Local authorities’ duties

Local authorities in England have a duty to secure accommodation for unintentionally homeless households who fall into a ‘priority need’ category under Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996 (as amended).  There is no duty to secure accommodation for all homeless people. On 3 April 2018, local authorities acquired a duty to work to prevent and relieve homelessness for all eligible homeless applicants – authorities’ advice and assistance duties were also strengthened.

Experimental statistics 

Official statistics on statutory homelessness are published by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG). For many years, quarterly releases included details of households accepted as owed a statutory duty and numbers in temporary accommodation. Prevention and relief activity by local authorities was recorded separately but then included in the quarterly releases. MHCLG started to publish a new style of statistical release with quarterly statistics from April 2018 onwards.

These releases differ from the previous series in two ways: they account for local authorities’ new duties under the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 and reflect a new system for collecting statistical information. Local authorities are now required to submit case-level data to the Ministry via a new system called the Homelessness Case Level Information Collection (H-CLIC). H-CLIC provides data on individual people in each household (previously, only household-level data was available). The Ministry said that H-CLIC should “allow us to better understand the causes and effects of homelessness.”

Trends in statutory homelessness

MHCLG’s former releases tracked the number of households deemed to be owed a duty to secure accommodation (i.e. unintentionally homeless and in priority need). The financial year 2010/11 saw a 10% increase in homelessness acceptances by local authorities, representing the first financial year increase since 2003/4. Homelessness acceptances continued to rise over the next three years but fell by 3% between 2012/13 and 2013/14. The 2014/15 financial year recorded a further increase, with acceptances 36% higher than in 2009/10 (but 60% below the peak in 2003/4). Acceptances increased again in 2015/16 and 2016/17 but fell by 4% in 2017/18 compared to the previous year.

MHCLG’s latest release describes local authorities’ activity between January and March 2020. The release covers the first week of the Covid-19 lockdown in England (23 to 31 March 2020). The release is classed as ‘experimental statistics’ because of several data quality issues. Some local authorities did not provide any data and others reported confusion about some of the reporting requirements.

When a household applies to their local authority for assistance an initial decision is made to determine whether they are owed a prevention or a relief duty. 95% of initial decisions recorded between January and March 2020 found that a duty was owed: 38,450 prevention duties and 36,960 relief duties. Local authorities accepted 10,260 households as being owed a main homelessness duty – since 3 April 2018 households are only owed a main duty if their homelessness has not been successfully prevented or relieved.

Causes of homelessness

The increase in statutory homelessness since 2009/10 is attributed to several factors, of which the most important is identified as a continuing shortfall in levels of new house building, particularly of affordable housing, relative to levels of household formation. Housing Benefit reforms are also viewed as a significant contributory factor, particularly in London. In addition to contributing to levels of homelessness, local authorities in areas of high housing demand argue that benefit reforms have made it more difficult for them to secure housing for eligible applicants. This is reflected in one of the key findings recorded in The homelessness monitor: England 2019:

The safety net once provided by Housing Benefit, whereby post housing incomes were protected from erosion below basic benefit levels, has now effectively ended for the bulk of private tenants in receipt of benefit across the country, with young people under 35 particularly badly affected by reduced Local Housing Allowance rates and the working age benefit freeze.  

The National Audit Office (NAO, 2017) determined that the impact of the Government’s welfare reforms on homelessness had not been evaluated:

Homelessness in all its forms has significantly increased in recent years, and at present costs the public sector in excess of £1 billion a year. It appears likely that the decrease in affordability of properties in the private rented sector, of which welfare reforms such as the capping of Local Housing Allowance are an element, have driven this increase in homelessness. Despite this, the government has not evaluated the impact of its welfare reforms on homelessness, or the impact of the mitigations that it has put in place.

Overall, the NAO’s report concluded that the Government’s approach to tackling homelessness could not demonstrate value for money. The Public Accounts Committee (December 2017) said the Government’s attitude to reducing homelessness “has been unacceptably complacent”. The Government responded to the PAC report in March 2018, accepting several recommendations. MHCLG commissioned joint research with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) into “the wider causes of homelessness, including households’ experience of the welfare system as well as other factors such as housing affordability or relationship breakdown.” See section 2 of this paper for more information.

There are indications that the challenges faced by housing providers arising from the Covid-19 outbreak may impact on their ability to meet their statutory obligations to homeless people once the crisis passes, although the decision to increase Local Housing Allowance rates was welcomed (see section 5.6 of this paper).

The Homelessness Reduction Act 2017

On 17 December 2015, the Government said it would work with homelessness organisations and across government departments “to explore options, including legislation, to prevent more people from facing a homelessness crisis in the first place.”

During summer 2015, Crisis established an independent panel of experts to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the homelessness legislation in England. The panel’s findings were published in April 2016: The Homelessness legislation: an independent review of the legal duties owed to homeless people. The panel concluded that the case for reform was strong, and favoured changes to place more emphasis on preventative work within a statutory framework, particularly in relation to single people and childless couples. The annex to the report included suggested amendments to the legislative framework.

Bob Blackman drew second place in the 2016 Private Members’ Bill Ballot. He introduced the Homelessness Reduction Bill 2016-17 on 29 June 2016. The Bill attracted Government and cross-Party support and obtained Royal Assent on 27 April 2017 and came into force on 3 April 2018. As noted above, authorities in England are now required to place more emphasis on the prevention and relief of homelessness for all eligible applicants. By focusing on improved prevention and relief at an earlier stage it is hoped that fewer households will be owed a main homelessness duty and that local authorities will reduce their use of temporary accommodation. The Government is distributing £72.7 million to authorities between 2017/18 and 2019/20 in respect of the new duties. The Act forms a major part of the Government’s approach to tackling homelessness.

The Housing, Communities and Local Government (HCLG) Select Committee opened an inquiry into the Homelessness Reduction Act – One Year on on 5 April 2019. A one-off evidence session was held on 23 April 2019. The Government opened a call for evidence on the impact of the Act in July 2019. The Evaluation of the Implementation of the Homelessness Reduction Act: Final Report was made publicly available on 25 September 2020.

Other relevant Library papers

Long-term time series data can be downloaded from the landing page for this briefing. This includes data on decisions made on household prior to the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, and the background of applicants accepted as homeless and in priority need.

Duties owed to the non-statutory homeless are covered in Library briefing paper: Rough sleeping (England) (2007). A separate paper focuses on the placement of statutorily homeless households in temporary accommodation (02110). 

There are variations in approaches to homelessness in Scotland and Wales – these variations are outlined in Comparison of homelessness duties in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland (07201).



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