The housing crisis: a Supreme Court ruling which stares into the eye of the storm

A landmark Supreme Court case has seen a family reunited and the court quash a council’s decision to try and place a homeless family out of their local area. It’s great news for them; and potentially important for local policy and practice too – which is why Shelter intervened in the case.

Today’s judgment reiterates that as far as reasonably practicable homeless families should be accommodated in their local area, and failing that they should be accommodated close by.  The judgment also makes it clear that councils should carefully consider the needs of children when making these decisions. Both are a welcome reminder that the circumstances of a family cannot be blithely ignored – and placing families out of their local area should not be embarked on lightly. Make no mistake, there are consequences of sending families away from everything they know.

But here’s the thing.

What today’s judgment brings into sharp focus is that councils, and the homeless families they help, are in the eye of the housing storm.

Councils are tethered to homeless families by their legal duties and subject to the very forces driving families to councils for help in the first place: a heady mix of a housing shortage, growing dependency on unstable private renting, and inadequate housing benefit.

In tacit recognition of the conundrum faced by councils the Supreme Court hasn’t prohibited councils from placing homeless families out of their local area. The idea of sufficient cheap accommodation is just an unfunny joke in some areas of the country – be it for homeless families or not. But councils will not be able to throw up their hands in defeat: the Supreme Court has said local authorities must have a policy for procuring sufficient temporary accommodation to meet the expected need.

The Supreme Court has accepted this may include out of borough units but ruled that if councils plan on having to send swathes of homeless families to cheap parts of the country (like our research suggests) they must have a publicly available policy which clearly explains the factors that would be taken into account when offering households accommodation out of borough.

We welcome this ruling: it will ensure families are not uprooted when it will be catastrophically detrimental to them, make it easier to keep abreast of where families are being sent and help evidence the pressure of the housing shortage on councils to central government.

But councils have surely been given an unenviable task: because publicising and justifying plans to disperse some homeless families throughout the country will in no way supersede the legal requirement for councils to consider suitability and the well-being of children in each individual homeless case. ‘We sent them to cheap accommodation in Broxbourne because rents are too high’ just won’t cut it.

Today’s ruling shows that if councils are unable to adequately consider the needs of each homeless family this will not go unchallenged. But if they can’t find cheap accommodation close to home they will struggle to accommodate families satisfactorily – and could time and again find themselves dancing on the edge of the law. It will be interesting to see how long councils can continue with this unhappy dance.

Today’s ruling reiterates what we know all too well at Shelter: the next government must build many more truly affordable homes and ensure that housing support reflects the true cost of renting. Until then, homeless families – and councils – will continue to be swept along by the housing crisis.