Homeless set to lose housing rights: Local authorities able to impose tighter restrictions on emergency assistance

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The Independent Online
HOMELESS people, more than two-fifths of whom are single-parent families, are to lose their right to permanent housing, the Government said yesterday.

Local authorities will retain a duty to provide a 'safety net' of temporary accommodation, but will be able to impose tighter restrictions on who is eligible for emergency assistance.

Sir George Young, the housing minister, said the new regime proposed in a Green Paper on public housing allocation would be fairer, and would end the 'fast-track' route to permanent homes for homeless families ahead of those on council waiting lists. Private-sector landlords, in partnership with local authorities, are to be encouraged to offer properties for temporary housing of the homeless.

The proposals fulfil a pledge to the Conservative Party conference to end abuses of the housing waiting system, which heralded the Government's 'back to basics' campaign. But Sir George carefully avoided the earlier rhetoric by ministers against single mothers, and claims that they deliberately became pregnant to gain council housing. Single parents make up 28 per cent of those being granted public tenancies, compared to 12 per cent from applicants on the waiting lists.

Shelter, the housing charity, attacked the proposals and said that no new homes would result. Sheila McKechnie, its director, said that the Government was simply changing the order of the housing queue and playing off the desperate against the very desperate.

'Have we learned nothing since the 1960s when Shelter was set up to stop families being moved around from one temporary home to another? Do we really want to see families who don't know where their children will be at school next term, whether they will be able to get to their job and what the future holds for them?' she said.

The charity was worried that the proposed changes would make it easier for local authorities to 'export' their homeless by renting private-sector accommodation in another area, and allow them to introduce strict limits on who they accepted as homeless.

Sir George's proposals remove automatic qualification for families asked to leave by their family and friends. Authorities could be expected to demand court orders granting possession before accepting someone as being in emergency assistance.

The Government suggests that local authorities should not be under a duty to provide emergency assistance to a person who has any form of accommodation available, however temporary.

Peter Challis, chair of the housing committee of the Association of London Authorities, said short private-sector tenancies would lead to spiralling additions to the bill for housing benefit.

'Worse still, people who move from one friend's home to another, sleeping on floors or settees, will no longer be regarded as homeless. We need more permanent homes, not more scapegoats,' he said.

The changes come amid controversy over the housing policies of the Conservative-controlled councils of Westminster and Wandsworth, with allegations that they did not fully comply with their duties to the homeless by aggressive selling of council properties.

Research conducted for the Department of the Environment shows that waiting-list applicants have to wait an average of nearly two years for housing - double that for those declared homeless.

In many areas, including most of London, the pressure on public housing is so great that only the homeless are being offered tenancies. Waits of more than 10 years for those on housing lists in the capital are not uncommon.

No changes are proposed in the criteria for defining priority need, including those who are victims of domestic violence, and the Government is seeking views on whether special provision needs to be made for very young single mothers where it is clear they will get no support from their families.

'We don't believe that someone who needs urgent help should subsequently take precedence for long-term accommodation over others on the waiting list, who may have pressing housing needs,' added Sir George. A common list of those who are homeless and other families would be a fairer system.

Families declared homeless would be offered temporary accommodation for a specified time, taking the form of leases in the private sector under agreements with local authorities.

Jack Straw, the Labour environment spokesman, said: 'This consultative paper is an embarrassing hangover from the back to basics debacle of the October Tory party conference.

'The real issue is the housing crisis, and the chronic shortage of affordable homes to rent.'