With control of housing policy devolved to Holyrood, voters with a priority interest in Scotland’s future housing landscape could be forgiven for thinking this Thursday’s general election is of limited relevance to them. Key policies such as affordable housing targets, the integration of health and social care, planning and land reform are all areas where the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Government and, in some cases, Scotland’s 32 local authorities take the lead.
So why should Scottish housing professionals and others with a keen interest in housing take the time to scrutinise general election manifestos and interrogate the policies of their local general election candidates before voting this week?
In fact, there are many areas of policy with a major impact on housing that remain reserved to Westminster. Nowhere is this truer than in the case of welfare policy. Despite recent reforms that have seen some aspects of welfare policy devolved to Holyrood, there are still significant aspects of welfare where Westminster has the final say. Furthermore, we are still currently in a state of transition as responsibility for certain aspects of welfare policy is transferred to the Scottish Parliament. This means, for instance, that far-reaching UK Government reforms to welfare policy such as the roll-out of Universal Credit are having – and will continue to have – a direct effect on the availability, accessibility and affordability of housing in Scotland.
In particular, CIH Scotland has recently highlighted the negative social impact and spiralling costs of implementing Universal Credit in Scotland. CIH Scotland members have reported to us a substantial increase in rent arrears as a result of delayed payments. Social landlords have been forced to commit substantial internal resources to support tenants with their claims while demand for financial support from alternative sources such as the Scottish Welfare Fund and referrals to food banks are also on the rise. We have also seen an increasing reluctance by private landlords to let property to Universal Credit claimants. These multiple problems of implementation are something the next UK Government – whatever its political colour – will have to confront and resolve.
More recent research has also highlighted the negative impact of proposals by the UK Government to cap Housing Benefit or the housing element of Universal Credit for social housing tenants at LHA rates. This means that single people under 35 years of age will see their allowance capped at the Shared Accommodation Rate (SAR) with the result that around 21,000 younger social tenants in Scotland could collectively face a rent affordability gap of up to £22.6 million per year.
These are just two examples of policy areas where the actions of a future UK Government will have a real and direct impact on the Scottish housing sector. Anyone interested in Scotland’s future housing landscape should therefore consider carefully the implications for Scottish housing of this Thursday’s general election. Having done so, I hope that most will realise just how important it is to go out and vote.
Annie Mauger is Executive Director of the Chartered Institute of Housing in Scotland.
This article first appeared in Inside Housing.