Phoebe Arslanagić-Wakefield is a Researcher at Bright Blue.
Perhaps over half-way through the pandemic, thoughts are turning back to the levelling up programme the Government has promised to pursue.
September saw eager Conservative MPs launch the Levelling Up Taskforce and the newly-formed Northern Research Group is putting pressure on the Government to deliver on its promise to level up the North.
But if Conservatives are serious about addressing regional inequalities across the country, then legal aid must make the cut and appear alongside transport, investment levels and R&D on the levelling up agenda.
This is vital. Austerity-era cuts and a lack of funding have created a system in which access to legal advice is highly regional. These damaging geographical inequalities now exist across England and are especially stark in the housing law practice area, and they will soon be made even starker by the effects of coronavirus.
The problem first emerged when 2012 cuts to legal aid saw the number of providers plummet, and plummet unevenly. The resulting creation of ‘legal aid deserts’ means that there are vast swathes of England and Wales where legal advice for housing issues is simply non-existent locally. These yawning gaps mean that as of 2019, 37 per cent of people in England and Wales – some 21 million people – live in a local authority area where there are no housing legal aid providers.
These figures have to be viewed in the context that housing legal aid covers the gravest problems that a tenant can face, including severe disrepair, repossession proceedings, and eviction.
Eviction is already the single biggest cause of homelessness in England and an estimated 227,000 renters have fallen into arrears since the beginning of the pandemic in March. The Government has responded to fears of a wave of pandemic-related evictions with an eviction ban that was effectively extended over the second lockdown, and by extending notice periods till March 2021.
Nevertheless, tens of thousands of people have already been made homeless as a result of the pandemic and sooner or later, the Government’s alleviating measures will come to an end. When they do, official forecasters have made it clear that the economic scarring of the pandemic will still be here, predicting soaring unemployment.
As harried tenants, months behind on rent with depleted savings, are eventually served eviction notices, they will need legal advice. But they may well find that a housing legal aid service simply does not exist in their area.
Busy Northern Research Group MPs may be pleased to learn that they can cross one thing off their list – when it comes to legal aid, the south trails the north. In the south west, a shocking 92 per cent of people live in a local authority with one or no provider. Cornwall must make do with a lone housing legal aid provider serving just over half a million people across an area of some 1,300 square miles.
The situation is also dire in the East of England, where 91 per cent of the population, more than five million people, live in a local authority area without a housing legal aid provider. A resident of Jaywick – named England’s most deprived area for the third time in a row last year – attempting to reach their nearest housing legal aid provider without a car, must make a two hour journey each way, taking two trains and a bus in the process.
Meanwhile, northern cities including Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield, have plenty of housing legal aid providers to go around. London stands apart as a veritable oasis, with an incredible 49 per cent of England and Wales’ housing legal aid providers concentrated in the city.
The regional disparities encapsulated in the legal aid desert phenomenon hamper the abilities of those living outside major cities to exercise their legal rights, to make good decisions, and to challenge unfair processes. This critically overlooked issue will continue to loom as the pandemic bites into next year, and more and more people face the terrifying prospect of eviction without access to solid legal advice.
For this reason, legal aid must urgently appear on the levelling up agenda, and Conservative MPs must pressure the Government on the matter, just as they do on coronavirus support measures or poor transport links.