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The voice of Scotland’s vibrant voluntary sector

Published by Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

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Can Scotland meet the housing challenge?

This feature is about 8 years old

Robert Armour spoke to delegates at the SFHA annual conference to find out how housing associations are coping during a period of uncertainty

David Orr’s address to the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations' (SFHA) annual conference was like the return of a prodigal son but one who had returned with a cautionary tale.

Orr, the National Housing Federation’s chief executive, once headed up the SFHA before taking up the post in London where, as he told the audience, things have now gone “beyond crisis”.

The UK may finally be emerging from recession but the recovery is distorted as England has been left with a “broken housing market” which social housing providers are having to deal with, he told a packed conference.

Campaigners in the third sector readily overuse the word crisis. But if you need to know what the term really means just turn your eyes to the English housing sector. Over 4.5m are on waiting lists for social housing with 232,000 new households being created each year. Yet last year only 109,000 homes were built.

“Despite years of proving to be effective, the sector still doesn’t have nearly the investment – or the conditions – it needs to tackle this crisis,” said Orr.

“We can be the solution but too much is put in our in terms of regulation and a woeful lack on investment for us to tackle the problems.

Conference overview

The view from housing professionals is that the Scottish Government has performed quite well against the majority of its pledges. Mitigating the bedroom tax via the discretionary housing payments budget, ending the right-to-buy, commitments on homelessness and on making best use of stock have largely been met with most housing association managers seem content at the policies so far.

“Scotland needs to tell ministers housing associations can provide many solutions, not just in giving people a roof over their heads. Investing in our sector is investing in a better future. Ministers know this but they need to come up with the resources to fund this vision.”

Earlier, Nicola Sturgeon said she recognised the benefits of good quality social housing and the impact it can have on health, education and employment for tenants.

However, not all were convinced the Scottish Government was currently doing enough to invest in the sector.

Willie Fairley, director of Birch Housing Association, which supports older people into independent living, said the sector was not as important as the private sector. More money, he belived, would go to support first time buyers instead of the social rented sector because the majority of those who voted also have mortgages.

“Housing can be a problem or a solution depending on how government sees it,” he said. “We’ve got a sector that can help people increase their wellbeing, care for them and give them a decent place to live. It’s a proven model that needs investment.

“We’ve been saying the same thing for 15 years: give us the cash and we’ll support people better than any welfare system. But still it’s not forthcoming. My theory is that the people we support don’t vote and government knows that. Ministers are more interested in going where the rewards are – the private sector.”

The challenges facing the sector are many though there was comfort from the fact Scotland was faring far better than its neighbour south of the border.

Quentin Jones from Abbeywell Housing said he couldn’t foresee a time when we had rents as high as they were in places like London.

“The private rental market is dictating the social housing market down there,” he said. “Social housing rents are being based on value of property but that’s not right. So someone living nearer a high value area is going to get charged much more than someone elsewhere in equivalent accommodation. It’s because it’s so expensive to build and the subsidies from government are not there.”

Mary Taylor, SFA chief executive, said the sector faced a challneging time ahead but the political landscape also provided many opportunites.

"It's not just a period of change for the housing sector; Scotland is facing momentous changes too. It's about the sector embracing these changes and us making the most of these challenges."

Changes to welfare and the way benefits are administered have become the biggest challenge facing housing associations today.

A major victory was scored when the Scottish Government pledged to offset the bedroom tax via discretionary housing payments (DHPs) but many obstacles still stand in housing associations’ way, as seminar at the SFHA heard.

Universal Credit, which will be phased in gradually until 2017 is the biggest change. Tenants will no longer have their benefits paid directly to their landlord. Instead they’ll get a lump sum each month comprising all their benefits.

Housing associations believe this alone could create substantial problems, largely through having to pursue debtors.

Kirsty Shaw, who is a rights adviser for First Homes, said welfare changes were not only affecting individuals but those who were supporting them.

“Universal credit is a threat because we deal with so many clients who are on low incomes,” she said. “So it’s natural we fear we’ll be writing off far more debt and having to allocate more resources to pursue payments. It’s a worry but it also means we’ve got fewer resources to help our client group. The majority of housing association tenants are on low incomes or are in some way vulnerable. We need to support these people but that is increasingly difficult with diminishing resources.”

The SFHA has called for reform of the system. Mary Taylor, SFHA chief executive, wants to see an abolition of sanctions, a replacement for the Work Programme with something more effective and enforcement of the living wage as recommended by the Scottish Parliament’s expert group on welfare reform earlier this month.

“We also support the idea of a new social security allowance which would amalgamate certain benefits as appropriate, but would not include housing benefit,” she said.

“We’ve seen the disruption that so-called housing benefit reform has caused social landlords and their tenants in the guise of the ‘bedroom tax’ and the knock-on impacts on housing benefit for those people unfortunate enough to suffer a JSA sanction.”



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