Lessons to be learned from North of the border?

Conservative MP Bob Blackman recently introduced a Private Members Bill to amend and update England’s homelessness legislation. The discussion about the need for legislative change, and what this might look like, has been rumbling on for a little while now. One feature of this debate has been a comparison with England’s neighbouring nations, where approaches to helping homeless people have diverged from ours.

In response to these discussions, Shelter put together a briefing which summarises the recent changes to homeless legislation in Scotland and Wales, analyses whether or not the changes have been successful, and looks at implications for introducing such changes in England.

On the policy blog recently we looked at what has happened in Wales. This week, we are looking north of the border.

What are the key differences?

Since devolution in 1999, Scotland’s approach has departed significantly from England’s. A number of changes have been introduced which increased help for all homeless households, including measures which re-focused homelessness support and particularly improved the help given to single homeless people.

The key difference came with the removal of ‘priority need’ categories in Scotland. Since 2012, anyone and everyone who presents to the council and is found unintentionally homeless will be eligible for settled accommodation as well as temporary accommodation. Intentionally homeless households also have access to temporary accommodation. This is huge shift away from the approach in England, where the council only has a duty to rehouse those considered ‘vulnerable’, with children or other specified circumstances, and councils strictly scrutinise whether someone could be deemed responsible for their situation.

Notably, these changes in Scotland were also coupled with the introduction of an approach to homelessness prevention called ‘Housing Options’. This was based on the model already used in England, and which significantly reduced homelessness south of the border after its introduction. Housing Options is a process which begins with housing advice and considers an individual’s housing choices in the widest sense, exploring all tenure options. Essentially it means that councils should try and prevent homelessness earlier on – but it can also mean that people who would be assessed as homeless if making an application can be dealt with through other routes.

The steps taken to prevent homelessness are wide ranging and will vary from case to case. It could mean trying to keep people in their current home, by, for example, negotiating with a landlord. Or it could mean finding them somewhere new to live before they officially become statutorily homeless. For councils, this preventative approach reduces the number of people they need to rehouse and in Scotland made it possible for them to meet their duties to the wider group from 2012.

So, what has happened?

On the face of it, the changes seem to have been introduced successfully.

Despite the removal of ‘priority need’ 4 years ago (which you would expect to increase demand), there have been some noticeable changes in homelessness trends. Since 2011/12, the number of homelessness applications in Scotland has steadily declined. In 2014/15, applications fell by 4%, while the number of acceptances dropped by 5%.

Scotland homelessness applications
Graph: Scotland – number of applications for homelessness assistance

These trends have calmed fears that the removal of priority need would lead to a significant increase in homelessness applications and acceptances. Analysis by Shelter Scotland has shown that this downward trend is solely attributable to the application of the preventative Housing Options model rather than any reduction in the underlying causes of homelessness. The successful application of the Housing Options approach made it more manageable for councils to implement the legislative changes, which represented a huge expansion of housing rights in Scotland.

It’s worth acknowledging, however, that the number of households in temporary accommodation has remained almost the same, despite the fall in homelessness acceptances. This could be a warning sign that local authorities are finding it hard to place people in settled accommodation and the existing supply of temporary accommodation is becoming backed up. Of course this is preferable to no accommodation and for some families time in TA may include much needed support services. But it’s a reminder that rehousing families is dependent on housing supply.

Would it work here? 

The removal of priority need in Scotland was not a ‘quick win’.  Local authorities were given 10 years to prepare for this monumental change. Within this time they worked hard to change and expand temporary accommodation and housing stock, as well as increasing prevention efforts.  The change in homeless legislation was an important driver in keeping up the pressure to invest in affordable accommodation.

Homelessness in England is, unfortunately, a tougher nut to crack. The housing crisis is more severe, affordable housing is much more restricted and challenges like welfare reform cut deeper. The context is dramatically different here, making it harder to translate Scottish successes across the border. And Housing Options is well established in England, meaning there are no ‘quick wins’ to be had in the English context of the housing market and the challenges presented by the lack of affordable housing.

Crucially, the success of Housing Options – which has been pivotal to prevention in Scotland – only works as well as the local supply of affordable accommodation allows. Since 2010, presentations, acceptances and the numbers in temporary accommodation in England have started to creep back up to pre-2003 levels as the supply of affordable accommodation has become more constrained.

Currently, the removal of priority need would be unmanageable in the context of housing supply in England. Legislative change and changes to practice simply won’t be effective without adequate stocks of affordable homes to house people in. Again, Scotland has the advantage that the government has committed to building significant numbers of genuinely affordable homes.

Councils in England are more often expecting supply to dwindle and are already under the cosh, highlighted by the fact that they are having to place more and more families further and further away from their home area or in unsuitable bed and breakfasts.

It is also worth considering the different drivers of homelessness in each country and, related to this, the stark differences between the private rented sectors. As we celebrated on our blog earlier this year, as of December 2017 Scotland will have indefinite tenancies in the PRS. This stands in stark contrast to England, where the ending of an Assured Shorthold Tenancy in the private rented sector is the leading cause of homelessness.

Overall then, while Scotland’s example is an interesting one, it unfortunately probably isn’t the right way forward for England right now. While our supply of affordable housing remains so limited, and 6-month minimum tenancies create an inherently unstable private rented Sector, England will have to look elsewhere for inspiration.