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Election 2015 – HJA Housing Team’s first reactions

The official government statistics on statutory homelessness, released by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), paint a sobering picture of the combined effect of five years of Coalition austerity policies coupled with the rising costs of living. While from 2003 to 2009, there was a consistent and steady decline every year in both the number of households applying for homelessness assistance and the number of households being accepted as homeless and ‘in priority need’ in England, the numbers of ‘acceptances’ and of households in temporary accommodation have increased sharply every year since the Coalition took power in 2010.

In 2013/2014, 52,270 households were accepted as being homeless and in priority need, an increase of 31% from 2009/2010. At the end of 2014, 61,900 households were in temporary accommodation, 46,700 of which were households with children. The welfare cuts also continue to displace people. A report by the Independent found that some 50,000 households in social housing have been silently relocated outside London in the last three years.

Against this backdrop, the new majority Conservative government has committed itself to implementing a further £12 billion in cuts to working age benefits. Though it is hard to paint a comprehensive picture of the next five years, some of their Manifesto pledges are worth commenting on:

Extending the Right to Buy Scheme to Housing Associations

The ‘aspirational’ Conservative policy of extending the right to buy to 1.3 million tenants in housing associations has been condemned by housing groups as another nail in the coffin of social housing. Under the scheme, tenants of housing associations will be offered substantial discounts to buy their housing association property (a little over £ 102,700 in London, and £ 77,000 in the rest of England). Local councils will bear the costs of subsidising these discounts – this scheme will be accompanied by a requirement that the councils sell off their most valuable properties in their available housing stock to fund the plan.

The Conservatives have sought to allay fears that this will shrink social housing stock by promising that any homes sold off under a scheme would be replaced on a ‘one to one’ basis. Housing groups have warned however that only one in ten council properties bought by tenants under previous right to buy schemes have been replaced despite similar ‘one for one’ pledges. About 37% of council houses sold under right to buy schemes have ended up in the hands of private landlords, who will also benefit from the requirement that councils sell off their most valuable housing stock – which is likely to be most of their stock in inner London. Requiring councils to sell off their valuable stock will also make it easier for them to justify out of borough placements for recipients of social housing.

Reduction in Benefits

The Conservatives have announced a new benefit cap of £23,000 per household, down from £26,000. This policy will not take into account the size of a household. Although this cap, which amounts to a cap of about £ 442 a week per household, may seem generous on paper to some, this allowance includes housing benefits. What this means for families not in social housing, especially in London, is that much of their ‘allowance’ will go towards paying towards the cost of ever increasing weekly rents [which in London is in the region of about £290 a week for a 2 bedroom flat.]

The Conservative government seems unfazed by the recent comments of the Supreme Court in R (on the application of SG and others) v Secretary of State for Work & Pensions, that the existing benefits cap of £500 a week, with its disproportionate effect on children, breaches the UK’s international obligations under the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child.

These problems will be exacerbated by the bedroom tax introduced under the Coalition government, which allows councils to reduce housing benefits to families in social housing even further if it considers that the family has ‘extra bedrooms’.

The reduction in housing benefit will put families at risk of being made homeless if they can no longer afford their rent. The economic logic behind these policies is shaky at best – if a family is made unintentionally homeless, the Council will be under a duty to house them, which will cost the taxpayer far more than the modest savings made from weekly benefit caps.

Legal Aid

In the wake of the cuts to civil legal aid since April 2013, the Conservative government is promising only to “review” legal aid so that it can “continue to provide access to justice in an efficient way”. Whatever form this “review” takes, the precedent set over the last five years suggest this is likely to involve yet more cuts. On a positive note, Lord Faulks accepted at the JUSTICE debate that legal aid cuts “have caused some hardship” and confirmed that LASPO would be reviewed between 2016 and 2018.

The Conservative manifesto is silent on court fees, simply undertaking to ‘continue the £375 million modernisation of our courts system, reducing delay and frustration for the public’. It is safe to presume that this government won’t be reversing the recent controversial increases in Court fees.

The challenge over the next few months is to decide how best to unite and act to minimise the expected damage that this new government could cause. While it may appear daunting, it is more vital than ever that we in the profession remain committed to finding new ways to continue to secure justice for the most vulnerable and invisible members of society.