Dr Koldo Casla, Lecturer in Law and Director Human Rights Centre Clinic, Human Rights Local Project Lead
In June 2019, Newcastle City Council and Crisis announced a partnership to end homelessness in the city within ten years. An evidence review took place in 2020 and 2021 to inform the development of such partnership. Based on that evidence review and other documentary sources, I wrote a report to examine how Newcastle City Council can implement the internationally recognised right to adequate housing. The full report is available here.
The evidence review included frontline perceptions of homelessness provision and associated services operating in Newcastle, participatory research with people with lived experience of homelessness, an analysis of current local expenditure, how the local authority collects data, and the impact of national health, housing or social security policies in Newcastle.
On that evidential basis, I looked at Newcastle’s policy and practice on homelessness in light of the right to adequate housing as recognised in international law. The purpose of the report is to analyse what human rights may offer to end homelessness in Newcastle, connecting the evidence with human rights principles and standards.
Adequate housing is recognised as a human right in international law, particularly in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).
Housing is more than a roof over one’s head and more than a mere commodity. Housing, as observed by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), “should be seen as the right to live somewhere in security, peace and dignity.”
The adequacy of adequate housing is determined by seven criteria:
- Legal security of tenure, including protection from forced evictions, irrespective of the type of property and tenure (homeownership, lease, informal settlement, etc.);
- Availability of services, materials, facilities and infrastructure, including access to natural and common resources, all of which is essential for health, security, comfort and nutrition;
- Affordability, including protection from unreasonable rent levels and increases, so as not to compromise or threaten the attainment and satisfaction of other essential needs and rights;
- Habitability, in terms of protection from cold, damp, heat, rain, wind and other threats to health and safety;
- Accessibility, paying particular attention to the requirements of groups and individuals at greater risk of harm, disadvantage and discrimination;
- Location, allowing access to employment, healthcare services, schools, transport and other facilities, bearing environmental conditions in mind; and
- Cultural adequacy, using materials and tools that recognise and express appropriately the cultural identity and diversity of the population.
Human rights obligations extend to all branches and all public authorities, national and local. The practical content of human rights obligations, however, depends on the availability of resources. Years of austerity have significantly diminished those resources for local authorities, despite an ever-greater need for social protection.
Public authorities bear the responsibility to prove that they are putting in place the most appropriate policies, allocating all of their available resources in the most strategic way, to fulfil the right to adequate housing.
Newcastle was one of the three cities worst affected by welfare reforms in cumulative terms, alongside Manchester and Central London, with losses of over £2,000 per household in the 2010s. Austerity also materialised in cash-strapped local governance, which resulted in diminishing resources to prevent and tackle homelessness, and to deliver other public services. Newcastle faced an overall budget cut of 32% between 2010-11 and 2018-19.
Despite the UK context of austerity in public spending, the city managed to mobilise available resources to limit the impact and prevalence of homelessness. A comparatively large stock of council homes (around 26,000) provides a structural baseline to prevent and tackle homelessness. During the years of austerity-driven national policies, Newcastle largely avoided cutting public spending on housing and homelessness. With its preventive approach, Newcastle City Council managed to make the most of available resources, which are nonetheless limited considering existing demand, relatively high levels of poverty and destitution, and the cumulative consequences of austerity and Covid-19.
The right to adequate housing includes a requirement on public authorities to ensure that nobody is rendered homeless as a result of an eviction. This means that local authorities must adopt reasonable measures to provide adequate alternative housing solutions.
There was a 75% reduction in the number of evictions from Newcastle’s council housing between 2007 and 2020. Unlike other core cities, Newcastle does not use B&B accommodation as a temporary solution. The city has a single-site purpose-built supported accommodation facility with 720 beds in self-contained units at Cherry Tree View.
The relative low level of homelessness in Newcastle has been attributed to a combination of factors, particularly the preventive approach (before the 56-day target of the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017), the availability of a large stock of council homes (conductive to higher social lettings and lower private rent levels), and a financial commitment from the local authority.
However, interviewees and focus group participants identified hostels, particularly larger hostels, as potentially harmful for the city’s homeless population. In line with international human rights standards, temporary accommodation should only be used exceptionally, it must not put personal safety at risk, cannot become a long-term solution, must not separate family members, and must provide space to respect individual’s privacy.
Families are kept together in Cherry Tree View, where there are no shared rooms, so everyone has their own private space, their own apartment with toilet and kitchen. In other accommodation, these facilities would be shared.
Adequate housing must be accessible for everyone. This means public authorities should take proactive measures to ensure that housing is accessible also for groups and individuals who, due to different reasons, may face particular difficulties in accessing adequate housing.
Housing solutions for people seeking asylum should be culturally adequate, including community support, and proximity of places for worship and shops. This should be a consideration in the general suitable and sustainable homes checklist. Newcastle City Council and the Home Office should explore ways to ensure that the Council receives notice at least 56 days in advance.
Newcastle should also accommodate people who are homeless based on need alone, including people with no recourse to public funds, particularly when children are involved. The local authority should refuse to co-operate with immigration rules that infringe the right of local residents to feel safe at home.
Newcastle should ensure that survivors of domestic abuse are given priority access to a housing alternative should they need it.
The principle of active participation speaks to the spirit of involving everyone in the community in the delivery of the ambitious goal of ending homelessness. Inasmuch as possible, meaningful engagement between public authorities and the voluntary sector should include people with lived experience of homelessness, who should be listened to in the identification of challenges and possible solutions. There is no better way to defend social rights than to hand over a megaphone to the people most affected by inequality, public spending cuts and social exclusion.
Newcastle City Council is demonstrating a high dose of audacity and commitment by embracing a human rights-based approach to housing. Creating the material conditions for the fulfilment of all human rights, including the right to adequate housing, is a collective task that should concern everyone in society. This includes public and private actors, particularly when private actors receive public funds. Years of austerity have resulted in diminishing resources available to local authorities, and Newcastle City Council has been particularly affected. Yet, the evidence shows that Newcastle has achieved remarkable results despite the limitations. To ensure non-retrogression in human rights, Newcastle should maintain its proactive and preventive approach to end homelessness, above and beyond the relief and refer duties of the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017.