Dr Peter Mackie assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the Housing (Wales) Bill
We should be proud that Welsh Government has prioritised the development of homelessness legislation, not least because it is doing so at a time when most public services are retrenching in the UK, Europe and beyond. The Welsh Government has an opportunity to develop progressive legislation, which addresses homelessness in Wales, unhampered by the need to accommodate the challenges of a unique London context. As the Housing (Wales) Bill progresses through scrutiny I wish to reflect briefly on the key strengths and weaknesses of the homelessness section and bring to the fore concerns about implementation.
This week on Click on Wales
This week Assembly Members will debate the Welsh Government’s Housing (Wales) Bill, which has reached stage three in the legislative process. Although the Bill has been welcomed by many across the sector – with some calling it ‘extremely progressive’ – there are others who rue it as a ‘missed opportunity’. As the debate continues in the Senedd we are pleased to present a series of blogs from a leading academic, a former Housing Minister and a prominent Welsh housing and homelessness charity.
Today: Dr Peter Mackie assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the Housing Bill.
Tomorrow: Jocelyn Davies gives her perspective as a Former Housing Minister now in opposition.
Thursday: Shelter Cymru give their view on the role of the Housing (Wales) Bill in tackling homelessness in Wales.
There are two major strengths of the Housing (Wales) Bill. First, the legislation clearly embraces the idea that the first task of local authorities should be to prevent homelessness wherever possible – Wales will be the first of the UK nations to have enshrined this common sense principle into a legal requirement.
The second major strength is that the legislation will require local authorities to offer meaningful and early assistance to all people who face homelessness (meaningful assistance will include: financial assistance, mediation, tenancy support, support accessing the PRS etc). Currently, the homelessness legislation is based on an all or nothing framework, leaving many people destitute. The shift towards a universal entitlement to early intervention is extremely progressive.
Despite the clear strengths of the new legislative framework, there are four major limitations, most of which are deviations from the direction of travel originally set out in the Housing White paper.
First, if a person seeks assistance and they are already homeless, only those perceived to be in priority need for help will be offered temporary accommodation. This creates inequity and is likely to result in worse outcomes for those without a safe place to stay whilst they are being helped.
Second, where meaningful early assistance fails, local authorities will continue to apply the priority need test in order to determine who the local authority must house, essentially reverting back to an all or nothing system. Scotland has abolished this test without the same commitment to homelessness prevention – ending the priority need test is achievable.
Third, local authorities will continue to have the power to exclude people who have done something or failed to do something which resulted in them losing their accommodation (the intentionality test). This test was originally included in the homelessness legislation to prevent people from using the system to access an increasingly scarce supply of social housing. The Housing (Wales) Bill no longer automatically entitles households to anything more than meaningful assistance; this falls a long way short of a council house for life. I see no reason why the test of intentionality should remain – it can only serve to penalise households clearly in need of support.
Fourth, the legislation places only limited expectations on local authorities to identify causes of homelessness and support needs. An opportunity has been missed to ensure support needs are fully assessed and associated support put in place: we know that homelessness is often the manifestation of wider non-housing issues and these must be addressed.
My reflections on the Housing (Wales) Bill are those of a critical friend – I am proud of the Welsh endeavour to develop progressive legislation, albeit there are clearly missed opportunities. There are few remaining opportunities to shape the direction of the legislation as it moves through scrutiny, hence my attention inevitably turns to implementation. My concerns concentrate on two inter-related issues: 1] Regulation of the legislation, and 2] Monitoring and data analysis.
In the review of international homelessness policies which informed the Housing (Wales) Bill, it was absolutely clear that reliable and comprehensive data must be collected in order to be able to monitor progress and the impacts of change. The review also stated that the role of the regulator had been key to the successful implementation of new legislation in Scotland, whereas the absence of a regulator in Ireland had been detrimental. Welsh Government has not responded to the recommendations for a regulator and improved data collection: there is limited time to put in place appropriate monitoring and regulation arrangements and I fear that without improvements in this area the potential of the legislation to address homelessness for many households in Wales will go unfulfilled.