Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

The growing homelessness crisis – David Belfall

In my 2018 blog for Reform Scotland, I commented on the Scottish Government’s commitment to “ending” homelessness in Scotland. How are they doing?

The recent Reform Scotland event with Paul McLennan, the latest Housing Minister, provided an opportunity to explore this, as well as to do some reflective thinking about the realistic prospects for homelessness, and the provision of social housing (by which I mean housing partly or wholly funded from the public purse) in Scotland.

On homelessness the red lights are certainly flashing. To highlight a few: –

  1. Edinburgh, Glasgow and Argyll and Bute local authorities have declared “housing emergencies”.
  2. The number of children living in temporary accommodation is just short of 10,000 – a 130% increase from 2014.
  3. Following a thematic review of homelessness by the Scottish Housing Regulator published in February 2023, an update in December said that there is “systemic failure” in the services provided to people who are homeless by some councils and there is a heightened risk in other councils.
  4. The Scottish Budget for 2024/25 included a £200M reduction in the housing budget, provoking an excoriating response from Shelter in which they accused the Scottish Government of “pricing in a rise in homelessness”. The white-hot heat of their critique can only be appreciated by reading their response in full on the Shelter website. Moreover, as Alex Neil has noted in his NHS 2048 article for Reform Scotland, cuts “to the housing budget will put even more pressure on the NHS, as the people affected suffer avoidable physical and mental health problems”.

The initiatives which Paul McLennan outlined at the Reform Scotland event (including the new short life Housing Investment Task Force and the Empty Homes partnership), though no doubt individually worthy, do not begin to match the scale of the problem. While they provide something of a script for the Scottish Government between now and the Holyrood elections in 2026, the plain fact is that more public investment is needed, and needed now. Without it the current homelessness situation will get even worse.

The problem is essentially one of supply and demand. On the demand side Scotland has progressive homelessness legislation which enables those in housing need to apply to a council for permanent accommodation. Demand has exceeded supply for many years. Poverty and the cost of living are important factors. Thus, demand is currently rising rather than falling.  This has been exacerbated by the need to find accommodation for Ukrainian refugees.

The most acute shortfall in supply as compared with demand has always been in Glasgow and a new source of demand is a significant factor in the city (and to a certain extent in the other Scottish cities). The accelerated Home Office programme for dealing with asylum applications means that successful applicants are now able to apply for permanent accommodation. Glasgow City Council has estimated that in 2023/24 alone this is likely to result in 1,000 additional applications. (Figures for Scotland as a whole are not available, nor for future years.) However, given the limited stock of permanent accommodation available to local authorities, it is very unlikely that many of these additional applicants will in fact be found permanent accommodation. Instead, they will remain in temporary accommodation – hotels, B&Bs and short term lets (where available). Moreover, except in the highly improbable event that the Home Office can be persuaded to foot the accommodation bill for those who have completed the asylum application process, the cost of the temporary accommodation will transfer from the Home Office to the local authority, with adverse consequences for funding other housing priorities.

On the supply side, the reduction in housing funding in both the 2023/24 and the 2024/25 Budgets will inevitably result in a reduction in new build social housing. Based on figures provided by Registered Social Landlords (RSLs), a report published by the Scottish Housing Regulator in December 2023 predicted a reduction from the 30,000 homes projected in 2022 for the 5 years from 2022/23 to 26,000 for the 5 years from 2023/24 – to be funded primarily by £2.45 billion of social housing grant (51% of total cost) and £2.0 billion of private finance (42%). And this projection of 26,000 can be expected to decline further following the recent Budget. Moreover, it will fall further still if RSLs are required to deliver new Green initiatives such as decarbonisation without commensurate additional funding.

The shortfall in the supply of permanent accommodation as compared with demand is shown by the number of households in temporary accommodation, as recorded by councils in response to applications under the housing legislation. On 30 September 2023 this stood at 15,625 households – a 10% rise on the previous year. These households included 9,860 children – an 8% rise. The figures do not include asylum applicants living in temporary accommodation funded by the Home Office. Nor do they include rough sleepers, who are very difficult to count. (Occasional ground counts have been attempted but these are only practical in city centres and even then depend on a close knowledge of where rough sleepers might be.)

I am sure that as Housing Minister Paul McLennan – plainly a decent guy – will have made a case for an increase in the housing budget to his Ministerial colleagues in the pre-budget discussions, but he failed. And he failed not only to achieve an increase but even to achieve a standstill. Let us assume that his colleagues accepted that access to decent housing is a fundamental human right and that they were aware of the long-established links between decent housing on the one hand and good health (both physical and mental) and child development on the other. Even so, they turned Paul down because they did not give housing sufficient priority in comparison with other spending programmes. In Shelter’s words “the government has chosen roads, policing, prisons and playparks over safe and secure housing for children” and “the Scottish government are pricing in a rise in homelessness as an acceptable price worth paying to protect initiatives such as the Scottish National Investment Bank”.

What a bitter pill it must be for Shelter (and other homelessness organisations) to realise that after 50 years of campaigning, the achievement of much in terms of housing legislation and despite the increasing complaints from councils (backed up by the Scottish Housing Regulator) about their inability to deliver, access to decent housing still does not command the priority at national level which it deserves. What more can they do?

What is left by way of a credible strategy for the building of more social housing and the reduction of homelessness? Does it amount to any more than good intentions, media-friendly announcements, speculative initiatives (such as the Housing Investment Task Force) and targets way ahead in the future and beyond the political lifespan of our current day politicians? Is it their calculation that even worse homelessness statistics will not carry such weight with the electorate as to affect their election prospects? Questions such as these can lead on to some depressing reflections on the inability of our political system to deliver the sustained effort, commitment and investment needed for real change in dealing with long term social problems.

But I am going wider than my particular subject and will end on a slightly more hopeful note. It is to Paul McLennan’s credit that, though unable to deliver it himself, he accepted the need for more social housing. He said that he sees the answer as lying in “systemic change” and that Professor Duncan Maclennan agrees with him. Professor Maclennan is well known in the housing world and respected by many for his ability to provide innovative proposals. It is quite a challenge to produce proposals for “systemic change” which will both survive the scrutiny of the housing professionals and prove palatable to the politicians. But, if anyone can do it, Professor Maclennan is your man. Over to you, Duncan!

Before retiring in 2002 David Belfall was Head of the Housing and Area Regeneration Group at the Scottish Executive (as it then was), at the time of the first Rough Sleepers Initiative in Scotland and the Homelessness Task Force. He is currently a Board member of Ark Housing Association, a Registered Social Landlord. David is writing in a personal capacity.