Lime Legal

What has devolution done for the homeless?

Published 16 September 2023

Suzanne Fitzpatrick, Nicholas Pleace and Deborah Quilgars investigate how the lives of the homeless have changed after a decade of devolved government.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have had 10 years of devolved government – a decade in which changes in homelessness law as a result of devolution have opened up big gaps in the way people who become homeless are treated in different parts of the UK.

It’s been a decade in which the Scottish parliament has taken a lead in guaranteeing that by 2012 – with very few exceptions – all homeless people will be entitled to permanent rehousing. ‘Priority need’ status has been extended – but will eventually be abolished under Scotland’s changes in the law.

An interim target has been set for Scottish local authorities to reduce their ‘non-priority’ assessments by 50 per cent by 2019 (an announcement on this will be made in September). This extension of the statutory safety net was made possible, in part, by the supply of social housing, which is greater in Scotland than in the rest of the UK – an advantage that has diminished during the past decade.

But England seems to be moving in the opposite direction. While there have been no major legal amendments limiting statutory entitlements, the vigorous implementation of the ‘homelessness prevention’ approach could be seen as raising the statutory assessment threshold.

Under this English preventative model, households approaching a local authority for assistance are given a formal interview offering advice on housing options. This may include being directed to services such as family mediation or rent deposit guarantee schemes designed to prevent statutory homelessness applications.

There is evidence of ‘genuine’ and successful homelessness prevention, but some commentators have raised concerns about increased local authority gatekeeping, which may sometimes amount to a denial of applicants’ legal rights.

In England and Scotland, there have been parallel developments in policy – the introduction of statutory homelessness strategies, the expansion of priority need groups (modest in England’s case), the increased attention given to homelessness prevention (modest in Scotland’s case) and, most recently, the focus on making greater use of the private rented sector to discharge the main homelessness duty.

But the emphasis in the English housing options framework on minimising use of the statutory homelessness system appears to run counter to the Scottish ‘vision’ on homelessness, suggesting sharply divergent policy directions north and south of the border.

In contrast, Wales and Northern Ireland appear at something of a crossroads. In Wales, a debate is taking place about whether to push forward with the English-style prevention agenda, or instead to try to switch to the Scottish ‘universal assistance’ approach.

In Northern Ireland, with devolution suspended for much of the decade, there has been less progress on homelessness policy than elsewhere in the UK – the statutory framework has remained largely unchanged and homelessness prevention is only now coming on to the agenda.

Patterns of homelessness

In England, the number of statutory homeless ‘acceptances’ rose steeply in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as housing affordability deteriorated, squeezing many low income households out of the market. Since 2013-04, however, following the renewed emphasis on homelessness prevention, there has been an unprecedented reduction in homeless acceptances, with the total halving by 2017-08.

In Wales, there was a sharp upward trend in homelessness acceptances until 2014-05, but this reversed after the introduction of the prevention agenda. In Scotland, homelessness acceptances grew steadily up to 2015-06, but have since dropped back slightly. A broadly similar pattern is evident in Northern Ireland.

This means that rates of homelessness applications and acceptances are now much higher in Scotland and, especially, in Northern Ireland than in England and Wales. Part of the explanation for the high level of statutory homelessness in Northern Ireland is likely to lie in the sharp deterioration in housing affordability in recent years. 

With regard to Scotland, it is likely that its more extensive statutory safety net encourages a higher proportion of single homeless households to approach their local authority for help.

What’s happened to statutorily homeless people?

The ultimate test of this statutory system is, of course, the extent to which households accepted as homeless are actually rehoused and sustain that housing. 

Data on ‘discharge of duty’ is not directly comparable across the UK, but it is clear that by far the most common outcome of the statutory process is acceptance by the household of a social rented tenancy. Only very small proportions of households owed the main homelessness duty accept a tenancy in the private rented sector (around 6 per cent in England and less elsewhere).

Significant numbers of statutorily homeless households (up to one third in total across the UK) ‘leak’ out of the statutory system without being rehoused because they voluntarily leave temporary accommodation, refuse a ‘suitable’ tenancy, lose contact with the local authority, and so on.

‘An ideal homelessness system would combine the vigour of the English preventative measures with the strong safety net in Scotland’

Unfortunately, there is no data currently available on patterns of tenancy sustainment among those rehoused as homeless in any part of the UK (though this will be available from Audit Scotland in future).

Data on ‘repeat homelessness’ applications is only published in Scotland – this indicates that 6.7 per cent of all homelessness applicants in Scotland in 2017-08 had a previous application closed by the same local authority less than 12 months before their current application.

Survey evidence from England in 2015 indicated that 13 per cent of statutorily homeless families had made a previous homelessness application to the same or a different local authority, and earlier research evidence from England and Scotland had suggested that this figure was significantly higher for single homeless applicants.

Thus there clearly is an issue of repeat statutory homelessness among some groups, especially single people, but the trends across the UK with respect to this cannot be analysed at present.

Crowding out others in need?

Another longstanding concern is the extent to which social housing allocations to homeless households ‘crowd out’ lettings to other households. The proportion of local authority lets to new tenants made to statutorily homeless households has risen in all four countries during the past decade, although in England this increase started to reverse from 2014-05, so that by 2016-17 it stood at 28 per cent (similar to the figure back in 1998-99 of 25 per cent).

In Wales, there has been an extraordinary four-fold increase in the proportion of local authority allocations made to statutorily homeless households in the period since devolution – from 8 per cent in 1998-99 to 34 per cent by 2016-17. This trend shows no sign of abating, despite the recent drop in homelessness acceptances in Wales. 

In Scotland, too, the proportion of local authority allocations made to homeless households has grown rapidly during the past decade. While the national figure stood at 43 per cent in 2016/07, this masks strong variations between Scottish local authorities, with the proportion considerably higher in some areas. The percentage of Northern Ireland Housing Executive allocations made to statutory homeless households has doubled in the period since devolution, and now stands at 67 per cent of all lettings to new tenants – the highest level in any of the UK countries by some margin.

Thus, there are clearly high and, with the exception of England, growing numbers of council house lettings being absorbed by statutorily homeless households. This trend is the result of a decline in the number of local authority (and housing association) lets available to new tenants in all four countries, as well as relatively high levels of statutory homelessness acceptances, especially in Scotland and Northern Ireland. 

In an allocation system based primarily on housing need, the extent to which such trends are of concern turns largely on whether statutorily homeless households are more ‘needy’ than other households seeking social housing. Core data from England indicates that statutorily homeless households are socially disadvantaged relative to other new social tenants – they are more likely to be lone parents, less likely to be in work, and have a lower average weekly income (there is a similar pattern evident in Scotland, though based on less reliable data; there is no equivalent data for Wales or Northern Ireland). 

This evidence is at least suggestive of statutory homelessness being a reasonable proxy for sustained housing need. Notwithstanding this, the particular distress caused by the crisis nature of homeless households’ loss of last settled accommodation, coupled with the insecurity and sense of life on hold associated with living in temporary accommodation, could in any case be argued to justify the ‘reasonable’ (not overriding) priority that they have to be given in allocations.

An ideal homelessness system would probably combine the vigour of the English (and Welsh) preventative measures (alongside appropriate inspection and other safeguards against unlawful gatekeeping) with the strong safety net available in Scotland.

Of course, the lack of sufficient social rented housing does make the Scottish ‘universal assistance’ approach difficult to deliver in the rest of the UK. Even in Scotland, there are serious challenges in delivering this model in practice, though the political momentum seems sufficient to ensure that, whatever the difficulties, the 2012 undertaking to abolish priority need will be met.

There is, however, less certainty that the remaining recommendations of the Homelessness Task Force, which set out the internationally lauded ‘vision’ for Scottish homelessness policy will be fully implemented.

Homelessness applications and acceptances

Country Application rate per thousand households Acceptance rate per thousand households
England 6.2 3
Scotland 20.9 11.8
Wales 10.4 5.1
Northern Ireland 28.3 13.8

Homelessness in the UK: Problems and Solutions, edited by Suzanne Fitzpatrick, Deborah Quilgars and Nicholas Pleace, published by CIH (see or phone 024 7685 1700). This article also draws upon work conducted by York University’s Centre for Housing Policy for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation – Devolution and Housing: What Has it Done for Low Income Households – which will be published later in the year.