Sunday 30 December 2012

An end to homelessness in Scotland?

Hogmanay marks the abolition of the priority need test in homelessness law, and the crystallisation of the Scottish Government’s promise to 'end homelessness' in Scotland. Any individual who becomes homeless unintentionally has been promised the right to a home. What does this promise mean in practice? Will people really have the right to a permanent home in Scotland?

In practice, local authorities already side step statutory homelessness duties by turning single homeless people away, telling them there is no available temporary accommodation. This is unlawful but it happens every day in Scotland, and can be very difficult to detect or prove. Why don’t councils have sufficient temporary accommodation?

Ultimately, it’s the lack of a joined-up national housing policy, whereby the specific policy of large-scale stock transfer has meant that many local authorities have no houses at all. Add this to the fact the 2001 Housing (Scotland) Act contains no power for councils to require housing associations to accommodate homeless persons on a temporary or interim basis, and you have a bottle neck in a system where demand always outstrips supply.

Of course living in a temporary furnished flat, or more typically a homeless hotel or bed and breakfast room, is not the same thing as the promise of a permanent home. Much of Scotland’s private sector temporary accommodation ranges from low quality to shockingly bad, if you are lucky enough to get it. 

The reality is we don’t have enough good quality social housing in Scotland; we need to build more, and giving people legal rights to such homes is meaningless unless they are available to let. Indeed it could be argued that raising expectations of access to good quality, decent homes is unfair and unhelpful if many people may never get one.

Our homelessness laws look fantastic on paper but we have a stretched and broken system on the ground, with a lack of infrastructure. And that system will be unable to cope with the additional homelessness caused by the bedroom tax cuts from April, and thereafter the hideous problems created by the universal credit system in October.

If we want to end homelessness in Scotland there is no better starting point than doing much more to prevent it. The Scottish Government has the power to prevent increased homelessness from the bedroom tax cuts, which will adversely affect 95,000 Scottish households from April.

Govan Law Centre (GLC), the STUC and Shelter Scotland are calling for a change in the law to prevent evictions based on bedroom tax arrears, by instead treating such arrears as an ordinary debt. GLC has already drafted a simple solution which the Scottish Government has agreed to look at.

Local authorities must be allowed to build or acquire more homes, or at least be empowered to formally require housing associations to assist them in meeting their emergency homelessness duties, particularly so with the Homelessness (Abolition of Priority Need Test) (Scotland) Order 2012 coming into force on 31 December.

Unless we act now to prevent the expected evictions from next year’s welfare reform cuts, and recognise the need to improve our social housing infrastructure in Scotland, the right to a home may become nothing more than a promise which cannot be honoured.




    Writing from Govan, you will also be aware that the transfer of former City Council stock has contributed to this shortfall by masking the largest demolition programme in Europe. Perfectly good stock, which could have been improved, has been obliterated.

    While tens of thousands of homes have been removed only around a thousand new social homes have been built. Most of them have earned the name hobbit homes because of their overall size and room size their lack of space and cramped conditions. They are not homes for living in but have designed in order to be “flipped” ie bought and sold as financial assets.

    This has happened because the practices of the commercial sector have been transferred over to social housing. Also the creation of so-called “mixed estates” of owner-occupiers and social housing has further assisted this process. In the not too distant future many of these houses will have to be demolished as not fit for purpose.

    The call for new houses to be built must include strict regulation on the quality of houses including room and house size on a per capita basis, proven use of energy efficient technology, storage and refuse space, and not be constructed so that they are tied to one energy supplier. Failing to raise this alongside the call for new homes may mean that newly built houses may be worse than useless.

    As welfare benefit reforms and stringent financial controls are enforced, social housing will encounter a perfect storm that may cause even greater damage. The creation of the Glasgow Housing Association Ltd as a limited company but able to avoid an obligation to pay Corporation Tax by registration as a charity may not be sustainable if it experiences a prolonged period of capital shortage. It is this way that private landlords will return.

  2. I have just joined as a follower of this blog.
    I have a family member who suffers from a health condition and whom is going to be affected by the "bedroom tax".
    I think it's a shameful tax and is going to be extremely stressful to people who suffer from anxiety, depression or any other mental health problem where people can't manage their own financial matters especially also as people are soon to be in control of managing their own money. What if some people Can't do this?
    The stress of having more debt could be unbearable for people like this, and their family suffer because they may not be able to help either!