Comment: Imaginative policy needed to tackle affordable housing shortage

An essential in Scotland is decent and affordable housing.

Shelter campaigners say more homes are desperately needed as 5000 children will be homeless on Christmas Day. Pic: Ian Rutherford

This needs to range across tenures – rented, socially owned and owner occupied – and meet wide-ranging needs, from single occupancy to family sized accommodation. Even finding helpful guidance and advice for young people is daunting, let alone securing a home suited to circumstance. Today’s report from Shelter Scotland shows how critical the need has become.

More than 21,000 people sought assistance via its helpline and advice sessions between April of 2016 and March 2017, with more than 835,000 visits to its online Get Advice pages. Of all people helped, almost half – 46 per cent - were between 16 and 34 years old. The main reason (44 per cent) for seeking help was ‘‘keeping their home’ - that is, struggling to afford housing costs or facing eviction. Some 29 per cent wanted help to ‘find a home’, including advice on homelessness.

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Alison Watson, Deputy Director of Shelter Scotland, says that “the terrible shortage of truly affordable homes, harsh welfare reforms, stagnant wages and the high cost of keeping a roof over their head are the main reasons driving people to ask for help.” Shelter Scotland itself has highlighted the problems through no less than 19 policy papers and 25 responses to Scottish Government consultations last year.

There are no easy or instant solutions to what is a multi-faceted problem: a growing population; pressure on local authority budgets constraining funds for social housing provision; a restrictive planning system that inhibits builders; land and vacant building ‘hoarding’ by landowners: all these contribute to a scarcity of accommodation, particularly for low income households.

While positive steps have been taken to ease planning bottlenecks and speed applications, bolder steps are needed, particularly within and around our city centres. High standard, lower cost housing can be provided by ‘kit build’ and timber frame construction. Tax breaks could be provided to encourage land and building owners to upgrade and refurbish brownfield sites; imaginative plans for new city fringe developments could be accelerated. Regular employment is critical, and low start savings schemes also help.

The Shelter report is compelling evidence that addressing Scotland’s housing shortage requires up front and continuing priority.