Let’s stop trying to just muddle through on housing - John Blackwood

By the time this piece is published, we will be well in to an election campaign with housing at the forefront. We have already seen promises on numbers of new affordable homes and how many should be for social rent. The topic that is explicitly avoided, however, is how large, or small, any of the political parties believe the private rented sector should be.

John Blackwood, Scottish Association of Landlords
John Blackwood, Scottish Association of Landlords

The Scottish Household Survey shows us that between 1999 and 2019, the number of people in social housing fell from 32 per cent to 24 per cent, whilst the size of the private rented sector grew by almost the mirror of that, from five per cent to 14 per cent. There was no policy decision or vision that envisaged that move, it was simply allowed to happen and saw private landlords step in to a void left by a reduction in social housing.

That lack of a grand vision for the composition of the housing sector has led to a messy fudge. In the private rented sector, successive governments have playing catch-up and pulling policy levers, adding regulations and improving standards on the fly. Fine, that is how a lot of policy works. But with an area as critical as housing and its impact on so many other services, is muddling through really the right approach?

It has led to private landlords feeling victimised despite the investments they have made to maintain and upgrade properties, investments that likely would not otherwise have been made. At the same time, individuals and families feeling rail-roaded in to becoming private tenants simply because there are no other options available to them. That is no way to plan a housing system.

Instead of repeating that mistake and attempting to muddle through for another decade, now is the time for an open and frank conversation about what the private rented sector should look like in the future, what market it should serve and how it should be regulated,

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For example, the next Scottish Government of whatever political colour is likely to want to massively increase social housing. Does that mean they want to reduce the private rented sector to providing homes only at the upper ends of the price spectrum? That is a perfectly legitimate policy goal, but let’s make that explicit and allow the whole housing sector to input and plan for the role they will play in moving towards that goal.

The Scottish Association of Landlords wants to be part of that conversation. We don’t want to see the endless expansion of the private rented sector. We want it to play the right role in Scotland’s housing mix.

In order to accomplish that, I believe there are three key questions the next Scottish Government must address in a frank and open fashion:

What is the target mix between social house/private rented housing/owner-occupied homes and how quickly can that be achieved?

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Which market is the private rented sector expected to service?

Without investment from landlords how can we make sure existing housing stock is improved, particularly to help meet ambitions carbon reduction targets?

There are answers to all of these questions and private landlords can adapt and play a role in all scenarios but we must stop muddling through and be honest about what housing in Scotland will really look like in 2040.

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