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How to check an allocations policy

How to check an allocations policy, including checking whether someone is eligible to join the housing register and what priority a person might receive.

Published September 2023

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Consider all the options first

Allocations of social housing can be a slow process, and unfortunately many people who join the register may never be allocated a property.

People who need to move urgently should consider other options to search for accommodation, such as private rented accommodation. If someone is homeless or at risk of homelessness, they may be able to get assistance from the local authority.

A social housing tenant might be able to find a new property via mutual exchange.

Find the local authority’s policy

A local authority is required by law to have a policy for how it allocates social housing properties in its area.

Local authorities must still set a policy for how properties are allocated in that area even if the authority no longer owns their own housing stock.

Most policies are easily accessible online by searching the name of the local authority and ‘allocations policy’ or 'lettings policy’. If it's not available online, contact the local authority to request a copy.

Make sure it's the most recent copy as a local authority might have more than one version available online. Any older versions might be out of date.

Remember that every policy is different

Following the Localism Act 2011, each local authority can set its own policy about who can join the list in its area and how to give priority.

Although there are some rules all local authorities must follow, such as giving reasonable and additional preference to certain groups, in practice these might be applied differently. So, if one local authority has a policy which works in a particular way, don’t assume another local authority will be the same.

As each allocations policy is different, it’s not possible to provide a comprehensive guide to each council’s policy, but there are some key things to check and look out for.

Check the residence requirements

Most local authorities have rules about who can join the register based on their connection to that area. These are often stricter than the local connection rules which apply to homeless applications. For example, under homelessness rules, a person will have a local connection to an area if they have lived there three of the last five years or for six of the last 12 months.

A local authority waiting list might have much tougher requirements, often requiring an applicant to have been resident for two, three or five years. Government guidance suggests that local authorities can impose a two year residence requirement, as a minimum.

These restrictions tend to be tougher in some areas than others, for instance most London local authorities will have longer than average residence requirements. One London local authority has a policy with a local connection requirement of 10 years, and this was found in the courts to be lawful.

Some residence requirements have been found to be unlawful when applied as a blanket policy, so the policy might contain exceptions for specific groups. For example, the 10 year residence requirement was found to discriminate against certain Irish Traveller or Romany Gypsy groups, so this policy now allows these applicants to join after five years if they meet certain other requirements.

Applying to another area

If a person wants to join the housing register in an area where they don’t live or work, this can be difficult. A policy might still allow someone to meet residence or local connection requirements for other reasons, for instance if someone has a long-standing connection to an area they don’t currently live or has close family connections there.

Check the policy of that local authority to confirm the specific requirements it has.

The local authority could also its use discretion to allow a person who doesn’t meet the criteria to join.

Exemptions for members of the armed forces

As members of the armed forces might need to move more frequently than many other groups, special provisions apply to former and serving members of the armed forces when it comes to allocations and local connection.

Local authorities must not apply local connection criteria to applicants who are currently serving in the regular armed forces or had served in the five years preceding their application.

Authorities also must not apply these restrictions to some bereaved spouses or civil partners whose spouse or partner has died in service, or people who have served in the reserve armed forces and suffered serious injuries or illness as a result.

Find out more on social housing allocations for veterans on Shelter Legal.

Exemptions for people fleeing violence

The government has published guidance which strongly encourages local authorities to exempt people who are living in a refuge or other similar accommodation after fleeing domestic abuse from residence requirements.

Check the allocations policy to see if this exemption has been included.

Check other qualifying criteria

A person might be restricted from joining the register for other reasons. For example, someone who is not eligible due to their immigration status will not be able to join any housing register.

Other common reasons a local authority might include in their policy to restrict people from joining the register are:

  • outstanding money owed to the local authority, such as rent arrears or council tax

  • previous anti-social behaviour or other unacceptable behaviour

  • having an income or savings over a certain threshold

  • being considered to have no housing need

  • being found intentionally homeless under a homelessness application

Check the policy to see what restrictions the local authority has listed. The policy should elaborate on these categories, for instance it might specify the level of arrears which will exclude an applicant or what is considered to be unacceptable behaviour.

Many policies will allow for discretion for a local authority to bypass these restrictions or set out rules about when these will no longer apply. For example, a policy might say that if a person has consistently repaid arrears owed or has not engaged in anti-social behaviour for a certain time period, they can re-join the register.

Find out more about people who qualify for social housing and eligibility requirements on Shelter Legal.

Consider housing need

Some local authorities will assess whether a person has a housing need when deciding if they can join the housing register. This could mean that if someone is not homeless, and does not have another housing need, such as needing a larger or adapted property, they might be restricted from joining the waiting list.

This is also sometimes used to restrict an applicant’s priority. For example, a person might be able to join but be placed in the lowest priority band.

Check how the authority awards priority

Each local authority awards priority to different groups in slightly different ways.

Usually the local authority will have bands, groups or a points system to determine who has the highest priority for bidding. For example, the highest priority might be given to groups in Band 1, Band A or to the group who score the highest points.

Check the policy to see how the local authority applies this.

Often the highest bands are reserved for people who need to move very urgently. For example, people who are being discharged from hospital to accommodation which is not suitable for their needs and therefore require an adapted property.

Reasonable preference

Legislation requires local authorities to give reasonable preference to certain groups. This includes:

  • people who are homeless

  • people occupying insanitary or overcrowded housing

  • people who need to move on medical or welfare grounds

  • people who need to move to a particular area within the authority, where failure to do so would cause hardship

Reasonable preference does not necessarily mean that a group will receive the highest priority. A local authority has discretion to assess what reasonable preference means in their own allocations policy.

Some people in reasonable preference groups might still be restricted from joining the register, but an allocations policy cannot set requirements which exclude most or all of that group from joining the register. One local authority’s policy was found to be unlawful in court as it excluded all homeless people except those owed the main housing duty.

Additional preference

Government guidance says that local authorities might wish to give additional preference to people who need to move urgently as a result of:

  • a life-threatening illness or sudden disability

  • severe overcrowding which poses a serious health hazard

  • homelessness due to violence or threats of violence

Local authorities can also give preference to groups of people who already have a reasonable preference and have urgent housing needs.

As with reasonable preference, additional preference does not mean that a group will receive the highest priority, and authorities are able to determine what additional preference means in the context of their own policy.

Additional preference for the armed forces

Local authorities must give additional preference to certain members of the armed forces who are in a reasonable preference category, have an urgent housing need and:

  • are currently serving and suffering from a serious injury illness or disability due to their service

  • have formerly served in the regular armed forces

  • is, or had been, serving in the reserve armed forces who is suffering from a serious injury, illness or disability due to their service

Authorities must also give additional preference to some bereaved spouses or civil partners whose spouses or partners have died in service.

Check the room entitlement

Each allocations policy should include information on how the authority calculates what size property a household can bid for.

This is important to determine which properties an applicant can bid for, and whether a household is considered to be overcrowded.

A policy might state that children under certain ages would be expected to share and would not be entitled to their own room. There will sometimes be exceptions for this if people are unable to share for medical reasons.

If a child does not live full time with the applicant, a local authority might not count them when assessing the number of rooms a household is entitled to.

Check what the policy says about size criteria for households of different sizes.

Challenging a housing register decision

A local authority’s decision regarding the housing register can be challenged by review.

Check what the policy says about reviews and make sure any timescales set out are kept to. There is no time limit in law, but the guidance for local authorities suggests 21 days.

Gather supporting information in favour to support the review. For example, if reviewing a decision on medical priority, supporting medical information will be required.

If someone is too late to request a review, it might be possible to present any new information to the local authority and to ask them to reconsider the banding awarded.

About the author

Madeleine Hunter is a legal content producer and former housing adviser at Shelter.