Practical Law Public Sector recently attended a conference on homelessness jointly run by the Legal Action Group and Arden Chambers.
The conference consisted of a number sessions focusing on various aspects of the homelessness regime under the Housing Act 1996. Of particular interest was the keynote speech given by Andrew Arden QC, which focused on the wider policy context of homelessness and in particular recent trends and issues of general concern.
We have published an Article setting out the keynote speech in full, while this blog highlights some of the key points made in the speech.
Looking to highlight the importance of seeing the wood (being the wider context that dealing with homelessness sits in) from the trees (dealing with and applying the law of individual cases), Mr Arden began by highlighting some key themes relating to homelessness including:
- The increasing amount of rough sleepers and increasing reliance on temporary accommodation. In February 2014, the government published its fourth annual analysis of the extent of rough sleeping; this stated that there were around 2,414 people sleeping rough in England (an increase of 37% from the 2010 figures).
- The position of women in relation to their increased risk of eviction and increased likelihood of rough sleeping as a result of experiencing domestic violence.
- The lack of affordable housing as evidenced by government figures in 2013, which stated that there were 1.68 million households listed as awaiting an allocation under Part 6 of the Housing Act 1996.
- The impact of welfare reform. This is particularly relevant when looking at the ability of tenants on benefits to find and retain suitable private sector housing.
Using private sector housing
In the light of budget cuts, an increasing number of local housing authorities are looking to increase the role of the private sector in providing a solution to the current housing crisis. Mr Arden was clear that this does not provide a viable long-term solution making the following points in his speech:
- The private sector could never act as a substitute for the social rented sector on the basis that its purpose is completely different, that is, to profit landlords rather than to provide homes. One outcome of this difference in priorities is that a common issue with the use of private housing is that many private landlords simply do not want to house those seeking accommodation under the homelessness regime, for example, because of the potential unpredictability of housing benefit payment (this is likely to be worsened with the restrictions on direct payments being made to landlords under universal credit).
- There are concerns about the lack of regulation of the private sector. Concerns included:
- the need for proper regulation of housing conditions. The English Housing Survey Report for 2012-13 suggested that around 33% of private rented sector properties would fail to meet the government’s “Decent Homes Standard” – more than double the amount of social rented properties;
- rogue landlords and stopping retaliatory eviction; and
- addressing and controlling private sector rent levels.
These factors were some of those that contributed to the risk of “revolving door homelessness” where applicants are continually returning to authorities for assistance.
What can housing lawyers do?
Mr Arden went on to consider what could be done by housing lawyers (whether advising authorities or applicants). Faced with the failure of Parliament to address the problem, it was acknowledged that lawyers have little control over the system. Mr Arden suggested that this did not mean that nothing could be done. He commented that:
“If the [context of the decisions being taken] … is fed into cases at a sufficiently early stage, it can affect the parameters of the discussion. It affects what the authority has to think about and therefore its thinking processes and how it handles the case, to the point of opening it up to judicial scrutiny in the long run. Not in every case; not in most cases; but in some – everything we do can only be done incrementally, in tiny steps; that does not mean it is not worth doing.
And if the authority is having to address cases in their wider context – if advisers are putting material before them to cast applications in a different light – it can, in my view, only be a good thing, not only from the perspective of the individual client but also of the authority.”
Conclusion: limited funds should not take away the context
In terms of local authorities, there was recognition that they are under enormous pressure to reduce acceptances, the key objective for all should be to ensure that “sight is not lost of the wood for the trees or of the human suffering for the legal principle”.
The keynote speech ended with the thought that “each homeless case is both an individual case and one part of a much larger problem, which all of us are, I believe, committed to resolving”.