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A requirement for “reasonable preference”

Local authorities must develop housing allocation schemes which give “reasonable preference” to certain categories of applicant (Part 6 of the Housing Act 1996). Aside from this, they have a good deal of discretion over how they allocate their housing stock.

Nominations by local authorities to stock owned by housing associations (also known as private registered providers) are allocated within the same legal framework.

There’s statutory guidance to which authorities must have regard when developing and implementing their allocation schemes.

Local connection and residency requirements

Current guidance strongly encourages authorities to adopt a residency requirement for applications: “The Secretary of State believes that a reasonable period of residency would be at least 2 years.” Some authorities implement longer periods.

The Government has acted to ensure certain applicants, such as ex-armed forces personnel, those seeking to move for work, and those fleeing violence or threats of violence, are not disadvantaged by residence requirements.

Despite this, some successful legal challenges have been taken against authorities’ allocation schemes where the residence test and other requirements have impacted on the duty to give certain applicants (those accepted as homeless or living in overcrowded or insanitary accommodation) “reasonable preference” for housing allocations.

A long wait for housing

The number of households on local authority waiting lists peaked in 2012 at 1.85 million. In 2001, a requirement was placed on authorities to consider all applications, ie authorities’ ability to impose blanket bans on certain categories of applicant was removed. The Localism Act 2011 removed this requirement.

The number of households on waiting lists fell each year after 2012, reaching a low point of 1.15 million in 2018. The numbers have since risen slightly, reaching 1.19 million at the end of March 2021.

Building post-pandemic prosperity (October 2021), a report commissioned by the Local Government Association (LGA), the National Federation of ALMOs NFA) and the Association of Retained Council Housing (ARCH), predicts a “sharp rise” in the numbers on waiting lists. The report comments on the length of time households spend waiting for social housing:

More than one in ten households are on council waiting lists for more than five years. Insufficient council housing stock in the face of high demand already means that some households wait for long periods before being placed in a social rent home.

Longer waiting times are recorded in areas of high housing need:

The highest priority council areas for levelling up have some of the greatest concentrations of housing need. Their waiting lists for council accommodation are 56 per cent longer than those in low priority districts, and they have a higher incidence of ‘urgent’ need cases. 

Who takes up new social housing lettings?

Around 306,000 new lettings were made in 2019/20, part of an ongoing fall in the number of new lettings. The number of new lettings made in 2019/20 was 2% lower than the year before, and 23% lower than a high point of around 396,000 lettings in 2013/14.

New tenants taking up general needs social lettings (as opposed to supported housing) tend to be young: approximately half of new lead tenants were aged under 35 in 2019/20. Around 90% of new lead tenants were UK nationals. Around 38% of new tenants in 2019/20 had come from a previous general needs social tenancy.

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