What the rest of Britain could learn from the way Wales is tackling homelessness

People in Wales will be offered more help to avoid losing their home – but new laws could also undo that good work, says Brian Robson.

There’s good news in the latest Crisis/JRF Homelessness Monitor Wales, published today. New Welsh legislation - 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 homelessness in Wales. But the report also warns that people living in the private rented sector could face greater insecurity due to the Renting Homes (Wales) Bill, which is currently before the Assembly.

In practical terms, the Housing (Wales) Act will mean that people facing an emergency get real help before they lose their home, and will reduce the number of people made homeless. We think that’s a good example for the rest of the UK to follow. 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 Monitor also highlights a continuing fall in the numbers of households accepted as homeless in Wales, with the total in 2014/15 falling to 8% lower than the previous low of 2009/10. That’s good news, but researchers say 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.

So the new system already seems to be having a helpful effect. But this positive news risks being undermined by other changes in progress. The Renting Homes (Wales) Bill currently before the Welsh 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. This means that Welsh renters could be evicted after as little as a month, without their landlord having to give any reason.

If passed, this would leave Wales with the most insecure tenancies in the UK. It would mean private renters wouldn’t have any certainty about where they’d be living one month to the next. At a time when more and more people are having to rely on the private rented sector for housing, and in the context of a 20% increase in the number of people made homeless due to the loss of a rental tenancy in recent years, that’s a big backward step.

There’s another cautionary note about the impact of future welfare reforms, too. Welfare reform has hit Wales particularly hard. We know from other research that one fifth of the places most badly affected by welfare reforms are in Wales – places like Merthyr Tydfil, and Neath Port Talbot. Further welfare reforms will reduce people’s budgets, making it harder for them to pay the rent. This will place more pressure on the households we know are already most vulnerable to homelessness in Wales and elsewhere.

Even when people can find work, it’s often low paid. Wales is characterised by low levels of pay and household incomes, compared to the rest of the UK. Indeed, median full-time earnings in Wales in 2014 were 8% lower than for the UK as a whole. JRF will have more to say on the impact of low pay on in-work poverty in Wales in its Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion Wales report, launched in September.

One of the great things about the Homelessness Monitor is that it allows us to track progress over time, and to identify good practice that could be replicated elsewhere. Wales has taken a big step forward with its new prevention-based approach to homelessness. Other nations of the UK could learn from this example. But that step forward could be undermined by other initiatives being taken in Cardiff and Westminster. As JRF’s housing and poverty programme shows, there’s a complex two-way relationship between housing and poverty. We need a more joined-up approach to help the poorest and most vulnerable. Otherwise we risk taking one step forward, and two steps back.