assured shorthold tenancies (private accommodation) fulfils their duties under the homelessness legislation. Assured shorthold tenancies make it easier for a landlord to evict and were initially introduced through the Housing Act 1988, in an unsuccessful attempt to revive private renting. Other evidence for this shift can be seen in the Housing Corporation consultation paper “The policy of assured shorthold tenancies”, which suggest a wider use of assured shorthold tenancies by housing associations. The National Federation of Housing Associations has said that the proposals could significantly reduce the security of tenure of probationary tenancies and will serve to further erode the notion of permanent social rented tenancies.
LOCAL HOUSING COMPANIES
The proposed transfer of council stock to local housing companies (partly private) may still entail local authorities maintaining a controlling interest (20% to 50%) in transferred stock, thereby allowing local authorities to maintain some nomination rights to a percentage of the transferred stock. However, there is a fear that these semiprivate housing companies will lack accountability, and that rents may see substantial increases, especially in stock with high levels of disrepair. Pilot studies are currently being carried out to look at the feasibility of this proposal, and the Government may consider incentives to facilitate schemes by, for example, freeing up the use of capital receipt money collected under the Right to Buy. Although this remains to be seen.
Whatever the outcome, it seems unlikely that these schemes will increase the availability of permanent housing to single homeless people, although homelessness charities believe it is vital that local authorities negotiating such schemes, should set aside specific allocations to single homeless people.
The Government is currently consulting on the use of ‘probationary tenancies’ as a method of dealing with tenants who harass or cause a nuisance to their neighbours. A pilot scheme is currently being carried out by Manchester Council and North British Housing Association. New tenants will only be granted a secure tenancy after a twelve month probationary period, during which time they will have to demonstrate they are not causing trouble.
Although strong measures to combat harassment should be supported, it should be achieved through better housing management intervention and greater cooperation between local authorities, the courts and the police. Indeed, homelessness charities agree that there should be strong legal sanctions. However, the application of sanctions should be applied to everyone regardless of their housing tenure. Probationary tenancies could be used by some local authorities and tenants to discriminate against certain groups of new tenants, without offering appropriate legal safeguards.
LICENSING OF HOUSES IN MULTIPLE OCCUPATION (HMOs)
The publication of the Government’s consultation paper: “Houses in Multiple Occupation: Consultation Paper on the Case for Licencing”, arose from increased publicity surrounding the deaths of, and injuries to, people living in HMOs. It was also related to a desire to curb the use of holiday B&Bs by homeless people. Licencing would mean that rented accommodation would have meet certain standards of health and safety before becoming available for let. The Housing Minister David Curry recently said that the current status quo on HMOs was unacceptable and that the Government would be tabling legislation as part of the housing bill.
It seems unlikely at this stage that the DoE will introduce compulsory licensing. However, it may introduce incentives for discretionary licensing on an area basis. Given the thousands of single homeless people living in unfit, overcrowded HMOs at risk of death and injury, and given that these proposals will further expand the private rented sector, homelessness charities believe it is vital that there should be a mandatory licencing scheme rather than a reliance on local discretion.
RIGHT TO BUY FOR HOUSING ASSOCIATION TENANTS
The Government is proposing to extend their ‘Right to Buy’ policy to housing association tenants, excluding those living in sheltered housing or hostels. With further sales of local authority homes grinding to a halt, the Government is keen to revive ‘ what it sees as the popular carrot of Right to Buy’, in the run up to the General Election. There is also speculation that the Government may extend the Tenant’s Incentive Scheme (TIS) to provide existing tenants with grants to buy on the private market, thereby freeing up association stock.
The Government have reduced subsidies to associations making them more reliant on private investment, which has in turn led to significant increases in association rents.
Many commentators are concerned that if substantial discounts are offered on association homes under a Right to Buy scheme, it may undermine private investment in the sector. This is because associations may be unable to raise sufficient income from their remaining stock. On TIS, there are questions over whether this is the best use of a subsidy that could be used to build additional homes. These measures could have a dramatic effect on a housing associations’ ability to accommodate homeless people and associations may be increasingly marginalised and left with the poorest stock.
ENCOURAGING PRIVATE RENTING
Although the DoE is examining measures to encourage expansion in the private rented sector, this will be limited by restrictions in the payment of housing benefit based on the difference between average rents and market rents in an area. Although the private rented sector has a role to play in addressing housing need, especially for younger mobile groups of people, it seems inconceivable that there could be any substantial expansion in the sector given the bias towards home ownership.
With regard to single homeless people, the Association of Residential Letting Agents has said that the majority of responsible private landlords are not in a position to provide the care and support that vulnerable homeless people are likely to require. It seems more likely that increasing numbers of single homeless people will find themselves trapped in poor, unsafe and overcrowded rented accommodation at the bottom end of the market.
None of the proposals likely to be in the new housing bill can be taken in isolation from the operation of the benefits system. The proposed new ceiling on the amount of housing benefit payable seems to contradict the DoE’s desire to expand the private rented sector. There has been no research to demonstrate what the potential impact of the changes will be and, although the Housing Minister says the changes are modest, the Social Security Advisory Committee has warned that changes in the housing benefit system could increase poverty and force people into unsatisfactory housing or homelessness.
If the draft regulations go through in their current form, they may also have a significant impact on voluntary sector special needs housing outside direct housing association management (special need housing includes supported housing for elderly people, people with disabilities, mental health problems, or drug and alcohol problems). Rents that are referred to the rent officer are subject to the proposed changes; this could affect many projects for homeless people, especially as rent officers are often unable to appreciate or recognise the additional costs associated with special needs provision. However, the Government may exempt voluntary sector housing, following consultation with the Social Security Advisory Committee. The outcome of this will be known at the end of June when the regulations are laid before Parliament.
WHAT DOES IT ADD UP TO?
These proposals are likely to see a further polarisation of housing between the well housed and the poorly housed or homeless. It seems unlikely that they will do anything to increase the supply of affordable housing.
Measures to expand the private rented sector seem to be contradicted by restrictions in housing benefit and a reluctance to bring in mandatory licencing to protect people living in private rented housing.