Social housing has been a key government priority in recent years. The passage of the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 aimed to hit an ambitious target to build three million more homes in England by 2020. Against this backdrop, Hardwicke Building’s Inaugural Social Housing Conference aimed to address some of the legal and political issues raised by social housing provision. Recent growth has seen the set emerge as one of the Top 30 sets at the Bar, and the 2009 Chambers directory notes that “Hardwicke Building is increasingly emerging as a force to be reckoned with in the field of Social Housing”.
The timing of the conference reflects a growing need to evaluate the law in the social, economic and political context in which it operates. With this in mind, the keynote speech was delivered by Grant Shapps MP, Conservative Shadow Housing Minister. He emphasised the need to develop a system of providing social housing that operates ‘bottom-up’ from the level of the individual communities, rather than being imposed by remote central planning committees in Whitehall. In a lively question and answer session he outlined how a future Conservative government would aim to empower local communities by freeing them from the restrictions of regional, spatial strategies.
The keynote speech was followed by two presentations on more technical, legal issues. The first was given by Naomi Goode, a partner at Lewis Silkin. She detailed the new regulatory regime under the Housing & Regeneration Act 2008, with a particular focus on the role of the Tenant Services Authority, which has taken over the functions of the Housing Corporation. The new regime is not yet fully in force, but will give the TSA wide-ranging powers when it when it is brought fully into force in April 2010.
This was followed by a presentation by Dean Underwood, a barrister at Hardwicke Building. It dealt with the vexed question of how local authorities can manage some of the 690,000 empty dwellings in England, through the use of Empty Dwelling Management Orders (‘EDMOs’). The success of Inside Housing’s ‘Empty Promise’ campaign was evaluated. Despite having been brought into force in July 2006 by the Housing Act 2004, only 18 EDMOs have been made, but many local authorities have reported that the mere threat of imposing an EDMO is often sufficient to ensure the property returns to occupation.
The afternoon session started with an expert panel discussion, chaired by Philippa Ward, the Commissioning Editor of Inside Housing, which had provided valuable support to the conference. The panel comprised of; John Gallagher, Principal Solicitor for Shelter Legal Services; Daniel Skinner, a partner with Batchelors Solicitors; Kate Davies, Chief Executive of Notting Hill Housing; and Alastair Redpath-Stevens, a barrister at Hardwicke Building.
The discussion covered a wide range of topics in social housing law, from the thorny problem of tolerated trespassers to the role of the private rental sector. Much of the debate involved unpicking the judicial reasoning in the recent appeal court decisions in Alexander-David v Hammersmith and Fulham LBC  EWCA Civ 259 (http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2009/259.html) and Malcolm v Lewisham LBC  UKHL 43 (http://www.bailii.org/uk/cases/UKHL/2008/43.html), the latter of which had caused considerable controversy in its passage through the appeal courts.
The abolition of succession rights was mooted as a possible means of freeing up housing in the public sector. Several members of the panel expressed the view that because the need for social housing was assessed at the point of application, it was inconsistent for the tenant to be able to pass on the property to a family member, without any consideration of the relative’s needs at the time of succession. One particular issue is created when relatives move in with their sick or elderly parents in order to satisfy the succession requirements. It was noted that having housing stock taken out of circulation for several generations in this way exacerbates the current shortfall in provision.
The conference then heard from Richard Blakeway, Director of Housing for the Office of the Mayor of London, who spoke on the challenges facing social housing provision in the capital. He began by outlining the particular difficulties in London, where the average house costs thirteen times more than the average salary and where waiting lists for social housing have risen 68%. A range of solutions have been set out by Boris Johnson’s administration during his first year in office. These were laid down in the London Housing Strategy, published in November 2008. They include the First Steps programme, aimed at allowing tenants to gain an equity share in their property, and the investment of £5bn through the London board of the Homes and Communities Agency, created by the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008.
Finally Kerry Bretherton, a barrister at Hardwicke Building, rounded off the day with a presentation on the relationship between public and private law, and the impact of two recent cases, Doherty v Birmingham City Council (Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government intervening)  UKHL 57 (http://www.bailii.org/uk/cases/UKHL/2008/57.html) and R (on the application of Susan Weaver) v London & Quadrant Housing Trust  EWHC 1377 (Admin) (http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Admin/2008/1377.html).
The conference concluded with Arthur Moore, head of the Housing Team and barrister at Hardwicke Building, who gave the vote of thanks. He reminded delegates that the Hardwicke Building Social Housing Conference is set to return next year, when it will be possible to reflect on the outcome of some of the legal and policy changes debated at this year’s event as well as looking to the future in what is likely to be an election year.
For further information about this and next year’s social housing conference, please do not hesitate to contact Marketing Manager Louise Poppelwell on 020 7691 0301 or by email to Louise.Poppelwell@gatehouselaw.co.uk.
For further information on Hardwicke Building’s Social Housing Team please click here.
The Inaugural Hardwicke Building Social Housing Conference took place on the 28th of April 2009.
Thom Dyke will start pupillage at Hardwicke Building from October 2009