This election will impact on Scottish housing

AM March 15
Annie Mauger, Executive Director, Chartered Institute of Housing in Scotland, @CIHScotland

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.

New Scottish Social Housing Charter places important new emphasis on tenant scrutiny

Marian Reid head shot SMall
Marian Reid Deputy Director of CIH Scotland

A new revised Scottish Social Housing Charter came into force on the 1st April this year. The Charter was first introduced five years ago as one of the provisions of the Housing (Scotland) Act 2010, with the aim of improving the quality and value of services provided by social landlords in Scotland.

The revised Charter is the result of an extensive consultation process involving a range of stakeholders including social landlords, tenants and representative bodies.

Although the outcomes of the new Charter are largely the same as for its predecessor, there are some important changes in emphasis. For instance, there is an explicit recognition of the role of new technology such as web-based systems and mobile applications in improving communication between landlords and their tenants.

The most recent changes to the Charter also point to a growing recognition of the role of tenant scrutiny as a means of improving performance, achieving efficiencies and delivering improved outcomes in social landlords’ housing activities. In relation to tenant involvement, one particularly notable inclusion is a direct reference to supporting tenants to scrutinise landlord services. Coupled to this, social landlords are now expected to actively involve tenants and other customers in reviewing how they deliver value for money.

As part of CIH Scotland’s Housing Festival, Housing Minister Kevin Stewart recently launched a practice guide and training toolkit to help landlords and tenants achieve more effective scrutiny.

Over the next five years, we can expect to see even more active engagement in tenant scrutiny of landlord services. The scrutiny resources combined with the revised Charter offer landlords the opportunity to fine tune their services to be as responsive as they possibly can be to the needs of tenants.

Marian Reid is Deputy Director of CIH Scotland.

 To download the Scottish Government funded scrutiny practice guide and training toolkit go to http://www.cih.org/scotland-tenant-scrutiny-programme

The Scottish Government is funding a series of free information events aimed at tenants and landlords and delivered by TPAS Scotland and Tenants Information Service (TIS), looking at the changes that have been made to the Charter.

For details go to http://tis.org.uk/ or http://www.tpasscotland.org.uk/

 

 

Landlords and others must be part of benefits solution

 

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John Blackwood, Chief Executive, Scottish Association of Landlords @Scotlandlord

When it comes to improving social conditions for those on the lowest income in society, those in the private sector are often ignored when it comes to finding practical, effective solutions.  This is no more true than when it comes to ensuring there is a proper supply of high-quality affordable housing.

 

Traditionally, finding housing for low income individuals and families, such as those on benefits, was considered to be the role of government, either nationally or locally.  However, with budgets reduced and the long-term challenges of councils investing in new housing stock, they are unlikely to be able to meet this challenge alone.

Yet the private rented sector has a large number of well-maintained, quality properties available at rates which would be affordable for those on benefits.  The challenge in releasing these properties for rent has been an understandable reluctance by landlords to rent to those on benefits because of the delay in receiving rent each month.  Most landlords are small businesses working on tight margins and who rely on steady cashflow.  As a result, they are naturally cautious about the delays that can be caused in these circumstances despite many wishing to do so.

SAL has been campaigning for a number of years to find a way to overcome this barrier and release this stock for rent by low income households.  We were therefore delighted by the announcement at the start of the year that the Scottish Government will use its new powers to increase the frequency of Universal Credit payments and give recipients the choice of having the housing cost element of their benefits paid direct to the landlords, as already happens in the social rented sector.

This move will encourage more landlords to rent to those on benefits, increasing the supply of available housing across Scotland.  As well as having clear benefits for tenants, this will reduce the financial burden on local authorities who have to provide emergency accommodation at very high cost.

This represents a win/win/win situation for tenants, government and landlords.  We hope that in future, landlords can do more to help the most vulnerable in our society by working with different partners to deliver homes for those in need.

A version of this blog first appeared in the Edinburgh Evening News on February 13th 2017.

Solving the housing crisis must acknowledge broader changing demands and demographics

 

John - Headshot - October 2015
John Blackwood, Chief Executive, Scottish Association of Landlords @scotlandlord

A recently published report found that home ownership has dropped from 69% in Scotland at its 2004 peak to 63% now.

The Scottish Association of Landlords (SAL) would like to see a long-term strategic plan that allows people to choose the right housing solution for their circumstances, recognising those requirements are likely to change over time.

For example, although more people now rent than buy in city centres, often this is through choice.  Homes in the centres of cities are often large, multi-bedroom properties, which would always have required a large deposit and are out of the reach of most young people.  However, small groups of young professionals may seek to rent this kind of property as they prioritise a desire to live in fashionable city-centre areas and the supply should exist to allow them to do this if they choose.

However, an even larger number of people, recognising the growing flux in the job market choose to prioritise saving money for a time when they might be out of work, rather than focussing on a deposit to buy a house.  This would seem like a very sensible long-term plan and considerably more responsible than the situation we saw a decade ago with people over-stretching themselves simply to “get on the property ladder”.  These people were the ones hit hardest by the credit crunch and property crash of 2008 which is still affecting supply in city centres.

None of this is to say that there are not challenges which landlords must address.  We must work with the third sector and government to educate landlords about the law and encourage stronger enforcement of regulations to drive criminal players out of the market.  Equally, we must work with tenants to ensure they are aware of their own responsibilities under their lease.  Achieving this balance will help defuse tensions which can often arise through misunderstanding between tenants and landlords.

By working together and acknowledging the changing nature of the demand in the housing market it is possible to achieve the right balance that will end the housing crisis in Scotland in the future.

Scottish Council housing services are improving – but budget cuts require more radical action

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By Kirsty Wells, Head of HouseMark Scotland @Kirsty_Wells

A new report published in March 2016 by Audit Scotland provided encouraging evidence that Scotland’s local authorities have made important progress in the levels of service they provide in housing, even in the face of ongoing cuts to funding.

Audit Scotland’s analysis of Councils’ performance during the 2014-15 financial year showed a significant increase in the proportion of local authority housing meeting Scottish Housing Quality Standards, up from 83.7% in 2013-14 to 90.4%. This is a huge improvement on the 53.6% of dwellings meeting those standards five years previously.

There has been similarly important progress in the number of Council dwellings that are classed as energy efficient, rising from 74.9% in 2010-11 and 94% in 2013-14 to 96.5% the following year.

More modest improvements were recorded in relation to the percentage of rent due but lost during the year due to properties being empty, down from 1.3% to 1.2% year-on-year. Similarly, the average time taken to complete non-emergency repairs to Council housing fell slightly from 10.2 days the previous year to 9.9 days in 2014-15.

The report’s findings suggest that local authorities are making continued efforts to get to grips with performance issues in housing and important progress has been made.

But the headline conclusion of the report perhaps gives more significant pause for thought. This was that, given the scale of cuts to local authority budgets anticipated in the years ahead, making incremental savings through improved performance will no longer be enough. Indeed, the report specifically concludes that: “The Accounts Commission continues to be concerned about councils’ slow progress in delivering services differently, rather than relying on incremental savings to existing models of service delivery.”

Whilst Housing Revenue Account ring-fencing means that housing department budgets may, in part, be protected from some of the budget pressures being faced by other  services, there is a clear expectation that housing departments must ensure they are delivering the best value for money for their tenants and for the public purse.  Like other council  services, housing staff  need to be looking at new ways of working to deliver these savings.

Defining what those new ways of working should be will be the next big challenge local government housing departments will have to grapple with as they seek to achieve a step change in performance that enables them to maintain high standards of service with reduced budgets.

The best way of doing this is to measure their costs, resources and performance against peer organisations, to identify examples of best in class and, wherever possible, to emulate these. That is why cost and resource benchmarking is such an important tool for housing providers to use in these financially constrained times.

Audit Scotland’s report conclusions seem to suggest that Scottish local authorities are still making insufficient use of such benchmarking to drive the significant step change in improving performance that will be required over the next few years.

Without that step change, the risk is that future audits of the performance of Scottish local authorities in relation to housing will start to show a decline in standards as budget cuts really begin to bite. To avoid that from happening, Scotland’s Councils should be acting right now to benchmark their operating costs and performance against as wide a pool of their peers as they can, including other types of housing provider and local authorities in other parts of the UK.

Through robust, validated benchmarking, there is an opportunity to achieve a different approach to service delivery in Scottish council housing. But the Audit Scotland report is also an important wake-up call that the time to act is now.

This blog first appeared in Scottish Housing News.

About HouseMark Scotland

HouseMark Scotland is the market-leading provider of social housing data and insight in the housing sector. Its mission is to drive improvement by providing the data and insight its members need to respond to change. More than 950 housing organisations are members of HouseMark across the UK, giving housing organisations unrivalled access to a wealth of baseline data to benchmark all aspects of their day-to-day performance and to drive continuous improvement.

HouseMark is jointly owned by the Chartered Institute of Housing and the National Housing Federation – two social housing sector not-for-profit organisations that reinvest their surpluses into the sector.