By Rob Dewar
In 2011, just under a quarter (24%) of all households in Scotland were living in social housing, down from 41% in 1991. Within the same period, the proportion of households who rent their homes privately had doubled, from 7% in 1991 to 14% in 2011. Shockingly, average private sector rents are 86% higher than the average cost of renting a property in the social housing sector, according to the research by the New Policy Institute.
In a 2013 report by the Auditor General for Scotland, it was estimated there would be an additional half a million households in Scotland by 2038. Single person households over the same period would almost double. Earlier this year the Resolution Foundation warned that nine out of ten people under the age of 35 on modest incomes in Scotland would, within another ten years, find it impossible to ever own their own home, being unable to save for a deposit on a mortgage due to high rents – especially in Scotland's cities.
The housing charity Shelter Scotland, in its outline in February, has highlighted four challenges for the next Holyrood parliament.
Build at least 12 000 affordable rented homes each year for the parliament's lifetime, with most of these being socially rented homes.
Improve private renting by greater enforcement of standards on landlords, and more support for tenants' rights.
Put homes at the heart of strategies on addressing child poverty and advancing social justice.
Tackle homelessness with a strategy that includes better temporary accommodation and more support for the vulnerable.
Included in the range of social security (aka "welfare") powers shortly to be devolved to the Scottish administration, will be the housing benefit element of universal credit. The UK Tory government intends reducing social sector housing benefit; with housing benefit being devolved to Scotland, will the Scottish administration maintain housing benefit at the current level, or pass on the Tory cut?
The SNP has already promised to scrap the so-called "bedroom tax" – whereby only a percentage of the rent a tenant pays his landlord is paid to him in turn as housing benefit, if that tenant is deemed to occupy a home with more bedrooms than he needs. Going through Holyrood right now is the SNP's Private Housing (Tenancies) Bill. It is claimed that this bill will protect 700 000 people from the prospect of unforeseen and unfair eviction, and from unpredictability over rent increases. These claims are only minimally met. Should a private landlord wish to sell his property, the tenant, if asked to quit his tenancy, would have no choice but to comply. Should the private landlord's legally permitted annual rent increases ultimately cripple the tenant, there is little the tenant can do about it but leave, unable to afford the rent any longer.
In my view, this bill is if anything biased in favour of the rentier class – even if in extreme cases. yet to be evaluated in practical terms, it allows for the authorisation by Scottish ministers of rent controls to be applied by local authorities in "rent pressure zones". However, the SNP has scrapped the "right to buy" for social tenants – that notorious Tory device for whittling down the supply of social housing units by encouraging social housing tenants to acquire their homes privately. The SNP claims that this measure will prevent the loss of 15 500 social housing homes in Scotland over the next ten years. The Scottish administration states that it has made available 20 000 social rented homes over the lifetime of the current parliament – including 5000 council homes.
It seems clear that if we are to break the monopoly that private landlords currently hold in Scottish home rentals, the best way to do so is to hugely increase the supply of council housing; the creation of a mere 5000 council houses during this parliament's lifetime seems to me to be grossly inadequate. We all know that the Tories hope to become the official opposition in the forthcoming Holyrood parliament; as part of this drive, they claim they would build 100 000 new homes in Scotland over the next 5 years. I wonder: how many of these would be social housing/council housing units? Very few, I am certain.
The Tories' definition of "affordable housing" is a very broad one indeed. It seems to me that an investment considerably exceeding the £1.7 billion the Scottish administration claims to have invested in affordable homes over the lifetime of the current parliament must be made during the lifetime of the next – and the next again – if we are to match the greater part of growing demand for homes in Scotland; especially in demand for social/council housing. Will Scotland ever have a government that sets out to break the monopoly that private landlords currently enjoy in the residential lettings market?
I can but dream . . .
Rob Dewar lives in the West Highlands and is not a member of any political party. You can find more of Rob's thoughts at http://rabbiedeoir.com/