How to apply for council housing

If you are applying for a council home, your application could also cover a housing association or housing co-operative home in a council's area, and in some areas may be used for housing transfers too.

About council allocations schemes

Every local council has its own 'allocations scheme' (or 'housing register') for council housing in its area. An allocations scheme sets out the rules that the council uses to decide who to house. Allocations schemes vary from area to area as local councils can decide who gets priority for housing, but there are still some general rules about priority that all councils have to follow.

An allocations scheme will typically set out:

  • who can apply for housing from within the council's area
  • who can apply from outside the council's area
  • who gets priority for housing.

To qualify for housing in a councils area, you may need:

  • to have a local connection through living in the area for a minimum time
  • to work in the area
  • to be caring for someone living in the area
  • income below a certain level.

It is worth looking at the allocations policies of a number of councils. You may find that you can register for housing in more than one area, or that you qualify to go on the waiting list in one area but not another. You can apply to any council you choose. You do not have to be living in their area to apply. However, councils are allowed to give extra priority to people who already live in their area.

Find the contact details of councils through Gov.uk.

Use Shelter's emergency housing rights checker to find out if the council has a duty to provide you with emergency accommodation 

Find out about the rules in a council's area

You can ask a council for information and advice on how to apply. All councils are required by law to provide free information on:

  • how to make an application
  • who is eligible to be considered for housing
  • how priority between applicants will be decided
  • the procedures it will follow when it looks at your application
  • what will happen when a suitable property becomes available.

Most councils will provide information on their website. You may be able to get a leaflet explaining how their system works – ask your council or at a local library or community centre.

Councils also have a legal responsibility to help you if you find it difficult to apply. This could be, for example, if English is your second language or you have reading difficulties. If they refuse to do this, or you are not happy with the way the council deals with your application, get help from a local advice centre. Use our directory to find an advice service in your area.

Read Shelter's guide Council housing to find out more about applying for a council home 

Application forms

Most councils have application forms on their websites. You can also get an application form from a council's housing department. Information about who gets priority should be supplied with the form. Before you fill in the application form, make sure you understand how the council decides who to house first.

The information you provide helps the council decide if you are eligible to go on the waiting list and how much priority you should get. It is important to give the council enough information so they can assess your application properly. Be sure to explain in detail any special needs, difficulties or problems you or your family are having. If it is appropriate, the council may ask for the contact details of anyone who can support your application (such as a doctor, solicitor, social worker or probation officer).

Although some of the information may seem private (for example details about your health or your domestic situation), it is worth including as it may mean that you get housed more quickly. The information you give will be kept confidential. Enclose copies of any evidence that you have (such as photographs, medical letters, or police incident reports). Take photocopies of important original documents so you have a record.

The application form will include a declaration, which you must read, sign and date to confirm that the information you have provided is true. If there is anything in your application that you are unsure about, get advice from a Shelter advice centre or Citizens Advice before you sign. Use our directory to find a housing adviser

Information to include in an application

Each council has its own application form, but they usually ask for the same type of information. Most application forms ask for:

  • the name, age and gender of everyone in your household, and how they are related to you
  • your income and the income of any joint applicants
  • where you currently live and what facilities and conditions are like there
  • where you have been living (usually over the past five years)
  • what connections you have with the area, such as living, working or having family in the area
  • the reasons why you need to move - such as overcrowding, disrepair, medical reasons, violence or harassment
  • any circumstances that make it difficult for you to find and pay for private rented accommodation
  • the type of housing you need, including size, location and facilities
  • any special requirements (for example, if you need to be on the ground floor because of mobility problems).

Joint applications for housing

It is usually possible for two or more people to apply jointly, for example, if you are a married couple, civil partners, or living together.

You will not be able to apply jointly if one of you is not eligible for an allocation (for example because your immigration status means an application for a council home won't be accepted). In this situation, the eligible person can still apply and include the ineligible person in the application as a member of the household. The eligible person could only be offered a sole tenancy.

Applying for a joint tenancy has its pros and cons:

  • If you split up, neither of you can be forced to leave without a court order. You would have equal rights to live in the property until the court decides what should happen to your home.
  • Each of you would be individually responsible for paying the rent, so if one joint tenant doesn't pay the rent, the other will have to.
  • You could each be held responsible if one of you breaks the tenancy agreement or causes nuisance to the neighbours.

Who assesses an application for housing?

In many areas, the council's housing department will have staff who assess applications and manage allocations. However, some councils employ housing associations or other external organisations to do this for them. They have to follow all the same procedures and rules as the council would have to. Every application must be considered individually, as long as you have followed the application procedure correctly.

Your application may be passed on to health and social care agencies to assess your medical needs on behalf of the council, or to housing associations or co-ops that may be able to offer you a home.

None of these organisations are allowed to tell any member of the public that you have made an application, unless you agree to it.

If the council accepts or refuses your application

When the council has assessed the information you provided in your application for housing, it will decide if you can go on its allocation list or housing register and what priority you will have for housing. The council will write to you to tell you the decision. If you don't have an address (for example if you are sleeping on the streets), you can collect the decision letter from the council's offices.

If you are accepted onto the waiting list, it does not necessarily mean you will be offered a home. When you get a home will depend on what priority you have for housing and how much housing the council has.

If the council decides not to accept you onto the waiting list, it must explain the legal reasons why. You should get advice immediately as it may be possible to:

  • ask the council to review their decision
  • reapply when your circumstances have changed (for example if you have a history of rent arrears but you have since paid them off)
  • get the decision changed by judicial review (you will need help to do this).

An adviser can explain these options in more detail, and may be able to help you with any legal issues. Use our directory to find a housing adviser.

Can you choose where you live?

All councils should either:

  • allow you to bid for individual properties that you are interested in, or
  • allow you to say which areas you would prefer to live in when you apply.

However, this doesn't necessarily mean that you can choose the neighbourhood where you want to live. The council may divide its area in a way that does not match your preferences.

Bear in mind that there is usually a longer wait in popular areas.

Keeping your application up to date

Inform the council if your circumstances change, for example if you have a new child or have moved home. Changes in your circumstances may affect how much priority you get.

Make sure you understand what is expected of you. In many areas, the council will send you a letter each year, asking if you still want to be considered for housing. If you don't reply, your name could be removed from the list and any points you have gained for time waiting may be lost. If your council operates a choice based lettings scheme, you will be expected to make bids for properties and may be penalised if you don't.

Last updated: 1 January 2014