Subscribe to Holyrood updates

Newsletter sign-up


Follow us

Scotland’s fortnightly political & current affairs magazine


Subscribe to Holyrood
by Suzanne Fitzpatrick
04 July 2023
We know how to prevent homelessness in Scotland, but we need politicians to act

We know how to prevent homelessness in Scotland, but we need politicians to act

The Scottish Parliament went into recess last week amid the usual flurry of last-minute activity. With the summer break fast approaching, MSPs and their staff rushed to get questions asked, debates planned and final meetings arranged, before politicians returned to their constituencies.

One of the last written questions before the break came from Scottish Labour MSP Mark Griffin, who asked for an update on the timetable for the upcoming Housing Bill, with an answer expected from ministers around a month later – a third of the way into the break.

The question was driven by chatter among MSPs of a delay to the bill, with Griffin’s question suggesting a possible 2024 date for the legislation to come before MSPs. If that is the case, it represents a further delay to a Bill that had been expected well before now.

The Housing Bill looks to be massive – covering protections for tenants and regulation of rents, changes to rules for social landlords on domestic abuse, and improved regulation of the housing workforce.

Critically, it is also expected to include measures to strengthen homelessness prevention and protect people who are facing a housing crisis – to help end homelessness, by stopping it from happening in the first place.

The Housing Bill represents a huge change to the homelessness system, with the measures spanning the portfolios of both tenants’ rights minister Patrick Harvie and housing minister Paul McLennan, to try to create a genuine housing safety net and help people struggling to stay in their homes.

But, despite being originally announced by the Scottish Government in 2021, and expected before this summer at the latest, it has seen repeated delays.

Given these changes could represent the biggest change to the Scottish homelessness system in a generation, it’s perhaps natural that politicians and policy-makers would seek to move carefully, to ensure they bring the change that is so desperately needed.

But, equally, policy-makers are not approaching the issue from a blank piece of paper – a lot of work has already been done to develop details of how these changes could work.

Beginning four years ago, at the request of Scottish Government, I convened an expert group of people with knowledge of the housing system, homelessness and public services, and informed by people with personal experience of homelessness, aimed at exploring how to change the law to prevent homelessness in Scotland. Based in learning from examples of prevention in England and Wales – the group examined how Scotland can build a system where people get help well before they reach a housing crisis – to help avoid an enormous amount of trauma, indignity and disruption to their lives.

In setting out the aim of the Homelessness Prevention Review Group plans, our vision was clear – to build a coherent system of support for people whose home is at risk, as well as those who become homeless. To build a system where homelessness is much less common, and when it does happen, that it is quickly resolved, and prevented from re-occurring.

That means acting to offer support as act as early as possible, empowering people to take control of their circumstances, and sharing responsibility for ending homelessness across all public services. We recommended new legal duties on public services to require them to offer support to people at risk of homelessness.

The principles here are clear: acting early, to stop problems later. But in creating a new system it’s critical we avoid unintended consequences, which is why the PRG felt it important to develop a comprehensive and integrated set of proposals to make sure people facing housing crisis had a smooth journey to whatever help they need. The devil is too often in the detail – which is why the Group went so far as attempting to draft its own version of the legislation, to iron out any kinks in what we wanted to create.

The Scottish Government welcomed our recommendations – but that was back in 2021. Every party supports them. Ministers have consulted on our recommendations and received very positive feedback, but we’ve yet to find out exactly how ministers are going to proceed.

More than two years on from the publication of our final report, we now need to know more details about how the Scottish Government intend to take forward the details so that we get the holistic and coherent system of support for people facing housing crisis that we envisaged, and so local services can begin to plan and configure services accordingly.

Changing the law won’t fix everything – ending homelessness in Scotland will require properly funded services for people at risk of, or experiencing homelessness too – but it will be a massive start. Too often the focus is on helping people in crisis, causing stress and strain to individuals and stretching the system to capacity. Helping people earlier is a win-win.

These changes are potentially the biggest in decades. They won’t be simple – reforming the system of support for people at risk of losing their homes will take work, and it will take political courage. But we can’t delay any longer – the longer we wait, the more people will be forced into the indignity of homelessness.

We know how to end homelessness in Scotland – now we need to push on and do it.

Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick is based at Heriot-Watt University and sat on the Homelessness Prevention Review Group


Holyrood Newsletters

Holyrood provides comprehensive coverage of Scottish politics, offering award-winning reporting and analysis: Subscribe

Get award-winning journalism delivered straight to your inbox

Get award-winning journalism delivered straight to your inbox


Popular reads
Back to top