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Applying to the council for housing



There are quite long waiting lists for council housing in most areas, though not everywhere. It is worth applying anyway because this can help you to get on housing association lists too. Some places have lists of housing with shorter waiting lists, sometimes called “readily available” or “always available”. These might be flats such as in tower blocks, and because there is a shorter waiting list, it’s possible to be housed quite quickly in one of these properties if the council has them.

Not all councils have their own housing any more, but they will still keep a waiting list. People on this list will be either nominated to a housing association (usually if they have some form of priority), or placed on a list to wait for a home from one of the housing associations, or told they can start bidding for properties from one of the housing associations.

The rest of this section looks at applying for housing from a council that still has its own housing. It also tells you about how councils can set the Allocations Policy for nominations to housing associations.

It is important to note that the council’s allocations policy does not cover who gets homeless priority. This is part of a different set of rules, and is covered in a separate section on homelessness.

Top tips

  • There are long waiting lists in lots of places, but it’s good to get on the waiting list as soon as you can
  • Ask for a leaflet about the housing allocations policy, so you can see how it works in your area
  • Allocations policies say who will get priority for getting a council house, but there is a different set of rules about whether people get priority if they are homeless
  • Get help with filling in the application form if needed – it’s best to get the right information onto the form from the start
  • You can use a recent photo as proof of identity
  • Someone who knows you well (like a Probation Officer or support worker) can give a reference for you, to confirm that you are who you say you are and that you could hold down a tenancy
  • Spent convictions don’t have to be disclosed on housing application forms but convictions will normally be requested, in which case you must disclose your unspent convictions
  • You have the right to challenge a decision refusing to let you go on a council housing waiting list, and you should get a letter telling you why you have been refused
  • You may have to re-apply each year
  • Your application may be deferred if you are in prison – you need to let the council know at least 6 weeks before you are due for release, to activate the application
  • In lots of places, you need to make a bid to say you are interested in a particular house or flat – and you can often get help to make bids if you are in prison

Getting on the waiting list

Most councils keep a waiting list for housing (sometimes known as a housing register). It may be the same waiting list for all the housing associations in the area, and in a few places, private landlords join in with this too. There may be only one application form for all the housing associations, and it may also be used by other councils in the area, if there is a joint Choice Based Lettings Scheme (see more about this in the later section).

Application forms

The first step is to complete an application form. It is more and more common for councils to expect people to apply by filling a form online. You can find the form on the council website or on a site which is just about applying for council housing in that area. If you are in a prison with no internet access, you can ask for a paper copy of the form to be sent to you. Check that a Consent Form has been sent for you to sign at the same time.

The GOV.UK website can tell you which council to apply to if you put in a postcode in the area you want to live in (for example for the place you are staying at temporarily or the postcode for a friend or family member). This also gives some basic information about applying for and living in council housing.

Other places to get advice are Shelter, the Citizens’ Advice Bureau in your area, or the Homelessness or Housing Options service.

Choosing the size of accommodation you need

It’s important to apply for accommodation that fits the size of your household. If you are a single person, or are applying as part of a couple, you are not likely to get enough Housing Benefit to pay the full rent for a house or flat with more than 1 bedroom, even if you need this so your children can stay with you occasionally. If you need to claim Housing Benefit, in most cases you will not get benefit to cover the rent for more bedrooms than you need for yourself and any family who live with you permanently.

Restricting who is allowed on the list

Some councils have restrictions on who can apply to them for housing. Councils may decide that houses or flats will only be offered to people who come from the area, or that they will not house people with particular criminal histories, or that some types of accommodation are for people in particular age bands. The Government is also proposing to change the rules so that you must have lived in the area for 2 years to be able to be housed there in council or other social housing.

Information needed to get on the waiting list

The information usually needed when applying is:

  • Your name, and the names of anyone else applying to be housed with you
  • Dates of birth, and National Insurance numbers, for everyone who wants to live together (and proof of the NI number on a NI card, payslip, or P45/P60)
  • Current address for each person wanting to live together
  • Previous addresses for the main applicant (usually for the last 5 years)
  • Details about your current home, and why you want to or need to move
  • Any disability or other medical, welfare or other problems which mean you need to move (this is particularly important) or need support
  • Ethnic origin, and whether you are a British citizen or not
  • Where you want to live
  • Whether you or anyone wanting to live with you has any criminal convictions (this only relates to unspent convictions)
  • Name of one or two referees
  • Proof of identity – a driving licence, passport, or other form of proof with a photograph of the main applicant
  • Proof of living at the current address – a gas or electricity bill, bank statement, phone bill with that address on

Providing the information needed if you are in prison

If you are homeless or in prison at the time of applying and can’t get references from a previous or current landlord, most councils will accept a character reference and other information from someone like a Probation Officer, a housing support worker or someone else who has known you for some time, and is not a relative. The point of this is to confirm that you are who you say you are, and that the referee thinks you are capable of holding down a tenancy.

If you do not have a passport, a driving licence or another proof of identity with a photo, the proof of identity can be a photo taken recently. This needs to be attached to the application form so that you can be recognised and your identity confirmed.

If you are due to be released from prison, the council may ask for the expected release date, copies of release papers, and the name and contact details of your Probation Officer.

It is a criminal offence to give false information in order to get somewhere to live from the council, or to withhold information deliberately. If accommodation is provided and then it is discovered that false information was given in order to get somewhere to live, the council can ask you to be evicted (but this can only be done through the courts).

Once you are registered

Once an application is registered, you will be sent a letter confirming your registration number and registration date. You will also have a PIN number and user name if you have registered online. It is important to keep all this information safe.

If in prison, the local council may defer (freeze) the application because an offer of accommodation could not be accepted whilst you are in prison. If this happens, the council should be contacted before release (6 weeks before would be good) and the application is then made “live”. The waiting time will then date back to the original registration date, so it is still worthwhile getting your application in as soon as possible.

Disclosing a criminal record

Application forms all ask the applicant to say if they have a criminal record, and if it is not a spent conviction, to supply more information. Spent convictions do not have to be disclosed. The sentence in the form will say something like:

“If you or anyone who wants to be rehoused with you has any criminal convictions which are not spent as explained in the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, you must tell us about them here. You must set out all of the details of the conviction in full.”

Spent and unspent convictions

Spent convictions are those which can be ignored after a specified amount of time. The amount of time depends on the sentence, and the more serious the conviction, the longer the period of rehabilitation that is expected before people can be rehabilitated and start with a clean slate. Unspent convictions must be mentioned on the form. To work out whether your record is spent, visit

Consent forms

You might be asked to fill in a consent form to allow the council to send off to other organisations to get more information. This is likely to be the case if:

  • You say you have a criminal record, or
  • are known by housing staff to have a criminal record or to have committed anti-social behaviour, or
  • there are gaps in the housing history filled in on the application form

Some councils have, in the past, introduced policies that involve them writing to the local police force to ask what a conviction was for, if the person has mentioned that they have a criminal record, or if there is a gap in the person’s housing history and the council want to find out if someone was in prison during that period. The council should not ask for this information about all applicants who have convictions; only those where they think the convictions may be relevant to their eligibility for housing. The council should also not ask you to prove your criminal record by asking you to get what is known as “a subject access request”. This means forcing someone to find out information that is held about them by the Police, which is illegal under Section 56 of the Data Protection Act 1998.

When the council has the information it needs, it will then decide whether you can go onto their waiting list or register. The decision will depend on what their housing allocations policy says.

Can you check what information the council holds about you?

An applicant accepted onto the Housing Register is entitled to see their entry and to receive a copy of what is held about them. The right covers all information recorded about you, including information held on computers, in e-mails, and in printed or handwritten documents, as well as pictures and video or audio recordings. There may be a charge for this, up to a maximum of £10.

For information the council has got from other organisations, such as the Police, Social Services, or Probation, they may write to ask that organisation if they give permission for the information to be shown to you.

Council housing allocations policies

Many councils are in the middle of rethinking their allocation policies. This is because the law has recently changed, through the Localism Act 2011.

Under the Homelessness Act 2002, councils could refuse to allow someone to go on their list (and could refuse to house them) only if

  1. they were either someone who was not allowed to use public services because they came from abroad (this is a very short summary of the rules in this case) or
  2. because they were not suitable to be a tenant because of earlier “unacceptable behaviour” such as rent arrears or criminal or anti-social behaviour

The Localism Act 2011 keeps the rules about those from abroad, but now allows councils to decide for themselves who can or cannot qualify for their waiting list or register. This came into force in June 2012, but as some councils have not yet changed their policies, the notes below explain what to do if the council refuses to let someone apply for housing under the old rules, and then under the new rules.

Councils must publish their allocations policies and must provide anyone who asks with a copy of it, at least in summary. There will usually be a copy of the policy on the council website. You are also entitled to ask for information which will help you to assess how your application is likely to be treated, whether you will have any priority (under rules about “reasonable preference”), whether you can be housed, and how long it might take.

Some groups get priority

Council allocation policies must give some priority to people who fall within certain groups (or give “reasonable preference” to some groups). These include people who are homeless and in “priority need” because they are in a family with children, a pregnant woman, under 18s, or have some other special need, and also people living in very unhealthy or overcrowded accommodation, or people who need to move because of medical problems.

As well as setting the policy for allocating the council’s housing (where the council still has its own housing), each council’s allocations policy sets out who will get priority for nominations to housing associations. This is particularly important where the council no longer has its own housing and all lettings of social rented houses or flats are done by housing associations for properties they have in the area. It is also important when new houses and flats are being let by a housing association, as in many cases, the arrangement will be that the council can propose who gets a proportion of the properties, often up to half of the properties being let. This allows local councils to make sure that the people most in need are likely to be offered housing.

What to do if you are not allowed on to the council’s waiting list or housing register

The old rules (may still be in use)

Under the old rules, the council could decide that your tenancy record or a history of anti-social or criminal behaviour means that you are not suitable to be a tenant because of “unacceptable behaviour”. You would usually be told that you are not eligible to go on the waiting list, but some councils say that the person can go on the list but their application is suspended or deferred. Technically, these two things are different, but in practice they mean the same: the person will not be offered any housing until they can show that their behaviour has changed.

Examples of what is considered to be unacceptable behaviour for someone wanting to be a council tenant are:

  • serious or persistent rent arrears from a former tenancy
  • serious nuisance or annoyance to neighbours
  • domestic violence
  • harassment, violence and intimidation to council or other staff
  • damage to a house or flat
  • selling drugs from a house or flat
  • a conviction for an offence committed in the house or flat or in the local area – such as burglary from a neighbour’s house, keeping stolen goods in their home, or assaulting a local shopkeeper

Each case has to be considered individually, so councils are not allowed to make a rule which would apply to all people with convictions, or to anyone convicted of a particular type of crime. Decisions must be based on evidence that the person with rent arrears had built up serious or persistent rent arrears, or that the person who had a record of nuisance, harassment or crime had been guilty of behaviour that would be serious enough for them to be evicted very quickly if they were a council tenant. All decisions could be challenged by asking for a review of the decision, in writing, within 21 days of receiving a letter giving the decision. (All decisions to say that an applicant is ineligible to go on the waiting list must be given in writing, with a note saying how to ask for a review.)

The Police sometimes provide information about convictions which do not affect the person’s ability to be a good tenant. Under the old rules, information about these sorts of crimes should not be taken into account in deciding whether the person can be allowed onto a council waiting list. If you think that the council has used information about convictions which have nothing to do with housing, you can ask for the decision to be reviewed.

If the council refuses to let you join the waiting list because of “unacceptable behaviour”, there are several ways to change or challenge this:

  • Check whether the council has evidence that the rent arrears built up because of your own actions or decisions, and not because of factors outside your control (for example, Housing Benefit not being paid on time)
  • Ask for information about what crime or anti-social behaviour is being taken to show that you have been guilty of unacceptable behaviour which is serious enough that you would have been evicted if you had been a tenant already
  • Ask for information about when the crime or poor behaviour being taken into account happened

If the rent arrears are not at a serious level (the council may define the level they see as serious in their policy), or if the crime was not one which could lead to a speedy eviction if the person had been a tenant, or was committed a long time ago, then it may be worth asking for a review of the decision that you are ineligible to join the waiting list.

If the council confirms its decision that you’re ineligible to apply because of rent arrears or previous/current behaviour, you can ask for the decision to be reviewed at any time if you can show that your behaviour has changed. This could be by:

  • Showing that you are committed to paying your rent by regularly paying rent or something off the arrears. This can be as little as £1 a week, and usually needs to be paid for 12 or 13 weeks in a row. Paying a little off the rent arrears each week when someone is in prison is usually taken as proof that the person is committed to paying their rent
  • Providing evidence that your behaviour has changed – a letter from a Probation Officer, or housing support worker, or a drugs worker would be important here

Councils could also decide to allow you on the waiting list but then not allocate you a property because of new information about your unacceptable behaviour. The same challenges as above can be made to try to get the decision changed.

New rules from 2012

Under the new rules, the council can decide who does and does not qualify for the waiting list. People who do not qualify could include, for example, those who would have been found to be ineligible under the old rules such as people who have been convicted of selling drugs, or those who have been found guilty of violence towards housing or other council staff, or anti-social behaviour. It can also include people who do not have a local connection with the area.

Councils are advised not to disqualify groups of people who are mentioned in their Homelessness Strategy as likely to be at risk of homelessness and needing special help to make sure they find somewhere to live, or those who have medical or welfare grounds for getting extra priority. However, an individual applicant could be disqualified even though they have an urgent or a medical need for housing.

Some councils have decided to exclude people who have:

  • as little as £100 rent arrears
  • been guilty of breaking any rule in their tenancy agreement within the last 3 years
  • any unspent conviction or recent anti-social or criminal behaviour
  • been found to be intentionally homeless

Anyone who has been disqualified can make a new application, but it is up to you to show that the circumstances have changed. As above, this can be done by

  • Showing you are committed to paying something off the arrears.
  • Providing evidence that your behaviour has changed – a letter from a Probation Officer, or housing support worker, or a drugs worker

As in the old rules, anyone who is disqualified must be told this in a letter, and must be told what grounds have been used for making the decision. You can ask for a review of the decision and must be told what the result of the review is. After that, there is no right of appeal to an independent court or tribunal.

Who does the review?

Reviews often have 2 stages. The first stage is for a senior housing officer, someone who was not involved in the original decision, to look at it, and review all the information collected and what decision was made. If the decision is not changed at this stage, you can ask for another stage, for an elected councillor to look at the decision again.

Deciding on who will be housed in a particular property

The process

Many councils now decide who will get a particular property by first asking applicants to bid for the house or flat they want to live in. These are called Choice Based Lettings schemes, and they usually work as shown below:


This is what you need to know about Choice Based Lettings schemes:

  • There is normally a weekly list of vacant properties advertised in housing offices, on the internet, in the local paper, or in advice centres
  • The advert says what size of family could apply (for example a 1 person household, or a family with 5 people) and whether there are any restrictions, such as being over 40, or needing accommodation with adaptations for a disability
  • Anyone interested in living in that property makes a bid. This can be done in a number of ways: often by phone, over the internet, by post, by text, or at a housing office. There will be a deadline for bids to be received each week. It is usually possible to bid for more than one property each week, up to a limit (often 3).
  • People who are not able to bid for themselves (for example someone in prison) may be able to ask someone else to bid for them – this usually has to be arranged with the council beforehand.

After the bids have been received, the housing officer weighs up the different bids that have come in. They may have to take into account people who are homeless or who have priority because of a medical problem or an urgent need to move. If not, they will usually decide that the person who has been waiting the longest will be offered the property.

The last steps in the process are:

  • They will usually let the successful bidder know (but not all councils let unsuccessful bidders know as there may be too many to do this).
  • The successful bidder gets an offer and has to respond within a few days to say whether they want to move into the property or not.

Getting priority

Allocation policies give priority in several different ways. Some give priority for people with the highest points, but most give priority to people in different bands. The example below is for a council policy which has 5 bands. People who do not have an urgent, high or medium need to move (Bands A, B or C) are unlikely to be offered a property in most cases.

Band A: Urgent Need – Such as people who are homeless and in a priority group, or have a life-threatening medical condition, or live in a property which is dangerous, or have to move because of violence
Band B: High Need – Such as people who need to move because of overcrowding and their house is in very bad condition, and they have a medical need to move, or people in a priority group who are at risk of becoming homeless soon
Band C: Medium Need –  Such as single homeless people, or people whose health is being made worse by the conditions in the house where they are living, or whose home is overcrowded, or people who are ready to leave (temporary) supported housing
Band D: Low Need – Such as people who do not have an urgent need to move but who are working in the area, or making a community contribution in the area
Band E: Reduced Priority – Such as people who have rent arrears, have no local connection with the area, have had a tenancy before but did not look after their house very well, or broke tenancy conditions, or have refused 2 reasonable offers of housing in the last year.

Anyone who thinks they have been put in the wrong band can ask for this to be looked at again.

Some councils give priority to people who show that they are trying to find work, or are working, or that they are “making a community contribution”. This could be by doing volunteer work with a local charity, or in a local community group, but it would also include time spent being a representative for people who live in supported housing or being part of a service user group for people with substance misuse problems.

Points systems

A few councils use a points system to decide who is at the top of the list. In this case, the applicant does not bid but waits to get a letter or phone call telling them they have come to the top of the list. The decision about who will be offered the property will depend on a combination of factors like the person’s need for housing, and the length of time they have been on the list or in housing need.

Quota systems

Some councils use a system which allocates a property to the next person in a particular group (this is called a “quota system”).

Getting an offer of a property

The housing officer makes an offer of a house or flat to the applicant (usually over the phone, or in writing if the person can’t be contacted by phone). The property might have to be viewed soon after getting the offer (perhaps only 2 days). If you don’t turn up to the viewing, your application might be downgraded.

A housing officer may go with you to see the property. You need to decide if you are going to take the property. You will then need to go in to the housing office to sign for the tenancy. This process could take up to an hour, and might include getting benefit advice and help to fill in Housing Benefit forms.

With bidding systems, if the offer is refused, you can usually go on to bid for any other properties you are interested in. With other systems – such as a points system – the application may be sent further down the list if the offer is refused.

Moving in

Once the offer of a property is accepted, the tenancy is likely to start very soon. This could be in less than a week’s time, depending on whether the sign-up has happened at the start of the week or later in the week. So it is very important to make a Housing Benefit claim straightaway as the rent will be due from the start.

Other things that need to happen when moving in are: having meters read, a gas fitter coming out to turn the gas on, and arranging for furniture to be delivered. Councils may provide a furniture pack, with the cost of this covered in the rent and by Housing Benefit.

Useful links

Below you will find links to useful websites relating to this page. More specific details (including addresses and telephone numbers) of some of the organisations listed below can be found here.

  • National Homeless Advice Service (NHAS) – NHAS provides free expert advice, training and support to housing professionals working in local councils, voluntary advice agencies, local Citizens Advice and public authorities in England.


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Debbie Sadler
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