The armed forces covenant: impact on housing

What the armed forces covenant is, when the new covenant duty applies and how it affects the housing rights of veterans.

Published May 2023

The armed forces covenant

The armed forces covenant is a commitment by the government that people who have served in the armed forces and their families should not be disadvantaged due to their service.

The covenant acknowledges that special consideration for veterans and their families will be necessary in certain cases, for example for those who have suffered injury or bereavement.

All local authorities in the UK are signed up the covenant, as well as many housing associations, businesses and other organisations. 

Gov.uk maintains a list of organisations who are signed up to the covenant.

The covenant duty

In November 2022, the covenant became a legal duty. When local authorities are performing certain functions related to housing, they must consider the principles of the covenant. The covenant duty also applies to other functions outside of housing.

When a local authority is performing one of these functions, it must have regard to:

  • the unique obligations and sacrifices of the armed forces

  • the principle that it is desirable to remove disadvantages arising from membership of the armed forces

  • the principle that special provision for service people may be justified

The duty only requires authorities to have regard to these considerations. It does not require them to take any other specific actions.

The covenant does not mean that members of the armed forces receive special treatment. Most rules around homelessness applications or housing allocations still apply as usual to veterans.

When the covenant duty applies

A local authority must consider the principles of the covenant when carrying out specific housing-related functions including:

  • the allocation of social housing properties

  • processing homeless applications

  • formulation of homelessness strategies

  • tenancy strategies

  • award of Disabled Facilities Grants

Homeless veterans and the armed forces covenant

Local authorities must consider the principles of the covenant when making decisions about homeless applications and when drafting homelessness strategies.

The covenant in practice

The general principle that members of the armed forces should not be disadvantaged has previously led to changes in the law.

One example is that members of the armed forces can establish a local connection for a homelessness application to the area they are posted to, if they have been normally resident there for six of the last 12 months or three of the last five years.

Before this change, a member of the armed forces might have been unable to establish a local connection for a homelessness application, even if they had been posted to an area.

Find out more about local authority homeless help for veterans.

Do local authorities need to give preferential treatment to homeless veterans?

The armed forces covenant does not mean that veterans are automatically given priority for housing or other different treatment.

The usual rules regarding homelessness still apply to a homeless veteran. For example, a local authority can still make a referral to another authority if the applicant does not have a connection to their area.

This also means that a veteran might still not be owed emergency housing or a longer-term housing duty, for instance due to not being in priority need, or if they are found intentionally homeless.

The covenant aims to ensure that members of the armed forces are not disadvantaged for their service but does not guarantee preferential treatment. The covenant acknowledges that special provision might be justified in some cases, but this is at the discretion of the specific organisation.

Veterans’ housing officers

Employing a dedicated veterans housing officer is one way an authority might ensure that the principles of the covenant are considered when processing homelessness applications.

This might be more common in areas which have high numbers of veterans, such as areas where there are armed forces bases. Not all local authorities will have provision for this.

The armed forces covenant and social housing allocations

A local authority must have an allocations policy which sets out how social housing properties in its area are allocated. It must have regard for the covenant duty when writing this policy and when making decisions about allocations. 

The covenant in practice

Before the covenant duty became law, the principle that members of the armed forces should not be disadvantaged has led to previous changes in the law on allocations of social housing tenancies.

One example is that local authorities must not restrict certain groups of veterans or members of the armed forces from joining the housing register even when they do not meet the usual requirements for local connection in that area.

Find out more about social housing allocations for veterans.

Veterans and priority on the housing register

The armed forces covenant does not mean that veterans will automatically be given the highest priority on the social housing register.

Some veterans must by law be given additional preference on the housing register. Additional preference does not mean that these veterans will always be placed in the highest band.

Most housing allocations policies consider the level of housing need applicants have. The highest bands are often reserved for people who need to move urgently, for example if someone is being discharged from hospital and cannot return to their previous accommodation.

In many local authority areas, there are long waiting times for even the highest priority bands due to a shortage of social housing properties.

Local authorities must consider the principles of the covenant when drafting their allocations policies. A local authority might still consider it is reasonable to reserve the highest bands for other groups in housing need.

Case study: allocations policies

Some local authorities have drafted their allocations policies to give extra preference to veterans.

For example, the City of Doncaster Council Allocation Policy, published in 2018, puts veterans who have left the armed forces within the last 5 years and who are in urgent housing need in the top band.

The policy also backdates a veteran's registration date in line with the number of years’ service. For example, a veteran with 10 years’ service will have their registration date backdated by 10 years.

When other local authorities draft their latest allocations policy, the covenant duty means they should consider whether it is appropriate to give extra preference to veterans. This will be at the discretion of each local authority.

If a local authority fails to consider the covenant duty

If a local housing authority has a policy which is putting veterans at a disadvantage due to their service, this could be a breach of the covenant duty.

There is no direct route of enforcement if a local authority fails to follow the armed forces covenant duty. The main route to raise concerns would be by the authority’s usual complaints process. A complaint which is not resolved could then be escalated to the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman.

It might also be possible to seek a judicial review in the High Court of an authority’s failure to comply with the covenant duty. Strict time limits apply to applications for judicial review. The person must apply promptly and in all cases within three months. They would need help from a solicitor to pursue this.

Further resources

Shelter Legal

Housing options for veterans - homelessness applications, social housing allocations, where veterans can access help

Gov.uk legislation and guidance

Armed Forces Act 2021

Armed Forces Covenant

Armed Forces Covenant Duty Statutory Guidance

Homelessness Code of Guidance – Chapter 24: Former members of the armed forces

About the author

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