Localism Bill

Memorandum submitted by Crisis (L 23)


1. Crisis, the national charity for single homeless people, believes that everyone should be able to access a good quality, affordable, stable and secure home in a suitably located neighbourhood. We are well aware that housing instability, a lack of choice, overcrowding and a lack of affordability are real drivers of homelessness.

2. We are concerned that some of the measures contained in the Localism Bill particularly around changes to the homelessness duty and to social housing tenure will together lead to a significant reduction in support for homeless and vulnerable people. We are calling for a range of amendments to protect those owed the main homelessness duty and to safeguard the security of social tenure. These include ensuring that homeless people retain the choice over whether to accept housing in the Private Rented Sector (PRS) and calling for a two stage tenancy process based on the Scottish model for discharge of the homelessness duty to the PRS. Crisis is also opposed to the creation of flexible tenancies and believes that housing waiting lists should be kept open.

3. Because single homeless people who are not in priority need currently receive inadequate levels of support, we are calling for an expansion of the current duty to provide them with advice and assistance.

4. The Bill also offers a real opportunity to reform the private rented sector and in particular we would like to see the inclusion of measures to allow for regulation of private lettings agents, which would help to overcome some longstanding and widely recognised concerns about the practices of some letting agencies.

5. More widely, whilst we believe that local authorities should address local issues and be accountable to communities, there remain some enormous challenges presented by the localism agenda and measures in the Localism Bill. In particular it is important to ensure that the views of those who are marginalised and whose voices are heard the least are taken into consideration when determining local policy and priorities. For this reason we believe that safeguards are needed to ensure that the Community Right to Challenge works for the most vulnerable and hardest to reach groups.

6. We are also calling for elected mayors to be given responsibility for tackling rough sleeping and other forms of homelessness, as they have the potential to play an important role in coordinating the response to this complex issue.

7. This memorandum considers, in the order that they appear in the bill, the amendments that Crisis believes are necessary to protect homeless and vulnerable people.

8. It is important for the committee to appreciate that the Localism Bill takes place within a context of deep cuts to Housing Benefit, a 50% reduction in the budget for affordable housing and cuts to other budgets (such as Supporting People) that affect single homeless people and others in housing need. We are therefore very concerned that the negative impact of removing duties towards homeless people and undermining social tenancies will be compounded by severe budget cuts. We expect these cuts to cause hardship and homelessness as well as weakening the ability of statutory and voluntary agencies to support those affected.

Summary of amendments in the memorandum

1. Giving elected mayors responsibility for tackling rough sleeping

2. Community Right to Challenge – engagement and needs of vulnerable groups

3. Keeping housing waiting lists open

4a. Protecting the current homelessness duty

4b. A two stage process for discharging the homelessness duty to the PRS

4c. Strengthening the duty to unintentionally homeless people who are not in priority need

5. Opposition to flexible tenancies

6. Power to regulate private lettings agents

1. Giving elected mayors responsibility for tackling homelessness

Schedule 2

Section 10 – New arrangements with respect to governance of English local authorities

Chapter 2 – Executive arrangements

9. In London the mayor works to tackle rough sleeping through the London Delivery Board, a body that brings together local authorities, voluntary sector agencies central government and other public bodies. Homelessness is a cross-cutting issue and we believe that elected mayors in other cities should play a key role in coordinating action to solve it. For this reason we believe that elected mayors should have statutory responsibility for preventing and tackling rough sleeping and other forms of homelessness.

2. Community Right to Challenge – engagement and needs of vulnerable

Part 4, Community Empowerment

Chapter 3, Community Right to Challenge

10. Crisis appreciates the vital role that voluntary organisations can play in the lives of disadvantaged people. We welcome the fact that when considering Expressions of Interest (EOIs) and during the procurement stage there is to be a requirement for local authorities to consider the social, environmental and economic impact that the EOI will have on the local area if successful.

11. Notwithstanding this, we believe that there must be robust safeguards in place to ensure that vulnerable people are at the core of the Community Right to Challenge (CRC) process. Without such safeguards there is a risk that the hardest to reach groups will also be the least likely to engage with the CRC process. There is also therefore a danger that services developed as a result of CRC will not adequately serve the needs of the most vulnerable and hardest to reach groups.

12. For this reason we would support specific duties on local authorities to consider the needs of vulnerable groups in the assessment and procurement stages. While details of this could be contained in regulations and guidance, it is important for this key principle to be contained on the face of the Bill.

3. Housing waiting lists

Part 6, Housing

Chapter 1, Allocation and Homelessness

13. Crisis believes that housing waiting lists should remain open to everyone, not least because it incentivises local authorities to provide good quality advice on alternative housing options. Allowing local authorities to exclude people from the waiting list could result in a situation, as sometimes happens under the current homelessness legislation, whereby people are either owed the main homelessness duty/eligible to join the waiting list or receive little or no housing assistance.

4. Homelessness duties

Part 6, Housing

Chapter 1, Allocation and Homelessness

4a Protecting the current homelessness duty

14. Crisis has extensive experience of working to make the private rented sector a sustainable home for single non statutory homeless and vulnerable people and whilst the private rented sector (PRS) is not a panacea for the housing needs of all homeless and vulnerable people, it can provide an effective housing solution, where appropriate support and safeguards are in place.

15. However, we strongly oppose the proposal to allow local authorities to discharge the homelessness duty into the PRS whether or not the household consents, as this constitutes a removal of choice for homeless households.

16. As the national charity for single homeless people, we know only too well the impact that homelessness can have on individuals and households. Homelessness is an isolating and destructive experience and homeless people are some of the most vulnerable and socially excluded in our society. Many statutorily homeless households are particularly vulnerable and this is especially true for single people who have already been through a process which has deemed them to be vulnerable because, for example, of mental ill health or a disability.

17. For statutorily homeless households, a social home and the stability and security that it offers will often therefore be the most appropriate option. We oppose the removal of this choice and are concerned that vulnerable homeless households, who may most need the stability of a social home, are unlikely to be a in a good position to advocate for themselves. This could mean that in areas with high housing pressure, they could be passed over for priority in social housing for other groups who may be more politically popular regardless of the level of need.

18. Without adequate support, the combination of vulnerable homeless people and 12 month private sector tenancies could be a recipe for repeat homelessness. The Bill contains a safeguard whereby those made unintentionally homeless within two years of having their homelessness resolved to the PRS are still entitled to housing assistance, whether or not they are still in priority need. Whilst we welcome this, we do not believe that it is a sufficient protection. Although help will be offered to those who suffer repeat homelessness, a series of failed tenancies can be very damaging. Additionally, if vulnerable applicants are housed in the PRS with insufficient support then they may get into arrears, or their relationship with the landlord or other tenants may break down. In this case they may be considered intentionally homeless and thus not entitled to support.

19. There is a particular issue regarding the way that the compulsory discharge of the homelessness duty to the PRS will interact with the planned extension of the ‘Shared Room Rate’ of Local Housing Allowance. The Shared Room Rate currently applies to single people aged under 25 living in the private rented sector who receive Local Housing Allowance. These claimants are restricted to the rate for a single room in a shared house, rather than the rate for a self-contained one bedroom property. From April 2012, the Government intends to extend this lower rate to claimants under the age of 35.

20. In conjunction with the changes to the homelessness duty planned in the Localism Bill, this will greatly reduce the support that single homeless people in priority need (i.e. those considered particularly vulnerable for reasons such as drug or alcohol dependency, disability or mental health issues) will be entitled to. Instead of being entitled to a social home, they could be required to take a 12 month tenancy in shared accommodation even if this sharing is unsuitable for their needs.

21. Finally, we have concerns that placing more statutorily homeless households into the PRS will place more pressure on the sector and disadvantage other groups in the market. We know that many non statutory households often already struggle to find suitable and affordable accommodation and to access the resources of local authorities and others to support them into the PRS. We are concerned that, with more demand on the PRS, non statutory households will find it harder to compete.

4b Implementing a two-stage tenancy process for discharge of the homelessness duty to the PRS

22. Crisis believes that lessons can be learned from Scottish Regulations that were recently passed governing the discharge of the Homelessness Duty into the PRS.

23. The Homeless Persons (Provision of Non-permanent Accommodation) (Scotland) Regulations 2010 "stongly recommend" a two step process when housing unintentionally homeless households in the PRS. To quote from the guidance on those Regulations:

"local authorities may secure an initial Short Assured Tenancy (SAT) of between 6 and 12 months at the outset of the process. At this stage, the section 31 duty would not be discharged. It is strongly recommended that local authorities make use of this option, which will allow for:

· a period of resettlement for the tenant.

· a further assessment of the affordability of the tenancy in practice, and;

· an evaluation and review to be carried out of any housing support package whilst the statutory duty to the applicant still remains.

At the conclusion of the initial SAT, if the landlord and tenant can agree to a renewal of the SAT for a period of no less than 12 months, then the local authority’s duty to the applicant is complied with at this stage. Only a tenancy of at least 12 months’ duration allows the section 31 duty to be complied with." [1]

24. A two stage tenancy process of this kind would be a means of providing further support and assessment to the tenant from the local authority. While the two stage process is only "strongly recommended" in Scotland, Crisis believes it should be mandatory in England within the context of the removal of choice from applicants over accepting housing in the PRS. Although at the end of the second tenancy the tenant will have been settled for at least 18 months, it does not entail PRS contracts of over 12 months and should therefore be appealing to landlords. By preventing repeat homelessness, this system can therefore work better for the tenant, the landlord and the local authority. Early indications are that this is an amendment landlords would be willing to support.

4c Strengthening the current duty to unintentionally homeless people who are not in priority need

25. Unamended, the Localism Bill will weaken local authority duties to homeless people. We believe that the Bill should instead be viewed as an important opportunity to strengthen the support that single homeless people receive.

26. In England and Wales households are only entitled to accommodation if they are classified as ‘unintentionally homeless’ and in ‘priority need’. Households classified as automatically in ‘priority need’ are pregnant women, people with dependent children, people who are under 18 or under 21, if they are a care leaver. Those with other special needs such as disabilities or mental health issues, or victims of violence may be entitled to housing if they can prove that they are more vulnerable and at greater risk than other homeless people.

27. The majority of single homeless people do not meet these tests. However, they should still receive advice and support to prevent their homelessness, address the reasons for them becoming homeless or to help them find accommodation for themselves. However, Crisis’ experience and research has shown that too often in practice this does not happen and that single homeless people can be turned away with very limited or no assistance at all and in some instances with no choice but to sleep rough – a scandal in 21st century Britain (No One’s Priority, 2009).

28. As the national charity for single homeless people, Crisis believes that the current homelessness legislation needs to be revised in order to widen the safety net for those in need of help but who fall outside the priority need categories. The Localism Bill represents an opportunity to make these important changes.

29. Crisis is calling for a new duty on local authorities to prevent the homelessness of all unintentionally homeless people who approach them. Crucially, this would be applied in a far more flexible way than the main homelessness duty.

30. Under this new duty, there would be a requirement to make an offer of emergency accommodation to those who need it and to work with applicants until their homelessness has been resolved. While social housing may be appropriate and possible for some, for others the duty could be discharged through assistance accessing the private rented sector or supported or other accommodation, or through mediation, relationship support or other advice and assistance that prevents the loss of or leads to accommodation.

31. Introducing a new statutory duty would set a standard of minimum help and assistance to which people know they are entitled and would help drive a different culture in local authorities.

5 Social housing: opposition to flexible tenancies

Part 6, Housing

Chapter 2, Social housing: tenure reform

32. Crisis strongly opposes the introduction of minimum fixed term, rather than lifetime, tenancies for new tenants. People already have the freedom to move out of social housing if their situation changes or if they decide another form of tenure is more appropriate for them.

33. Social housing is often the first real stability people have experienced and to threaten to take this away after two years could seriously undermine the benefits that this brings. It can provide a platform from which people can improve their circumstances and achieve their aspirations. The below market rents that social housing offers mean that tenants are better placed to move into work without needing to rely on housing benefit. However, potentially reviewing someone’s tenancy if their financial situation improves could act as a real work disincentive.

34. Another disadvantage of fixed term tenancies is that people stay in an area for shorter periods of time. High turnover on estates often causes problems, as residents have less commitment to their neighbourhoods and each other. If we want to achieve mixed communities and well functioning neighbourhoods, it is important that people-including those in work and with good prospects-have some roots in an area and stay there for longer periods.

35. We are concerned that little thought has been given as to where people are expected to live when their social tenancy is terminated. There is a real risk that this could lead to an increase in homelessness and mean people are trapped in a vicious circle of losing their social home only to become homeless and require housing assistance again. This clearly has cost implications both for the local authority and the household involved.

6. Powers to regulate private lettings agents

Part 6, Housing

Chapter 6, Other Housing Matters

36. Both tenant and landlord organisations have long reported problems with private sector letting agents. These include the charging of exorbitant fees, failure to enforce basic health and safety standards in properties, and non-return of deposits without good reason. There is currently no legislation governing letting agent practices, so this amendment would allow the Secretary of State, at a later date and following further consideration and consultation, to specify new standards to regulate letting agents.

About Crisis

Crisis is the national charity for single homeless people. We are dedicated to ending homelessness by delivering life-changing services and campaigning for change.

Our innovative education, employment, housing and well-being services address individual needs and help homeless people to transform their lives. We are determined campaigners, working to prevent people from becoming homeless and advocating solutions informed by research and our direct experience.

We have ambitious plans for the future and are committed to help more people in more places across the UK. We know we won’t end homelessness overnight or on our own. But we take a lead, collaborate with others and together make change happen.

January 2011

[1] The Homeless Persons (Provision of Non-permanent Accommodation) ( Scotland ) Regulations 2010

[1] http://www.oqps.gov.uk/legislation/ssi/ssi2010/ssi_20100002_en_1