The End of ‘Social’ Housing in Scotland? Consultation on Allocations Reform

I finally sat down to read the Scottish Government’s consultation on ‘Affordable Housing in Scotland’.  And was very surprised, shocked and angered at some of the proposals being suggested.  Not only do they seem to be informed by quite negative perceptions of social housing, but they also threaten the entire notion of a ‘secure’ social housing tenancy and the future cohesiveness and stability of low-income neighbourhoods.  The entire consultation seems to cherry-pick the worst elements of recent social housing reforms in England, as reflected in the shift in language from ‘social’ to ‘affordable’ housing.  The sub-heading for this consultation is:  “creating flexibility for landlords and better outcomes for communities”.  But my feeling is these proposals would actually do the opposite, and are potentially extremley damaging for low-income neighbourhoods.  The main points I have an issue with include:

1) Whilst I can understand the desire to prioritise those on the lowest-income when demand outstrips supply, introducing an income assessment contradicts other government policies around mixed-communities, and is likely to exacerbate geographical concentrations of poverty.   As research shows there is already a strong correlation betweeen social housing and poverty in Scotland. Not having an income test is a strength not a weakness of our sector.  Instead of creating a new tenure (intermediate rent) we could widen access to ‘social housing’ to include middle income groups.  Everyone should have a right to housing regardless of income.

2)  Introducing a short Scottish Secure Tenancy for all new social housing tenants undermines security of tenure, which is a defining feature of the sector.  Justifying it on the grounds of possible ASB is extremley stigmatising and stereotypical (ASB is not unique to social housing tenants, nor are all social housing tenants anti-social).  Moreover, ASB is not just a housing issue.  More recognition of this and the role of non-housing agencies in tackling  it would be welcome.  It also seems an impractical measure if it is not to apply to existing tenants.

 

3) Allowing intermediate housing to be let using SSTs would seem to be replicating the practices of the private rented sector.  One of the major disadvantages of this tenure from the renters’ perspective is the lack of security of tenure.  How can people make a house their home if they don’t know how long they will be there?  If public money is to be used to fund this then security of tenure should be a cornerstone, especially if these properties are owned and managed by social landlords.

 4) Limiting succession rights where the home would be under-occupied ignores the fact this is the persons’ home, which they may have lived in for years.  A social rented house is more than a housing asset; it is also a home. This measure would also create inequities between social housing tenants.

If like me you are unimpressed by the proposals contained in this consultation, I would encourage you to return a response to the Scottish Government’s consultation, which ends on 30th April.  To my mind the key problem with this paper is that it seems to be underpinned by a very negative view of social (or affordable) housing.  It’s only ever conceived of as a welfare safety-net, for those who lack the material resources to undertake normalised acts of housing consumption (i.e. homeownership).   I would argue we need to recognise social (and affordable) renting as a positive choice; it should not be as the consultation claims, only a sector for “people who cannot afford to rent or buy on the open market” (p8).  If we have learned anything from the credit crunch and resulting global economic downturn it should be that as a nation we need to get over our obsession with homeownership.

One of the strengths of devolution is surely being able to do things differently from the rest of the UK, but these proposals demonstrate a real lack of original thinking on social housing policy.  Yet the social rented sector in Scotland is, and always has been, fundamentally distinct.  It’s a bigger tenure for a start, and historically was much more socially mixed.  This is it’s strength and we should resist attempts to dilute this by making it a ‘tenure of last resort’ for only the most poorest, vulnerable members of society.  Given, as the consultation claims, that 128,000 households are on the social housing waiting list, isn’t the answer to build more social housing, so people have access to the secure, affordable, good quality housing that they clearly want?  I happened to watch Ken Loach’s classic film ‘Cathy Come Home’ last weeked and it underlined to me the importance of having good quality, affordable rental housing, and that social landlords are best placed to provide this.

 

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6 Comments to The End of ‘Social’ Housing in Scotland? Consultation on Allocations Reform

  • Jenny Muir says:

    I never quite get around to showing Cathy Come Home to my students, but I really must because it looks like we’re going back to those days.

    I was surprised at this document because Scottish social housing policy has in recent years distinguished itself from the English version in a very positive way e.g. by extending homelessness rights, RTB restrictions and the right to tenant participation. So what is going on here? Is it a counterbalance to said homelessness rights, by bureaucrats who are worried about supply? Is it a knee jerk reaction to continuing ASB? Perhaps panic in the face of public sector cuts (use those tax raising powers now), or is the SNP perhaps not so much the people’s friend as we have been led to believe?

    I watch with trepidation from Belfast…

  • Kim McKee says:

    Thanks for your comments Jenny. Like you I’m also very disappointed by what’s in the consultation. I was always very proud of Scotland’s different path on social housing policy, but I fear this is now being eroded. You hit on some of the possible reasons why, but another I feel is a lack of institutional memory in the civil service. The abolishment of Scottish Homes and then Communities Scotland has resulted in the loss of a lot of housing expertise within government. Much is made of the current ‘hard times’ of course, but there’s always political choices to be made. Social housing definately isn’t the priority it once was.

  • Hi Kim – It’s intriguing that the proposals leave you with a clear sense of a negative image for social housing in Scotland. CIH Scotland doesn’t share that, but it’s good to thrash the issues around!

    On the “income assessment” issue, CIH would be just as worried as Kim if we thought that what this was leading to was an upper income limit for social housing applicants. But we don’t think that this is on the cards at all. Some of the uncertainty is completely understandable, though, as there are some mixed messages in the consultation proposals. The Scottish Government initially makes the point that Scotland is one of very few countries in Europe with no restriction on eligibility for social housing based on income. Inevitably that’s making a lot of people think that an upper income limit is what Ministers want to see.

    But the consultation paper goes on to say that income levels might, amongst other things, be used deliberately to help produce mixed income communities in social housing. This is a flexibility which we know a lot of landlords will welcome: to a degree, it’s a flexibility which partly exists already, as landlords adopting a sensible housing options approach are probably going to know at least whether someone’s in work or not.

    In an area where, for example, mid market rent is an available option, it’s perfectly reasonable that some landlords – faced with heavy competition for a social housing let – will feel that priority shouldn’t go to someone who can afford mid market rent. But that’s a million miles from the imposition of a rigid income threshold for all social housing applicants. In fact, as the consultation paper says, landlords would be free to continue disregarding income altogether.

    Getting the balance right for social housing in Scotland isn’t straightforward. Few, if any, people here want to go down the English route of abandoning the concept of genuinely affordable rents. But equally people don’t want an unduly residualised sector either, which means that having decent flexibility is really important. We see the proposals as being designed to enhance the scope for flexibility, not limit it and further residualise the sector.

    On probationary tenancies, our sense is that most housing professionals don’t buy the ‘stigma’ argument, and don’t see a high quality home, good service and very reasonable rent as much of a stigma compared with, say, what some private tenants get: on the contrary, a probationary tenancy underlines that a social tenancy is something to be cherished.

    Most of the sector is telling us it’s now time to assess whether probationary tenancies can lead to closer relationships with those who struggle to keep to their tenancy agreement and underline the two way responsibilities of a tenancy. Unlike down south, tenants in Scotland will still retain lifetime security of tenure unless they commit serious and harmful tenancy breaches.

    You’re not keen on the proposal on Short SSTs for mid market rent. The length of tenancy obviously wasn’t a worry for the hundreds of people who queued for the first 16 MMR homes recently made available through the NHT. We recognise that in the traditional PRS, length of tenancy may well be an issue as there’s often a fundamental lack of trust in one’s landlord, but for modern, RSL-managed MMR, this is surely a non-issue. Whether we like it or not, most MMR is predicated on sales after a fixed period, so security of tenure has to be limited anyway.

    Avoiding too much residualisation of social housing isn’t easy. Many of those keen to see this avoided also argued for our pioneering homelessness legislation which (whilst not of course criticising it at all) has an inevitable impact on “mix” or lack of it.

  • Kim says:

    Thanks for your comments David, lot of pertinent points you raise here though I think we might need to agree to differ on some of them. Glad the blog has sparked debate at least.

    I can’t speak for the sector, only myself, but whilst (like you) I want to avoid the residualisation of social housing I’d question whether what is being proposed will achieve this. Looking at international research on tenure/social mix highlights the problem of implementing an income threshold – at both ends of the spectrum (@david_j_manley is the expert on this).

    The probationary tenancy issue is the aspect I dislike most. I don’t think it sends a positive message at all about the sector. Furthermore, those who lose their tenancy because of a ‘serious breach’ will still have a right to housing under the homelessness legislation. So all it seems to achieve is shifting the so called ‘problem household’ elsewhere.

    I’m not surprised the new MMR homes were in high demand given the current state of the housing market, but just because people will accept a short term tenancy doesn’t mean it’s what they would ideally prefer. I have a real issue with public money being used to fund housing that lacks a fundamental security of tenure. Although I agree that RSLs are a different kettle of fish to some PRS landlords.

    Reconciling the goals of social justice and social mix is a fundamental challenge for the sector. But my view (although perhaps regarded as old fashioned) would be to build more social housing that is available to a wider cross-section of the population. We had this in Scotland once, so why not again?

    As I mentioned in a reply to another comment, much is made of the challenges of doing ‘housing in hard times’ but how we imagine the future of the sector ultimately comes down to political choices. I find the proposals as set out in the consultation out of sync with the Scotland I aspire to.

  • John Flint says:

    Some good points being exchanged here. I’d add two obervations.

    Firstly, stigmatisation is not about the quality of homes, nor entirely about the perceptions and experiences of those living in social housing. It is about the wider social images, discourses and processes projected onto them. The underlying issue here is that probationary tenancies fit into an ever-growing discourse of a social housing tenancy being an (exceptional) priviledge rather than a necessary response to flawed market processses. In turn this leads to a focus on the new social/behavioral requirements to be met that more ‘appropriately’ reflect this exceptional access. This paradigm paves the way for HB reforms and the current challenge to the basic right of lower income households to reside in particular places. What is required is, as Kim argues, a relentless focus on the lack of housing and the economic and political reasons for this, within the framework of a social right to appropriate housing.

    Secondly,as Jenny suggests, there is a worrying resonance in the document with the language and ideas that characterised anti-social behaviour policy in the early years of New Labour. I thought we had made considerable progress since then, particularly in Scotland, in recognising that eviction/end of tenancy or legal mechanisms were not really the solution to the underlying problems of anti-social behaviour. David is entirely correct to highlight the two-sided nature of responsibility (theoretically) generated in probationary tenancies and this is a point often missed by critics of such measures. But the idea that probationary tenancies represent the fundamental basis for more effective management of anti-social behaviour is, I believe, sadly flawed.

  • Andy Young says:

    Some very interesting comments. I would agree with what Bookie says in relation to the ‘income’ issue. In fact, when these ideas were first mooted and discussed with various sector bodies the Scottish Government went to great lengths to reassure us that they had no intention of ‘going down the English route’, and claimed that MMR was in fact the catalyst for introducing an income related proposal…to allow landlords to target those of a certain income. I’m not sure about this at all, leaving it up to individual landlords to decide whether to implement an income related policy worries me slightly and I think we will all need to make our thoughts on this issue very clear in our respective consultation responses. This and the ‘initial’ tenancy proposal are the two that seem to be causing the most consternation among landlords. Interestingly, all of the tenants I have spoken to have been strongly in favour of short tenancies for all new tenants. There is a definite split view among professionals on this though, and I have even heard some housing professionals state that their personal view differs from their professional view?! Again, it is a very interesting debate, and we will soon be having another one on the Right to Buy……….

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