Priority need is an admission of failure


The Welsh Government has commissioned an important piece of work to look at the impact and consequences of amending or even abolishing the priority need test in Welsh homelessness legislation – John Puzey considers the test and the consequences of not abolishing it.

When the Homeless Persons Act was first introduced in 1977 the inclusion of the priority need test was an admission of scarcity; now, 42 years later, it’s an admission of failure.

The test was to ensure that people with children, or who were in some way vulnerable, would, unless they were found intentionally homeless, get a secure permanent home. There were not enough secure permanent homes to meet the needs of all homeless people as well as those on the waiting list, so it was a device to ration access to people considered in most need. If you were not in priority need, forget it – it was a winner takes all system.

We changed that in Wales a few years ago with the introduction of the first Welsh Housing Act. This new law requires that everyone facing or experiencing homelessness must get help from local authorities, whether you are in priority need or not. But priority need hasn’t gone. Yes, it has been pushed down the decision making process to a later point, but it’s still there, used as the final rationing card if all else has failed, and many people are being failed.

There are clear issues with this. What happens to people where the prevention work has not worked and who are not in priority need – perhaps, ironically, some of the most vulnerable people? How much, even sub-consciously, does the knowledge that a household may or may not be in priority need affect the effort and quality of the prevention and alleviation work? How much energy and time goes into attempting to prove someone is not vulnerable and how consistent are the decisions across Wales?

But ultimately the very existence of priority need means we have failed. We have failed in the last 42 years to ensure that there are enough homes for people who are homeless and those on waiting lists living in inadequate housing. Rationing is normally introduced for an emergency; this one has been going on for four decades!

That’s why we have to end priority need and extend the full re-housing duty to everyone who is homeless. We have to do it in a planned way, in a way that ensures the homes and support, if needed, is put in place, but we have to do it. The very commitment to doing it can drive increased social housing and improve other policies and practices such as allocations and evictions. It’s a pity this possibility was not included in the recently launched affordable homes review, but we have now, with the priority need review, an opportunity of making it clear what the continued unacceptable consequences of doing nothing are.

So we need an end point, a point when the emergency ends, when rationing ends, with milestones on the way as new groups of vulnerable people are given the hope and right to a home. What about starting with single under 35-year-olds, what about people sleeping rough?

We need a commitment to a direction of travel and a year when we arrive. Let’s not make it too far in the future because every day that goes by, homeless people across Wales are being told they are not in priority need, and that there is nothing else that can be done.