In the 15 years since devolution of power to the Scottish Parliament, we have seen some bold steps in housing policy and delivery which have seen Scotland take a different, and at times radical, path from that of counterparts in England and Wales.
The most significant step taken by the freshly minted parliament was putting time, resource and political will into tackling homelessness. The resultant ‘2012 Commitment’ – where allthose found to be homeless were entitled to permanent housing – was met at the end of 2012 by all Scottish local authorities. This undoubtedly put Scotland on the map as having some of the most progressive homelessness legislation in the world. Importantly this historic agenda had cross-party backing and survived a change of government at Holyrood.
These bold steps to improve the experience of homeless people in Scotland, along with the historic ending of the Right to Buy policy, a commitment to the preservation of social housing and recognition of the specific rural housing requirements in Scotland have all made housing policy in Scotland distinct, but more importantly, effective in tackling challenges across the country.
While a lot has been achieved for people across Scotland experiencing homelessness and bad housing, there are significant, and very real challenges ahead. Specifically the supply of housing in Scotland, or to put it bluntly, that we have reached a point where there are simply not enough homes for our growing and ageing population.
The housing crisis affects all of us – from high rents in the private rented sector (PRS) to long council house waiting lists and lack of mortgage availability for sky-rocketing house prices. It also means high costs for the public purse in dealing with the consequences of homelessness, bad housing, temporary accommodation and inadequate housing for older people and vulnerable groups.
The list goes on. A lack of housing has a significant financial cost – at both state and individual level, but it is also coming at the expense of the nation’s health and wellbeing. Evidence shows clearly that everything from education attainment, life expectancy, mental health outcomes and recidivism rates can be greatly improved if we all have a safe, secure and affordable home.
In addition to supply, there are other areas of housing policy that we still, as a sector and a nation, have not got right. People from a care background, young people and prison leavers are still disproportionately represented in national homeless figures despite a wealth of evidence that suggest targeted interventions can help address these negative – and costly – cycles of homelessness.
Of course, housing policy does not exist in a vacuum and housing whilst fully devolved, is integrally linked to other, reserved, matters. Most challenging of these is social security and the challenge, post-Scotland Bill, will be integrating the welfare reform agenda, further devolution and devolved policies while making sure that real people, who need the security of that housing safety net are not allowed to fall through the gaps.
So it is important to reflect, and stocktake what has been achieved since devolution. But it is even more vital that we do not stand still. This is about more than bricks and mortar, it’s about ensuring we are delivering on people’s basic need and right to a safe, secure and affordable home. Without doing so, we stand little chance of seeing poverty reduce or equality gaps close. Homes really must be at the heart of the social justice agenda in Scotland if it is to succeed.
Fiona King is Campaigns & Public Affairs Manager for Shelter Scotland