Homelessness prevention in Wales ‘sets an example for the rest of the UK’
However, the report warns that welfare reforms and cuts introduced by the UK government risk undermining any progress achieved, while the Renting Homes (Wales) Bill currently before the Assembly could “significantly weaken” the security of Welsh renters by taking away the protection they have against ‘no fault’ eviction in the first six months. If passed, this would leave Wales with the most insecure tenancies in the UK.
The findings are from state-of-the nation report The Homelessness Monitor: Wales 2015 – an independent study commissioned and funded by Crisis and the Joseph Rowntree foundation analysing the impact of economic and policy developments on homelessness in Wales.
The report says that the Housing (Wales) Act 2014 has ushered in major changes by placing a much stronger legal emphasis on prevention and relief for anyone at risk of or facing homelessness. In England in particular, councils have much weaker legal duties, meaning people are often turned away from help at a time when homelessness could be prevented.
The Welsh Government is the first UK administration to take such an approach, and experiences there will yield valuable lessons for the wider UK.
The research also highlights a continuing fall in the numbers of households accepted as homeless in Wales, with the total in 2014/15 falling to 8 per cent lower than the previous low of 2009/10. However, it suggests the recent fall is most likely due to local councils preparing for the new prevention-focused regime rather than an actual reduction in the demand for help. While acceptances have fallen, the rate of homelessness (3.9 per thousand households) remains more than 70 per cent higher than in England (2.3 per thousand).
Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis, said: “By enacting the Housing (Wales) Act 2014, the Welsh Government has set an example for the rest of the UK. Too often, people facing homelessness, particularly in England, are turned away from help by their council because there’s no legal duty for their homelessness to be prevented.
“This legislation means that Welsh councils must now offer real support to anyone facing homelessness. This is a major step forwards.
“Yet there are still big challenges ahead. We’re particularly worried about the Renting Homes Bill, which will leave people with far less security of tenure, while welfare reforms are hitting parts of Wales particularly hard.”
Julia Unwin, chief executive of JRF, said: “Shifting the emphasis toward preventing homelessness is the right thing to do. It will mean that people facing an emergency can get help before they lose their home, and will help to reduce the number of people who are made homeless.
“But we’re concerned about the growing number of people in Wales who rent their home privately face having even less security. The Renting Homes Bill will reduce the already flimsy rights they possess and will mean that more people face the uncertainty of living month-to-month without the essential stability that everyone’s home should provide.”
Lead author, Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick, said: “It’s a critical time to be looking at homelessness policy in Wales. While it’s too early to assess the practical impact of these new duties, initial indications of cross-sector goodwill and support for the new model are promising.
“Nevertheless, Wales continues to face significant economic challenges. The Welsh economic downturn was more severe, and its recovery lags behind England and Scotland. It has also been disproportionately affected by the UK Government’s bedroom tax.
“We’ll continue to monitor the impact of these changes, particularly their effect on homelessness trends, not just to inform policy and practice in Wales, but to make sure lessons are learned for the UK as a whole.”
The report raises concerns about the pressure on people living in private rented accommodation and the impact of welfare reform. Since 2009/10, there has been a 20 per cent increase in the number of people made homeless due to the loss of a rental tenancy, and if passed, the Renting Homes (Wales) Bill may make matters worse by removing the six month suspension of ‘no fault’ evictions.
The authors predict that the overall numbers recorded as homeless or threatened with homelessness in Wales may increase in the short-term as a result of the greater help available. However, over time, if the new activities are effective – and depending on wider forces such as welfare reform - the number of people that Welsh local authorities are required to rehouse may begin to fall.