Michael Corbishley, Head of Housing Initiatives

The Homeless Reduction Act is the biggest change in homeless legislation since 1977. Ahead of it's introduction on Tuesday 3 April, Michael Corbishley, SHP's Head of Housing Initiatives, blogs about his thoughts on the changes. 

When considering the likely impact of the Homelessness Reduction Act, it may be useful to cast our minds back to another flagship policy of recent years - the introduction of Universal Credit.

In 2011, David Cameron argued that those on benefits shouldn't earn more than those in work. It’s difficult not to agree with his logic - work should pay more than the state pays in benefits.

Benefits have since been frozen, the benefit cap has been introduced and then reduced and an increasingly punitive approach to applicants' claims has been actively followed. The message has been clear – benefits are bad, work is good. The roll out of Universal Credit embodies this dogma with its promise of being both work friendly and a much simpler system to manage.

While it’s questionable whether it was ever possible to earn more in benefits than in work, the result of this approach has been disappointing. Employment has risen but large parts of this are linked to insecure and low paying work and ultimately wages have in fact regressed. In practice, Universal Credit is set to reduce the gap between those in work and those on benefits, not increase it.

This example demonstrates the potential pitfalls of policymaking that is based on a flawed or incomplete analysis of the problem it is trying to solve - and offers some indication of why the Homeless Reduction Act may not necessarily be an outright cause for celebration.

Just as the government probably should have focused on increasing wage growth rather than reducing welfare, the Homeless Reduction Act focuses on increasing local authorities' duties without tackling the fundamental causes of the housing crisis.

The ‘never me’ mindset

People rarely personally identify with homelessness or view it as relevant to their own lives. This ‘it could never be me’ mindset leads us to believe there is a chasm between your average working person and those on the streets.

That gap is in actuality rather small. One in three families are only a month's pay away from homelessness. There are over 300,000 recognised homeless households right now in England. One in 200 adults is homeless and in parts of London this increases to one in 25.

Recent rent rises have rapidly outstripped wage growth, with workers in London often spending more than half their income on rent. Similarly, poverty has soared especially among those in work, in retirement and for children.

Non fault evictions from the private rented sector are now the leading cause of homelessness. Yet 49 per cent of all homeless households who ask their local authority for help are told the council has no duty to support them.

A broken housing market

The government acknowledges that our housing market is broken and that we are in a crisis, yet our Homeless Minister remains unclear on why homelessness is rising. Despite UK renters paying double what our European counterparts average, the government largely focuses on increasing home ownership rather than regulating the rental market.

Inadequate wages, the increasing cost of living and unafordable, unavailable housing. The causes of homelessness are clear for the millions of people these issues affect daily.

For years, under increasing demand and without appropriate resource, local councils have had to increasingly 'gate keep' their housing stock and support. In some cases this is done with questionable legality meaning that homeless charities and support organisations have become embroiled in a growing war of advocacy to ensure councils do uphold their legal duties. Our broken housing system puts enormous pressures on councils to try to avoid helping people simply because they know their supply cannot meet demand.

Ultimately, the lack of resources does not stop the fact that people, human beings, need somewhere to live. If police officers with children are becoming homeless and nurses have to rely on foodbanks to survive, then what chance do care leavers or those with mental health needs, health problems or addiction have?

The biggest change in homeless legislation since 1977

Housing is a universal issue in Britain today and in part the government has recognised this. Its response has been the Homeless Reduction Act, the biggest change in homeless legislation since 1977. From Tuesday 3 April 2018, this Act will see new duties placed on local authorities meaning they have to offer more meaningful help to more people.

Households will be able to approach their local council for help 56 days before being made homeless, ideally preventing homelessness occurring at all. You will no longer need to meet the high threshold of 'Priority Need' in order to receive assistance and the council can no longer turn you away if you are deemed 'Intentionally Homeless'. All of these changes are undoubtedly positive.

Yet, the problem with the existing legislation wasn’t necessarily only about access – it was to do with a lack of available resource. Local councils have made it clear that the funding given to them to enact the new legislation is not enough and never will be as long as rents continue to rise and affordable housing continues to be a scarcity.

In the same way that government cuts to welfare did not improve working people's pay, the government's focus on forcing local councils to do more won’t tackle the lack of genuinely affordable housing that we so desperately need.