Social Housing Speed Read – the local connection requirement
14th March, 2016
WE look at the extension of the "local connection" requirement to four years for homeless applicants.
As many of you will be aware, the Prime Minister has announced a referendum on whether Britain should remain in the European Union and it is to be held on Thursday 23 June.
In anticipation of this, a White Paper has been published by the Government which sets out the UK’s reformed status in Europe.
We would particularly draw your attention to Chapter 2.107, which states that councils should extend the residency period to qualify for social housing from two years to four years.
On 14 October 2013 the Government launched a consultation exercise on proposals to amend the statutory guidance on housing allocations. The consultation paper contained a proposal to encourage local authorities to operate a two year residency test.
Supplementary guidance was published in December 2013 ‘Providing social housing for local people’ which stated that local authorities are obliged to have regard to the guidance in exercising their functions under Part 6 of the Housing Act 1996.
Within the guidance the Secretary of State suggests that including a residency requirement is appropriate and strongly encourages all housing authorities to adopt such an approach, the reasonable period of residency would be at least two years. The justification for the policy is that a social housing tenant should have a sufficient ‘local connection’ to an area in which they reside.
The Housing Law Practitioners Association (HLPA) expressed concerns over how the introduction of residency requirements might interact with local authorities’ duties to assist, for example, out-of-area homeless applicants, EU citizens and travellers.
The HLPA responded as follows: “We fear that it will prove impossible to craft a lawful policy, having regard to the various groups of people for whom it would plainly be unlawful to require them to demonstrate two years residency in the area.”
Despite the objections, the statutory guidance was embraced by many councils. According to research undertaken by Inside Housing in 2014, at least 77 councils had struck people off their housing lists for reasons including lack of sufficient connection to a local area.
The proposed changes
The White Paper , which was published on 22 February 2016, stated that the two year period of residency will be extended to four years. The justification provided was that, “ensuring sufficient affordable housing is available for those among the local population who are on low incomes or otherwise disadvantaged and would find it particularly difficult to find a home on an open market”.
The Localism Act 2011 was designed to give local authorities the power to define qualifying persons as those with a local connection, which arguably has taken place. However, there have been negative impacts associated with this.
From a moral perspective, the lack of protection and consideration for vulnerable groups, such as domestic violence victims, is concerning. Supporters would argue that there are exceptions to the general rule and councils can exercise discretion when dealing with special circumstances. However, in practice this is not always the case.
Ealing Council in 2013 introduced a policy barring people from joining its housing register unless they had lived in the borough for at least five years. In 2014, a homeless mother of five was barred from joining Ealing Council’s housing waiting list because she had not lived in the borough for the required period.
The mother left Hounslow for Ealing after fleeing domestic violence. The reviewing court found the policy breached Part 7 of the 1996 Housing Act, which requires councils to give “reasonable preference” to homeless people.
The proposal to amend the guidance potentially presents further “gatekeeping” and red tape for registered providers. Providing guidance in an ‘advisory’ capacity, as is the case here, can be problematic as it causes ambiguity and confusion in its application.
As the length of the period of residency is extended, we are likely to see further complications and misapplication of the guidance. Over the coming years it is predicted that there will be a series of further legislative challenges or possibly judicial reviews.
If you have any questions regarding the new guidance and how it will affect social housing providers, or any other questions as a social housing provider, please do not hesitate to contact John Murray or a member of our expert Social Housing Team.
Please note that this briefing is designed to be informative, not advisory and represents our understanding of English law and practice as at the date indicated. We would always recommend that you should seek specific guidance on any particular legal issue.
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