Housing is about to get some long overdue scrutiny in parliament with a generally worthy Bill. However, it doesn't address the big issue, which is building new houses or take radical steps to strengthen tenants rights in the private sector.
The Housing (Scotland) Bill covers a wide range of issues concerning social and private housing. The big ticket item is the abolition of the right to buy. This is very welcome although the three year implementation time period is too long. Tenants are already being bombarded by adverts from lenders.
There is welcome flexibility for social landlords in allocating housing and new tools to tackle antisocial behaviour. Additional protections for tenants, particularly those with a short Scottish
Secure Tenancy is also a good idea. However, the criteria on 'tolerable standard' and 'overcrowding' should remain in order to safeguard quality of housing and tackle overcrowding, which is a problem in both private and social housing. The inclusion of a 'local connection' criterion should also be considered.
Transferring jurisdiction for civil cases relating to the private rented sector from the sheriff court to the First-tier Tribunal should make it easier for tenants to get redress. However, that's only useful if they have rights to enforce. There has been a big increase in the amount of privately rented accommodation in Scotland, from 7% to 12% of the housing market. Private tenants in Scotland have very few rights and some of the worst abuses are in this sector. The solution is the introduction of rent controls, security of tenure and other regulatory measures. It is often argued that this would reduce the supply of properties onto the market. However, in Germany they have highly regulated tenancies and a growing supply of properties - so it can be done.
Measures to establish a registration system for letting agents is a welcome step forward. Some in the sector argued for a voluntary code that would have been toothless, so credit to the Scottish Government for taking a tougher line. Provisions that amend the site licensing requirements for mobile home sites with permanent residents are also welcome.
Strengthening local authority powers to enforce repairs and maintenance in private homes are also welcome, although they could have gone further with improvements. The upkeep of communal areas is a particular problem.
That leaves the need to build more houses and to have a long term strategy as Audit Scotland highlighted last year. Investment in social housing is the key to solving Scotland's housing crisis. In UNISON Scotland's housing policy document 'Making Homes for a Fairer Scotland' (June 2013) we argue that there is an acute shortage of homes - with official figures showing 335,000 households on social housing waiting lists across Scotland and 71,000 overcrowded households - 65 per cent of which included families with children. Shelter Scotland estimated a need to build a minimum of 10,000 affordable homes a year, almost twice the current level of social house building. We also show how new houses could be financed using council pension funds.
Improving our housing requires more than just the regulatory reform as proposed by the current bill. The housing crisis requires a massive programme of social housing investment from the public sector. The private housing sector needs stronger regulation to make it a realistic choice, rather than a tenancy of last resort.