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.