Sticking-plaster measures store up problems for future – John Blackwood

The Government cannot expect private individuals to continue to provide housing to tenants free of charge, says John Blackwood

John Blackwood, chief executive, Scottish Association of Landlords
John Blackwood, chief executive, Scottish Association of Landlords

At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, governments were compelled to take action to help key sectors without knowing what all of the consequences might be. The situation called for short-termism, risk and patchwork policy. Housing was at the forefront, with measures taken to protect homes from being repossessed, to house homeless people and to prevent evictions in the private rented sector (PRS).

Along with the rest of society, landlords responded positively. Rents were reduced or written off and homes provided for key workers and the homeless, while fleets of cars previously used for zipping around cities for viewings, delivered meals to hospital staff and communities in need.

As we move through the different stages of the pandemic government is looking at how to tackle the longer-term consequences of the widespread and likely long-lasting economic crisis that is already taking shape. This is where I believe government is starting to err because it is applying the short-term thinking needed at the start of the pandemic to solving the longer-term problems caused by it.

I was dismayed to hear the announcement by the First Minister that the Scottish Government intends to continue the extended notice period on evictions in the PRS for another six months to the end of March 2021. I believe this is only a sticking plaster, which when removed later, will make the underlying wound worse and harder to treat in the future.

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If the Scottish Government wants free housing to be provided to tenants, the cost must be covered. Government cannot expect private individuals to provide housing to tenants free of charge, especially when they are likewise losing their income and have their own bills to pay and families to support.

Instead, before rushing into this kind of short-term policy, government should consider the longer-term implications and answer the question “Will the problem be easier or harder to tackle in the future?”

Well, here is the reality of what could happen between now and March 2021: the economic crisis will likely cause an increasing number of tenants to have difficulty paying their rent and those already struggling will rack up larger arrears. This means landlords will see their own income disappear, making it harder for them to support their own families and reducing further and further their room for manoeuvre to help and support tenants. With that scenario in mind, imagine how much harder it will be to develop a policy intervention in March 2021 rather than understanding the problem now and taking radical action.

What landlords, tenants and the Scottish Government must focus on is how to sustain tenancies. Landlords should continue to be flexible and understanding, reducing rent and writing off arrears where possible, and tenants should ensure that their landlord is kept informed about changes to allow for reasonable solutions to be found.

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But unless the Scottish Government uses the powers of Holyrood to put money in the pockets of tenants so they can pay their rent, we will find ourselves back here in March 2021 only with a greatly amplified problem and even less flexibility to find a solution that works for everyone.

Landlords with no rental income to pay their mortgages and rental expenses, may have their rental properties repossessed. What will be the security for tenants at that point? Will the social rented sector be ready to re-home these people?

Other administrations such as the Welsh Assembly Government are looking at imaginative ways to put money into tenants’ pockets for rent and I believe the Scottish Government should follow suit as quickly as possible.

The Scottish Parliament has powers to help those tenants in need, and it should be taking action now. For example, the Scottish Government could use Holyrood’s existing powers to create new social security benefits and change the eligibility criteria for Discretionary Housing Benefit. At a stroke this would allow more people to gain assistance with paying their rent, keeping them in a home, reducing pressure on social services and ensuring they can more easily contribute to the economy.

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Government seems understandably overwhelmed by the sheer number of problems it is expected to tackle and their complexity, but the response cannot be to use short-term measures in the hope that a long-term solution will present itself. What is needed is a radical treatment to the root of the problem, not a sticking plaster to the surface which exposes a gaping wound when peeled off later.

John Blackwood, chief executive, Scottish Association of Landlords

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