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Scott Dawes
 

By Scott Dawes

In from the cold; bringing housing benefit advice back in scope

At Shelter we know better than anyone the value of expert housing advice, which frequently makes the difference between keeping a home and homelessness. Legal aid has long been a key source of funding for expert housing advice – including many of the services Shelter provides. But this funding was decimated by the now infamous Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO). Shelter campaigned tooth and nail against LASPO. Sadly, its impacts have been nothing short of huge; ten Shelter advice services have closed since its introduction and legal help for housing has been removed from nearly 40,000 people.[1]

Now the Justice Select Committee is following up its critical 2011 report on LASPO with a series of evidence sessions for an inquiry. Yesterday’s was on housing – so what happened?

Someone who is only too familiar with the impacts of LASPO is our Principal Solicitor and Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year, John Gallagher. Having worked tirelessly for Shelter for twenty-seven years, John was best placed to give evidence on behalf of Shelter in Parliament yesterday.

John stressed that advice on housing benefit problems is no longer in scope for legal aid – which means people cannot get legal advice on these issues. The Government justified this because the issues were of “relatively minor importance”, but evidence given to the committee today by John and others showed how often that just isn’t true.

“Relatively minor” errors in a decision about someone’s housing benefit can contribute significantly to financial hardship, rent arrears, possession claims and eventual homelessness – something flagged to the Committee back in 2011.[2] As John went on to explain, benefits legislation is also vastly complicated – if a tiny piece of information is not gathered or processed correctly it can lead to the wrong decision being made. The average person – let alone a vulnerable one – can struggle to even identify such problems, let alone convince officials to reconsider their decisions.

Taking benefits advice out of scope probably doesn’t even save money. Evidence to the Committee in 2011 showed that every £1 spent on housing advice saves on average £2.34 of public money.[3] Advice under the Legal Help scheme costs the taxpayer as little at £150 – going to court costs £1,000s. For example, possession proceedings in court can often uncover errors in processing claims that can lead to back payments of benefits that reduce rent arrears and prevent homelessness. But if a client had got this advice before the possession order – let alone the rent arrears – it would have saved the court’s time, and saved the landlord and tax-payer money.

The Government also justified the reduced scope for legal aid on the grounds that the third sector would pick up the slack. However, the Committee heard the reality yesterday from each of the three respected lawyers; a cap on how many can be helped means people in need get turned away. Advice providers like Shelter have had to close services, reducing the amount of help on offer. And barristers securing adjournments from the court are finding that there is such a shortage of advice that those with unresolved benefit claims are unable to resolve their benefit problems in time for the next hearing, causing more delay and costing the courts more money.

The reality of LASPO has been less preventative help, less funding for organisations advising vulnerable people, and less access to justice for those in genuine need. The Government should recognise that the restrictions aren’t saving money, and that vulnerable people are being denied access to justice; it is time to reinstate housing benefit advice under legal aid as soon as possible.

Hannah Gousy
 
Hannah is a policy officer at Shelter

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By Hannah Gousy

Guest blog- Nick Gracie-Langrick, Enforcement Officer, London Borough of Wandsworth

Environmental health teams are at the forefront of activities to prevent poor condition in private rented homes. They have first hand insight of the scale of poor conditions and the challenges renters face in getting repairs fixed. Nick Gracie-Langrick, Enforcement Officer from the London Borough of Wandsworth, has written this guest blog on how the Tenancies (Reform) Bill will help protect renters and improve conditions across the sector.

Supporting tenants who complain

Across the country one third of the 4.1million private rented homes fail the decent homes standard. Almost 10% have the worst possible energy efficiency rating; far too many tenants are living in poor, unsafe and substandard homes.

Local authorities have the power to improve privately rented properties. They can serve formal enforcement notices, which require the landlord to complete works or repair problems within a given timescale. Landlords are served with these notices – and given a reasonable time to comply – following a property inspection.  When landlords do not comply, the local authority can complete the works themselves, or prosecute or both.  There have been some substantial prosecution fines recently, including one totaling almost £66,000 for two London Borough of Redbridge landlords.

For many authorities, most of the visits they make arise only as a result of a tenant contacting them; although some do work proactively to target areas of poor quality rented stock.  Local authorities know that tenants can be evicted as a result of their work. To reduce the chance of this happening, they try to work in partnership with the landlord rather than taking an adversarial stance straight away. But in far too many cases, the landlord ignores these attempts and takes no action to improve their property.

Finding some of the worst properties can be the biggest challenge. In my roles at Birmingham, Brighton and now Wandsworth, I have seen families living in cellars, deep freezes and sheds. I know how desperate matters can be.  Local authorities have finite resources so their enforcement staff need to be inspecting and improving the worst homes.  We need tenants to come forward so that we can identify these homes. With many renters living in fear of eviction this can be impossible.

Sadly, I can name many examples of my work (including proactive work) that has resulted in tenants being evicted as part of the process; landlords blaming their tenants for interfering is the main reason this happens. We ask renters to request works from the landlord before contacting the council.

From an enforcing officer’s view, what I like about Sarah Teathers’ proposed Tenancies (Reform) Bill is that tenants will feel increasingly confident about contacting local authorities to report poor housing conditions. The frequent evictions following intervention will also stop. The same tenant that has complained will still be in the property once the improvements have been carried out – they will benefit from much better living conditions. I am confident that once the local authority intervention has passed, the landlord and tenant relationship can return to the pre-complaint situation.  For the assured shorthold tenancy to retain the flexibility it provides, I hope the Bill will encourage landlords to be more proactive about ensuring properties meet current decency standards.

 

Toby Lloyd
 
I'm Head of Policy at Shelter, and have worked on housing issues in the public, private and third sectors for nine years. I'm a Londoner, a cyclist, father of two young daughters and member of the Hackney Co-housing Project.

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By Toby Lloyd

Labour plays its hand on building more homes

As we regularly write about on this blog, housing looks like being a major issue at a general election for the first time in a generation. It’s now consistently a top 5 issue for voters, with even secure homeowners worried about where their children are going to live.

After decades of inaction from successive governments, it finally seems Westminster is starting to catch up with public concern.  But if they are to win over an increasingly cynical public all parties will need show how they actually propose to solve the problem.  So far, we’ve seen more rhetoric and piecemeal measures than concrete and coherent plans. To fill this gap, back in May Shelter and KPMG outlined a programme for the 2015 government, outlining how they could solve the housing shortage in one Parliament.

Today, Ed Miliband outlined Labour’s answer with the launch of the Lyons review – and it’s notable that he chose a swing seat, Milton Keynes, in which to do it.

So how does the review measure up?

On the whole, it’s very encouraging.  Many of the recommendations outlined in Shelter/KPMG’s report in May have been adopted. These include a Housing Investment Bank, New Homes Zones and ambitious targets for Garden Cities based closely on our Wolfson Economics Prize submission. Together they represent a credible platform for building the homes we need as a country.

Most importantly, the review identifies England’s dysfunctional land market as the heart of the problem, with some practical solutions and policies offered on how this area can be reformed. This a bold and clear sighted attempt to get to grips with the real reason we don’t build enough homes: the high price of land. If we can get reform of the land supply market right it could push house building into another gear – one that can build more, better and more affordable homes.

Alongside urgently needed social housing, it’s also promising to see the review back lower-cost routes into homeownership for young people facing high house prices. Products like Part-Buy, Part-Rent homes are needed to meet the needs and aspirations of a growing middle market, and our polling shows these are popular with the public. That same polling showed that Lyons’ idea of ‘local homes for first time buyers’ can also prove popular. This continues a growing trend of parties seeking to tap in to the ‘homes for who?’ question: two weeks ago David Cameron  announced a starter homes policy which would ban buy-to-let and foreign investors from buying new homes for first time buyers.

That said, there are still gaps.

More detail is needed, particularly on how desperately needed affordable homes can be paid for. While innovative financing and prioritising investment in housing within existing budgets can cover some of the bill, it’s unlikely to be sufficient by itself. Realistically, it just won’t be possible to build the homes we need as quickly as we need them without extra investment to get affordable supply moving while longer term reforms bed in. Money will need to be found: we suggested a minimum of extra £1.25bn a year.

And then there’s next steps. At the moment this is still talk, rather than action. We want to see the Labour Party promise to deliver these measures in full if they win power. After all, in thirteen years in government they built nowhere near enough homes. None of what Sir Michael says will mean much unless it is accompanied by the political will and investment necessary.

On to the election

Thankfully, over the past five years we’ve seen each of the main political parties begin to grapple with this issue in their own particular way. The Lib Dems committed to building 300,000 homes a year, and the Conservatives made ‘Building for Britain’ a central part of the 2014 budget. Influential commentators in and around all three parties are urging them to seize the political opportunity the housing crisis presents.

But they must go further. To date, the Lyons Review represents the most detailed answer to the fundamental questions of housing supply. The coalition parties are due to publish the Elphicke and House review later in the year: we look forward to all parties showing their hand and making the firm commitments our chronic housing shortage demands.

Scott Dawes
 

By Scott Dawes

Party Conferences: Half Way House

Amid the blur of fringe events, policy motions, twitter-tattle, and media sound bites, it was easy to get distracted during this year’s party conferences. Some key questions emerged: like, what pyjama patterns should we expect from our public figures? Can a speech have a deficit deficit? And is Lib Denim really a vote winner?

But let’s step back from the noise of conference season and look at what the myriad of announcements might tell us.

Labour’s conference did not see the expected publication of the Lyons Review, so we had to rely on some interesting teasers: the creation of “new homes corporations”; a commitment to double the number of first time buyers; reiteration of a ban on letting fees; and building 200,000 more homes a year by 2020.

All of this sounds positive – not least because many of their proposal are similar to those Shelter and KPMG proposed in our Building the homes we need report. The big gap was that, with Labour at pains to avoid being seen as big spenders, there was a noticeable lack of specific investment pledges; in fact, no new capital investment borrowing and no powers for Council’s to borrow more.

Labour also avoided tough questions on structural welfare reform. The focus on the gap between wages and the cost of living seems to be manifesting itself in solutions weighted heavily in favour of the former. But boosting wages isn’t a long term solution to rising house prices, and consequently not to the increasing number of in-work families claiming housing benefit.

Despite these draw backs, Ed Miliband did suggest housing would be the spending priority for a future Labour government, which is cryptic but encouraging. Labour are arguably giving themselves wiggle-room but sooner or later serious policies need serious money.

The Conservatives, on the other hand, remain firmly in the territory of aspiration. A new announcement on 100,000 discounted homes for first time buyers under 40s will have caught voters’ eyes, and could signal a positive willingness to intervene to get more homes built. As with Labour’s proposals, we’ll need to see the detail before passing judgement, but making these new homes cheaper by removing Section 106 affordable housing commitments is a bit like robbing Peter to pay Paul.

The Conservative’s Rent-to-Buy scheme, which we know polls well with consumers, is a bit more imaginative and of course completes the trio of Conservative rhyming housing offers, alongside Right-to-Buy and Help-to-Buy. They have earmarked £400 million in loans to get social landlords building – the only party to make a specific, and sizeable, spending pledge so far. However, while schemes like this could help some people to buy a home who might not otherwise be able to do so, without addressing supply, voters will be left wanting.

Where the Conservatives have also been keen to talk money has been in the form of benefits. With the housing benefit bill rising – driven partly by more working households needing help to pay the rent – the Conservatives have pledged to lower the total household benefits cap to £23,000, and to freeze benefits at current levels. Both blunt tools and likely to make life worse for families, particularly renters. With the economy recovering, wages stalling and more working households needing housing support, it’s unclear how these policies will play out at the election.

In addition, 18-21 year olds might be barred from claiming housing benefit altogether. Although this is less of a money saver if you exempt families, care leavers and disabled people, it clearly shows a willingness to cut welfare costs further – even if it proves controversial – to try and win a few more votes come May.

In essence, the Conservatives continue to grasp that voters are concerned about housing and that they need offers that play to those anxieties. But so far, this has meant treating symptoms not causes: it’s really the lack of genuinely affordable homes that is pushing up the housing benefit bill.

The Lib Dems, back in the labyrinthine SECC in Glasgow for the second year running, were characteristically doing their own thing, for better or worse.

Tessa Munt’s policy motion, which made ending retaliatory evictions party policy, echoed closely our own 9 Million Renters campaign. Rarely, there is an almost instant opportunity to achieve this; MPs will vote on banning the practice on November 28th. But if the Lib Dems don’t capitalise on this, it could raise doubts on how deliverable their other pledges really are.

Party President, Tim Farron, led the charge on affordable homes. It is now Lib Dem policy to create a Housing Investment Bank; improve tenure mix; give more powers to councils to acquire cheaper land; create new home zones; and put the housing minister in the Cabinet – not too bad at all, but lacking concrete funding commitments.

Worryingly, housing did not feature in their pre-manifesto document, and Nick Clegg failed to mention housing in his key note speech – something both Ed Miliband and David Cameron did. It is curious that, although housing is a consistent top-5 voter issue and Lib Dems are committed to building the most homes (300,000) of all major parties, they just aren’t selling it to the public. If they’re not careful, they could be left behind by other parties.

So where did conference season leave housing overall? The good news is that all of the major parties are grappling with the issue – each in their own way, but crucially ramping up the political focus. The challenge for all the parties now is to combine a decent policy, a costed plan and an attractive offer to voters. Housing is going to loom large in the General Election and, at this stage, the issue remains up for grabs.

 

Martha Mackenzie
 
I’m the Stakeholder Relations Assistant at Shelter, I joined the Public Affairs team in July 2012. I have been working on a wide range of projects, most notably engaging with local authorities through our rogue landlords campaign. In my spare time I’m studying for a MA in legal and political theory. When not chained to a desk I can usually be found running or cycling around London.

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By Martha Mackenzie

Tackling revenge eviction – a step closer

Guest blog by Sarah Teather MP 

I’m delighted to be working with Shelter and the Government to tackle revenge evictions.

In my 11 years as an MP, a number of victims of revenge eviction have come through the doors of my constituency office in Willesden Green needing my help. But there is little I or anyone else can do to stop landlords evicting tenants simply because they have reported dangerous or unsanitary conditions in their homes.

Section 21 of the Housing Act 1988 gives landlords the power to evict renters without a reason. These powers are often used when a landlord wants to sell a property or move into it. But because Section 21 eviction notices can be issued without a reason, the system is open to abuse by rogue landlords.

This is bad for everyone: tenants, good landlords and local authorities.

It’s bad for tenants. If rogue landlords evict tenants and re-let properties instead of fixing problems, poor conditions prevail. The threat of eviction also means many stay silent – as many as 12% of all tenants have not reported a problem for this reason.

But it’s also bad for good landlords. With many tenants too scared to report problems, landlords will often only find out about problems when a tenancy ends. Most landlords want to know about poor conditions so they can do something about it.

Finally, it’s bad for local authorities. Currently, many councils are hesitant to serve a statutory notice on a landlord’s property because they fear the tenants will be evicted and will need re-housing. Removing the threat of retaliatory eviction means local authorities will feel more confident in tackling conditions in the private rented sector.

Some groups are more at risk: if you live in London, receive Housing Benefit or are from an ethnic minority, statistics show you are more likely to be a victim of revenge eviction.

This is brought into stark relief when you realise that 17% of BME renters in London have been victims in the last year, compared to the 2% figure for the UK as a whole.

That’s why I decided to use my Private Members’ Bill to stop retaliatory eviction. A small change in the law will make a big difference to England’s 9 million renters.

Shelter and housing professionals have been calling for this change for years. Their tireless work and the Government’s welcome support for my Bill means we now have a fantastic opportunity to end revenge eviction once and for all.

Take action today – email your MP and ask them to vote for the Tenancies (Reform) Bill on 28th November.

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