This week an Assembly committee called for the Welsh Government to make some radical changes to how street homeless people are helped.
One of the most significant recommendations was that Welsh Government should establish a timetable for abolition of the ‘priority need’ test.
Shelter Cymru has been calling for an end to priority need for many years – decades, in fact. Not so long ago we were the only voice in Wales pointing out how the priority need test stands between people and the homes they need.
Slow and steady is often what wins in campaigning. Hearts and minds take time to change. Where once an end to priority need was seen as a hopeless idealist’s dream, it is now an ambition that is moving firmly into the mainstream.
So what exactly is priority need? What are the problems with it, and how do we get past it?
What is priority need?
Under the Welsh homelessness legislation, people who are in certain ‘priority need’ groups have an enhanced right to accommodation. Priority need groups include:
- Pregnant women
- People with dependent children
- People who are vulnerable as a result of some special reason such as old age or disability
- Care leavers aged 18 to 21
- Armed forces veterans.
If a homeless person can demonstrate that they are in a priority need group, they have a right to interim accommodation as well as a right to settled accommodation.
If people aren’t found to be in priority need, the council will still help to prevent or relieve their homelessness – but the council doesn’t have to give them interim accommodation. And if the help isn’t successful, there is no right to settled accommodation to back that up.
Last year in Wales more than 1,200 homeless households – most of them single people – were found not to be priority need, and as a result were still homeless when the council ended their duty to help them.
What are the problems with priority need?
- Councils spend time and money investigating priority need – resources that would be better used by helping people, rather than looking for reasons not to help them
- Proving you are vulnerable enough to be in priority need means presenting a ‘sob story’ to councils which can be a very humiliating experience for people
- There is lots of inconsistency – the Assembly inquiry heard evidence that some councils routinely find rough sleepers priority need, while others do not
- Our upcoming study on rough sleeping – to be published in July – has identified that a lack of priority need is keeping people on the streets.
So how do we end it?
The legal bit is easy – the Housing Wales Act gives the Minister the power to amend priority need or remove it without primary legislation.
What’s more challenging is ensuring that ending priority need doesn’t place a massive additional burden on temporary accommodation.
The Assembly committee was correct to call for a phased approach. In Scotland priority need was ended over a ten-year period. In Wales we are in a stronger position than Scotland was – and we can learn from their experience.
Nobody wants to spend months on end living in the limbo of temporary accommodation. The focus must be on increasing the supply of permanent, affordable homes, not only for homeless people but also for people living in homes that are inadequate for their needs.
Welsh social landlords can and should play a much bigger role – only 18 per cent of social housing currently goes to homeless households, the lowest in the UK.
There is much that can be achieved, and a long term goal will help us to focus efforts where it’s most needed.
We’re one step closer in Wales to recognising that a home is a human right.