No Compromise on the Right to Adequate Housing: UN Condemnation of UK Austerity Measures
Statements made by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, following her visit to the UK in September, clearly indicated that her ultimate report on the housing situation would lay significant criticism at the feet of the Coalition Government. The formal report, published this month, does not disappoint. It castigates the Government for its regressive housing and welfare policies which threaten the principles of dignity and equality underlying, and secured by, the right of access to adequate housing.
The Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context, Raquel Rolnik, made an official visit to the UK in September last year, in order to examine the UK’s realisation of the right to adequate housing in light of relevant international human rights standards. Her report was published earlier this month. For those unfamiliar with housing related austerity policies, the report makes for a shocking read. But for those who have been following the housing situation, Rolnik’s observations are hardly surprising. Nevertheless, they provide formal UN condemnation of the UK’s current housing policy, and its disproportionate impact on certain minority groups.
In light of its international human rights obligations as detailed in the report, the UK has an obligation to ensure the progressive realisation of the right to adequate housing, even in times of economic crisis, which extends to guarantees of ‘security of tenure, affordability, accessibility, location and cultural adequacy’ and ‘should be ensured to all persons irrespective of income or access to economic resources’.
The current housing situation was described in crisis terms, broadly characterised by soaring house prices, dramatic increases in private sector rents, inadequate housing standards, insecurity of tenure, discrimination and poor management practices, a massive shortage of social housing, overcrowding, and increasing homelessness.
UK Reforms and their Impact
The report charges the Government with effectively forcing people to choose between paying for food and heating, or staying in their homes. The Bedroom Tax and the changes to the calculation of the maximum rates of Local Housing Allowance (paid to those in private rental accommodation) faced particular scrutiny. The implementation of the former was condemned for failing to account for the gap between supply and demand for smaller social housing, which prevents people from downsizing, even when they want to. Rolnik described families as having few choices, and the policy as having caused ‘tremendous despair’. The accuracy of the projected financial benefits of the policy were also doubted.
The relationship between the housing crisis and deteriorating living conditions for those living in low income households was observed. Evidence has suggested a link between housing policy and increased rent arrears, fuel poverty and food bank usage, homelessness and the use of B&Bs as emergency accommodation. The Special Rapporteur was particularly critical of the impact of the policies on disabled individuals, and considers the Government’s response – an increase in funding for Discretionary Housing Payments – as inadequate to guard against the discriminatory impact of the policy on this vulnerable group.
The Special Rapporteur’s conclusions clearly indicate that progressive realisation of the right to adequate housing is under threat by the regressive and likely discriminatory austerity policies. Specific recommendations include significantly reassessing housing related austerity policies, the immediate suspension of the bedroom tax with a view to its removal, and broader recommendations in relation to land, planning and housing policy.
The Government’s immediate response, however, is less than satisfactory. The report has been dismissed as ‘partisan’ and unimaginatively labelled a ‘misleading Marxist diatribe’. The tone of this dismissal echoes the response to the recent conclusions of the European Committee on Social Rights in relation to the impact of austerity policies on the UK’s obligation to maintain a system of social security under the European Social Charter. Against this background, the political will is clear. It is unlikely that this report will force a climb-down in the austerity politics that weigh heavily on the effective exercise of key social rights, particularly by vulnerable members of society. However, the report adds to the momentum building behind international criticism of austerity policies both in the UK and beyond.