Comment: Urgent action is needed to fix Scotland's housing crisis
As human beings we have pretty basic needs that politicians all too often overlook or complicate. Every one of us needs food, water, clothing, and shelter in order to survive. We can add to that a generally accepted need for good health care when we are ill, education for our young people, and a safety net of support when we need it.
Of course, there are a million and one other issues that individuals and communities have as their particular priority but as a general sweep the items I have identified allow us to survive and develop as a member of society.
It is therefore extraordinary that in 2021 after centuries of human development, amazing scientific innovation, technological advancement and having such a sophisticated understanding of the state of the world that these basic human needs cannot be provided for all our citizens.
Prior to the Covid pandemic, across the world two billion people were unable to access safe nutritious food all year round. In Scotland, one in 10 Scots are food insecure.
Globally, 1.6 billion people don’t have adequate housing, in Scotland someone loses their home every 19 minutes with over 27,000 assessed as homeless in 2020/21 alone. Across the world, 785 million don’t have access to clean water near their home (thankfully not an issue for now in Scotland). These are shocking statistics that along with the healthcare crisis and the future of our education system, should dominate the global and domestic political agenda.
In my experience the most pressing crisis facing people in Scotland concerns housing and the cost of living.
As a young person looking for a house in the late 1980s I put my name down for a council house, was awarded points based on the ‘local connection’ to my community and then an annual award of additional points on the anniversary of my application. These accumulated until a couple of years later – maybe three – when I had enough to qualify for a house. It was a traditional four-in-block, well-built, one-bedroomed home with a large back garden. The rent was £21 a week.
That house was the foundation for building my adult life. I might still be there if it had had an extra room. It was warm, comfortable, safe and in a community that provided me with friendships and the social support that helped me and my family to grow and develop. But how things have changed. A young person in the same position as I was in the 80s would today apply for council housing and receive zero points and unless their circumstances changed dramatically would never accumulate any. Council housing is no longer a choice or realistic option for vast numbers of people.
So, what does a young person on the median wage of £23,000, who hails from a working-class family, do to find accommodation these days if councils and housing association tenancies are not a realistic option? Buy a house? Well, the average price of a home in Scotland is over £171,000 (an eye-watering £300,000 in Edinburgh). For that, they would need a £8,550 minimum deposit. Where do they get that? Even if they did have a deposit they would then have to pay around £700 a month on a 30-year mortgage.
Add to that the rising cost of energy, food, transport and other essentials and you can see that for so many, home ownership is not an option. What about the private rented sector? Well, Scotland has seen a 10.5 per cent increase in average rental values in September 2021 compared to September 2020 – the figure is now £755 per month. This would eat up more than half of monthly income before living costs. Again, not a realistic option.
I know many young people around the age of my daughter who are going through exactly this scenario, seeing doors slammed in their face as each option is found to be unaffordable.
In these circumstances it is self-evident that there is a need for a massive investment in council and housing association housing to a point way beyond where we are just now. It is therefore inexplicable that the Scottish Government is pouring money into the private rented sector with the Build to Rent scheme.
This under-reported project saw a private sector champion who represents the big housebuilders propose a series of tax reliefs, the relaxation of planning conditions and remarkably a rent guarantee – assuring them their investment will see a government underwritten return.
All of this has been accepted and is being implemented by the government. Is it any wonder that there is a clamour to get involved? So, are these properties affordable to our young people seeking a home? As they are market rents then the answer is clearly no.
The housing crisis is driving more and more people into poverty and hardship, more people into a life saddled with huge housing debts and more people unable to leave home and develop their lives independently.
A huge part of the answer is council housing that is accessible to all and once again becomes a choice open to all.