With a UK General Election in 2024, it’s important we connect UK and Scottish housing challenges, and consider reforms that should be taken up by the next UK government and at Holyrood.

Housing is not wholly devolved. The cost of borrowing is set and regulated at UK level. Most housing-relevant social security stems from the Department of Work and Pensions (and significant housing taxation like capital gains tax is also UK-determined). The ability to innovate for affordable investment, such as the very limited ability Scotland has to borrow explicitly for housing, remains absent from the fiscal framework.

Our European neighbours generally allow housing capital borrowing not to count against public spending because rental income pays back the loan.  This argument was never conceded in Britain, but in a time of deep budget cuts to housing, we should recognise that there are relatively modest costs to building social housing, investment which will also save on other budgets like health. Relatively modest extra borrowing powers for housing in Scotland would also help considerably. 

Another issue is Local Housing Allowances (LHA) in the rental market. This has been repeatedly frozen and capped, falling significantly in real terms against rising rents. Recent modelling for the Scottish Crisis Homelessness Monitor by Glen Bramley indicates that increasing LHA is the best way to reduce future homelessness. While the April LHA uprating is welcome, it is only temporary. Again, there are wider savings to government budgets that will flow from reduced homelessness. Not doing so is a false economy. Will a new UK government meaningfully reform LHA?

There are also wider Scottish challenges. Housing emergencies have been declared in both our largest cities, in Fife and Argyll & Bute, and, according to the Chartered Institute of Housing, for Scotland as a whole. This reflects increasing concerns that key elements of the ambitious Housing to 2040 strategy are being undermined by Scottish budget decision-making and external drivers like cost inflation.  We see reduced supply programmes, worsening rental affordability, and unprecedented amounts of people - including many children - stuck in temporary accommodation, plus evidence of councils unable to meet statutory homeless duties.

The Scottish Government has established welcome long-term goals, but they rely on others to implement and deliver the programme. New homeless prevention duties are expected in the imminent Housing Bill, plus enhanced tenancy rights, a system of rent control, and, elsewhere, the delivery of a human right to adequate housing. All have to be regulated, enforced and delivered, often by councils. Where is the capacity and resources to make these policies work? We need a housing partnership between local and Scottish government to ensure delivery.

Reforming housing must be committed to progressively over time. Only this kind of approach can produce policies that move us toward a well-functioning housing system that is balanced, affordable, offers choice and where homelessness is rare, brief and non-recurring.

Professor Ken Gibb of the University of Glasgow is Director of UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (CaCHE)

Visit the CaCHE website.

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