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). MHCLG started to publish a new style of quarterly homelessness statistics from April 2018 onwards. These statistics record local authorities’ activities to prevent and relieve homelessness under the duties introduced in 2018. They are under development and classed as Experimental Statistics.

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). This number started to rise in 2010/11 for the first time since 2003/04, and continued to rise in most subsequent years. The number of households accepted as homeless in 2017/18 was 41% higher than in 2009/10. Because MHCLG’s current releases reflect different homelessness duties, they are not directly comparable with former releases.

Trends in statutory homelessness

MHCLG’s latest release describes local authorities’ activity between April and June 2020. The government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted on the types of household being helped by local authorities. Around 25,500 households were assessed and owed a prevention duty in this quarter, and a further 38,000 were owed a relief duty. The number of households owed a prevention duty was 32% lower than a year previously. This is likely due, in part, to government action to prevent evictions from private rented sector tenancies during the pandemic. Similarly, the number of households owed a relief duty was 14% higher than a year previously, in part due to the government’s “Everyone In” policy which asked local authorities to provide housing for rough sleepers during the Covid-19 outbreak.

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 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 (see section 5.7 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. Having obtained Royal Assent on 27 April 2017, the Act 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 distributed £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 households 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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