Below is the text of an open letter written by Shelter and GMLC, signed by a range of housing and legal organisations across the Greater Manchester region. This was sent to MPs and policy makers on 6 January 2023.
We write from organisations across Greater Manchester that offer free housing advice and support.
This winter, the housing system is at crisis point. According to the June to September 2022 mortgage and landlord possession statistics, landlord possession claims (the legal process to evict a tenant) have more than doubled in the past year. Possession orders (the court granting the right to evict) have nearly tripled. Average rents have risen in the North West by nearly 10% in the same period, with rents rising in Manchester by a staggering 20.5%. Greater Manchester boroughs have some of the highest numbers of people assessed as homeless in the UK.
This is at the same time that costs are rising for basic necessities, including food and energy. Rents are increasing, but for those on benefits, the Local Housing Allowance has remained frozen since April 2020, meaning even fewer people can afford their rent.
Local authority housing services are at breaking point. Many local authorities find themselves in the situation where they are under pressure to gatekeep their services and turn people away because of chronic underfunding – both of local authorities themselves, and the wider social housing sector. As a result, there are chronic failings in the delivery of homeless services.
Our organisations support people facing housing problems. We take on cases and support people to uphold their rights and find or keep their homes. Many of us do this using legal aid funding. However, government cuts to legal aid, alongside the reduced scope and eligibility requirements, mean that fewer people are eligible for free legal help than ever. We have to turn away many people who fall into the ‘justice gap’ – not eligible for legal aid, but also unable to afford private legal advice.
The narrowing of legal aid has led to the closure of many services that were available just over a decade ago. Half of all Law Centres in England and Wales have closed following the cuts, and many firms have stopped providing legal aid services. Now, there are many places across England and Wales with no advice provision in certain areas – ‘advice deserts’. Research has shown that around 12.45 million people in England and Wales are currently living in a housing legal aid desert, despite the need for legal services in housing growing.
Our organisations are doing the best we can to support people facing homelessness. Nevertheless, many services are unable to answer a majority of enquiries due to the scale of the demand, and there is often nowhere else for them to go. There is no doubt that tenants who might have a defence to their claim are being kicked out onto the streets because of the lack of advice available to them.
We call on the government and local authorities to take urgent steps to ease this problem as the cost of living crisis bites. We recommend that policy makers:
Restore the Local Housing Allowance rates to account for rent increases;
Take urgent action to invest in social housing across the North West;
Bring forward the Renter’s Reform Bill to protect tenants from Section 21 evictions;
Provide emergency funding to Local Authority homelessness services;
Introduce rent controls and an evictions ban, following in Scotland’s footsteps;
Provide emergency funding to the legal aid system and advice services;
Review legal aid scope and eligibility to allow more issues and households access to justice.
There is no longer any time to delay changes, or defer responsibility. We are at crisis point.
Shelter, Greater Manchester Law Centre, Citizens Advice Bury & Bolton, Citizens Advice Manchester, Citizens Advice Salford, Citizens Advice SORT Group, Alison Law Solicitors, The Booth Centre, Greater Manchester Tenants Union, Greater Manchester Homelessness Action Network, Opora, Ciara Bartlam (Barrister, Garden Court North Chambers), Rosalind Burgin (Barrister, Garden Court North Chambers), Peter Cruickshank (Barrister, Garden Court North Chambers), Christian Weaver (Barrister, Garden Court North Chambers), Aarif Abraham (Barrister, Garden Court North Chambers)
Image: Census 2021 results map for housing data showing the density of private rented housing across the city, released Jan 2023. © Ordnance Survey © OpenStreetMap.