The United Kingdom is approaching its 6th Periodic Report to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), which will assess its performance and compliance with its obligations under ICESCR. Reading the Government’s Report , there is no acknowledgement of the housing crisis unfolding across England.
The Report, ‘Protecting the Right to Housing in England: A Context of Crisis’ found that the UK is clearly in breach of its obligations for the right to housing under ICESCR.
The UK accepted international obligations to respect, protect and fulfil the right to housing
when it ratified ICESCR in 1976. It undertook to take progressive steps towards the realisation of the right, using all the means at its disposal, both financial and otherwise. The Government is obliged not to take regressive (that is, backward), steps or strip away enjoyment of the right to housing unless this is absolutely necessary, even in a climate of austerity. Any backward movement must be justified under the strictest possible criteria.
Yet a growing number of individuals and families in England are not able to secure the adequate, safe and affordable housing that ICESCR requires. Exceptionally high numbers of people are homeless, or vulnerable to homelessness. The current housing environment is characterised by profound issues of lack of supply, high and further increasing housing costs, lack of security of tenure, and homes of such poor quality that they are unfit for habitation. These issues plague all of England’s main housing tenure types: the owner occupied, the private rental, and the social housing sector. Housing insecurity affects not only people on low incomes, but broad swathes of the English population, who currently live in situations of insecurity and uncertainty.
The Report focusses on two areas of particular concern. These are the very high levels of homelessness, and significant problems with the quality, affordability and regulation of housing, particular in the private rental sector.
Homelessness is the paradigm violation of the right to housing, and its most obvious manifestation. The deprivation of any dwelling that a person may call her own, with adequate privacy and security of tenure, is denied to the person experiencing homelessness. Yet the Report details that the number of homeless individuals forced to sleep rough in England has increased every year since 2010, amounting to a total increase of 55%, and 14% in the last year alone. At the same time, frontline services for homeless prevention and support have been cut, and there are now fewer hostel and shelter places available to house these most vulnerable of individuals. Hidden homelessness is also high, with increases in overcrowding, and the inappropriate use of temporary accommodation masking the true extent of homeless numbers. 280,000 households in England are currently at risk of homelessness, a 9% increase in one year.
The Private Rental Sector:
The Private Rental Sector (PRS) has grown rapidly in recent years. In the context of very high house prices and a shrinking social housing sector, the PRS now houses 18% of all households in England. Yet for many households, a house in the PRS is an option of last resort. Rents are increasing rapidly, and are almost double those in social rental housing. Yet the quality of housing in the PRS is very poor. A shocking 33% of all dwellings in the PRS do not meet the Government’s ‘decent homes standard’ meaning that they expose their occupants to unacceptable risks to health or safety. At the same time, tenure security is poor, and the sector is poorly regulated, meaning that tenants who complain about the quality of their housing may be subject to ‘retaliatory evictions.’ In 2014, as many at 200,000 tenants were subject to these vengeful practices.
It is hoped that bringing the true extent of the housing crisis to the attention of the CESCR will offer an opportunity to put pressure on the UK government. Poised at the start of a new Westminster administration, this periodic review and the potential for advocacy and mobilisation around it present an important opportunity. We can shift the policy debate in the UK, and to raise the profile of the right to housing as a human right, to remind the government that its policy choices have real impacts on the lives of individuals, and their ability to live safely, in security, dignity and peace.