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Making it easier for victims of domestic abuse to access social housing

As part of the Government's plan to tackle domestic violence, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) launched yesterday a consultation that seeks to improve access to social housing for victims of domestic abuse.

The consultation, which is framed around 6 questions and runs until 5 January 2018, seeks to build on existing statutory allocation scheme guidance provided for in 2012, 2013 and 2015 pursuant to section 169 of the Housing Act 1996.

The original Guidance published in 2012 advises that local authorities should consider giving section 166A(3) additional preferences in framing their allocation schemes to "those who are homeless and require urgent re-housing as a result of violence or threats of violence, including intimidated witnesses, and those escaping serious anti-social behaviour or domestic violence" (4.13).

The post-Localism Act 2011 Guidance, published in December 2013, also encouraged the use of residency requirements as a pre-condition for entry onto a local housing authority's allocation scheme under Section 160ZA(7). However, the 2013 Guidance goes on to encourage consideration of the need for exceptions from any residency requirement imposed, and refers to paragraph 3.22 of the 2012 Guidance to this end, making clear that authorities should consider the implications of excluding all members of a group that does not qualify for allocation.

A number of research projects show this approach does not wholly or fairly address the needs of victims of domestic violence. For example, a report carried out by Solace Women's Aid last year highlighted systemic unfairness and discrimination against women and children fleeing domestic abuse in London.

The consultation seeks to toughen up commitments to assist those fleeing violence by:

• Making it clear that local authorities are expected to disapply any residency tests for those victims who have fled to another district
• Setting out how local authorities can give appropriate priority to this group
• Encouraging local authorities to use their existing powers to support tenants who are victims of domestic abuse to remain safely in their homes if  they choose to do so to avoid the upheaval that fleeing could have on their lives

Let's go through the main proposals that are worth considering by those organisations who are submitting a response.

Qualification for social housing
It is proposed that the guidance strongly encourages local authorities to exempt from their allocation scheme residency requirements victims of domestic abuse who have escaped violence from another area and are currently living in refuges in their area (15).

Priority for social housing
Any new guidance should make clear the circumstances in which local authorities should apply the 'medical and welfare' and the 'homelessness' reasonable preference categories to victims of domestic abuse who are living in refuges to ensure that they are given appropriate priority for social housing (23).

Supporting victims in their existing homes
Views are also sought about the effectiveness and use of existing powers to allow victims of domestic abuse to remain in their homes (or be granted a tenancy elsewhere), including by means of reliance by a local housing authority on the domestic violence ground to be found in Ground 2A of Schedule 2 to the Housing Act 1985 in possession proceedings.

The proposed changes to the statutory allocation guidance are, it is suggested, generally uncontroversial. It drives good practice in the manner already undertaken by many local authorities and (in part) keeps with the greater interventionist role envisaged for Part 7 cases by the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017.

Indeed, it is worth reminding ourselves that there is an existing consultation underway in light of the draft statutory homelessness code of guidance for local authorities, ahead of the coming into force of the 2017 Act in April 2018. Chapter 21 of that Code deals with "Domestic Abuse" and paragraph 21.35 notes:

"For victims at risk from highly dangerous perpetrators, refuges will usually be the most appropriate choice. Refuges provide key short term, intensive support for those who flee from abuse. Given the intensity of the support and the vulnerability of the victims, attention should be paid to the length of time they spend in a refuge. Refuges are not simply a substitute for other forms of temporary accommodation. The housing authority should work with the refuge provider to consider how long a person needs to stay before the provision of other accommodation (which may be temporary in the absence of settled accommodation) may be more appropriate, potentially with floating support if needed."

The most recent consultation is likely to prove more straightforward than that concerning the 2017 Act, being less resource-orientated and more limited in its purpose. It does not purport to address the question of adequate provision of, and funding for, refuges and other forms of safe temporary accommodation, and is modest in its proposed changes.

As an example of the limited nature of the proposals, whereas it is suggested that guidance should be strengthened to allow for those fleeing domestic violence to be exempt from any allocation scheme residency requirements, members of the armed forces and transferring tenants who need to move for work-related reasons are already exempt as a matter of regulation.

The question of social housing allocation is one fraught with competing legislative tensions and increasingly restricted local preferences, alongside a long-standing background of chronic underfunding and provision of properly affordable housing. This is indicated by statement at paragraph 11 of the consultation in reference to the 2013 Guidance:

"The guidance is aimed at ensuring that only people in need who have invested in, and demonstrated a commitment to, their local community can apply to their council for social housing."

How these proposed changes fit in with the greater flexibilities afforded to local authorities by the Localism Act 2011 is a moot point, but they represent on their face, as said, a modest way forward, albeit one highlighting the real question of housing supply.

The Green Paper on Social Housing is awaited!

Andy Lane is the editor of the Cornerstone Housing Newsletter and specialises in Social Housing and Public Law.