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Public Works is UNISON Scotland's campaign for jobs, services, fair taxation and the Living Wage. This blog will provide news and analysis on the delivery of public services in Scotland. We welcome comments and if you would like to contribute to this blog, please contact Kay Sillars k.sillars@unison.co.uk - For other information on what's happening in UNISON Scotland please visit our website.

Friday, 3 July 2020

Housing and the Pandemic

Social housing is an essential service. But you’ll find little mention of its role during the pandemic outside of the world of housing professionals.
Yet the benefits – the ‘social good’ - of publicly owned and run housing (i.e. council housing) and social housing (i.e. housing associations or RSLs, and housing cooperatives1) have shone through during this covid-crisis. Social landlords have played an outstanding role above and beyond in caring for the most vulnerable people, including those who are shielding with health conditions.
Take North Lanarkshire Council. It has the largest council housing stock in Scotland and provides homes to over 36,000 households. At the point of lockdown, on 23 March, a third of these households were shielding. Council staff proactively phoned them all. Overnight they set up a system, working shifts from 8am to 8pm, seven days a week, to make sure that tenants were safe and well. From this they began delivering ongoing support to 6,500 people: collecting medicines, delivering groceries, distributing food parcels, walking dogs, tidying gardens. As pupils were not at school, school meals staff began cooking and delivering meals to all of the council’s sheltered housing tenants.
Housing departments can meet these challenges most effectively because they can do things on the scale that’s required, combined with the ‘on the ground’ intelligence of housing officers located in communities. Because of the benefits of public ownership, during the lockdown, some councils were able to make use of resources they was saving in some areas and divert these to where they were urgently needed.
Housing associations and Co-operatives have performed a similar role, building upon their wider social remit within communities. Delivering food parcels, cooked meals, packed lunches, groceries and prescriptions for tenants and members, and providing pre-paid energy cards. Some have provided additional sources of support for those experiencing domestic abuse. Others have taken action to ensure people are digitally connected, or have provided online classes.
There couldn’t be a greater contrast with the private rented sector, which houses ever growing numbers of the poorest households. It is entirely ill-equipped, uncoordinated, and lacking in motive to respond to a crisis of this nature. New research by the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence supports all of this. It has looked at the social, economic, health and wellbeing impact of social housing and found that:
- Social housing and its lower rents appears to help explain Scotland’s better record on poverty compared with the rest of the UK;
- Social housing investment helps make rural communities more resilient, by providing low cost homes for younger people, so they can remain in the area, helping sustain vital public services and employment.
- Well designed social housing investment can contribute to reducing the fundamental causes of health inequalities. An estimated 53,000 more affordable homes are needed between 2021-26. We must ramp up the pressure for current levels of government funding for social house building to be continued, and for the target of 35,000 social homes for 2021 (which has suffered a set back because of the pandemic) to be achieved. There are few better ways to generate economic activity than building homes.
To sum up, the Covid crisis has underscored exactly why we must shift the balance back towards social housing. It has demonstrated the social value of councils, housing associations and housing cooperatives as ‘anchor’ organisations in our communities. They are a source of social resilience in a time of public health crisis, and also the key to building our way out of the current economic crisis.

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