Insight: Why Scotland must invest more in social housing

The renaissance of a Greenock housing estate makes a powerful case for investing in a new deal to erase the stigma of social housing, writes Dani Garavelli
Angela Hair at Broomy's Bees garden. Picture: John DevlinAngela Hair at Broomy's Bees garden. Picture: John Devlin
Angela Hair at Broomy's Bees garden. Picture: John Devlin

At the back of the new Broomhill Gardens and Community Hub in Greenock, a phoenix rises from the fire; its tail is a blaze of flames, its wings and golden beak stretch up towards the sky.

The symbolism is obvious; once upon a time, Broomhill, with its views over the Firth of Clyde, was the place to be. “Back in the 60s, you had to wait seven years to get a flat here,” says Elaine Cannon, services improvement manager for River Clyde Homes (RCH), which now manages its 667 properties.

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From the 80s onwards, however, there was little investment. Families started to move away, often to bought properties elsewhere in the town. The fabric of the buildings degenerated along with their reputation. By 2012, anti-social behaviour was rife. Two-thirds of the flats in Broomhill Court – the most troubled of its three 15-storey tower blocks – were empty and residents were wary of walking around at night.

Jim Strachan's mural in Broomhill. Picture: John DevlinJim Strachan's mural in Broomhill. Picture: John Devlin
Jim Strachan's mural in Broomhill. Picture: John Devlin

Today, like the phoenix, Broomhill is born again; a £26m regeneration project which began in 2014 saw two low-rise blocks, with their iconic bell towers, demolished, while the other buildings were made wind- and water-tight. Anti-social tenants were evicted; new kitchens and bathrooms were installed and the dark, dank foyers replaced with bright, airy vestibules.

But reclaiming a besieged community is about more than bricks and mortar; you can repair roofs, touch up paintwork, install CCTV. But how do you fight the stigma that attaches itself to a place like this? How do you restore a sense of pride to those who have been forced to live so long with decline?

In Broomhill, a new confidence was inspired by tapping into the creativity of its residents. As part of the regeneration, RCH handed over one of the Broomhill Court flats for a pilot arts project, Up the Broomy. Karen Orr, of Greenock-based RIG Arts, which runs the project, had no idea whether people would come; but soon the flat was hosting six classes a week, teaching skills such as sewing, stone carving and the upcycling of furniture.

The pilot was so successful it was extended and is now in its fifth year. “It’s a small space – it can only hold 12 at a time,” says Orr. “When we announce a new class it’s like tickets going on sale for a gig – everyone wants to secure their place.”

Although Broomhill residents take priority, the classes are open to everyone in Inverclyde. The hope is that by encouraging outsiders into the estate, negative preconceptions will be dispelled. “There were people who expressed reservations about coming at first, especially to the night classes. But that stopped as the regeneration progressed; they realise lots of lovely people live here,” says Orr.

The Broomhill residents have been involved in designing and creating the public artworks scattered around the estate. Images carved into stone salvaged from the demolished Drumfrochar Square blocks now grace the benches in the Broomhill gardens, along with a beautiful stained glass panel which holds scattered fragments of the past.

Eric Webster, a home-owner who has lived in his flat since it was built, helped research the history of the area for the heritage mural that graces the wall of Broomhill Street. Webster, who was made redundant three years ago after 33 years as an engineer, can tell you all about the Merino Mill and the Tate & Lyle factory – the last sugar refinery in Scotland when it closed in 1995.

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The mural itself was painted by local artist Jim Strachan and has gone 18 months without being vandalised. “One day, Jim was standing on the street looking at it when two lads with addiction issues passed by,” says Orr. “’Do you like ‘oor mural?’ one of them asked, and Jim was so chuffed because they had taken ownership of it.”

Angela Hair came to Broomhill seven years ago after health problems made it impossible for her to climb the stairs to her bought top floor tenement flat in Gourock. RCH offered her a rented property in one of the high-rises with a lift.

“A few people asked why I was moving to Broomhill, which had a reputation, but I couldn’t have afforded to buy a two-bedroom house in the private sector. My flat was needing done up, but once the regeneration started, I got the feel of the place. There’s a real sense of community here. I would never move. Never.”

Hair is passionate about the importance of social housing – though she despises the phrase, which she believes has become synonymous with unemployment and decline. “You see it on the news – they will pan across an area which is really poor and say: ‘This is social housing.’ That’s not my experience of social housing though. Anything but .”

It is 100 years this month since the Addison Act ushered in the first government subsidies for the building of council houses in the UK. The legislation was introduced on the back of David Lloyd George’s promise of “homes for heroes” to the men returning from the First World War. Although later cuts mean it didn’t deliver quite as promised, it established the idea that every citizen, regardless of income, deserves a decent home and that it is the government’s responsibility to ensure they receive it.

The first council estate in Scotland – Logie in Dundee – opened the following year to a mixed population of millworkers and labourers and white- collar workers, including a jewellery salesman, architect and journalist.

Several waves of council house-building followed, with slums cleared and 1.1 million new homes built as a result of further housing acts in the inter-war years, and vertigo-inducing multi-storeys thrown up on every spare scrap of land in the 1960s.

Like Broomhill itself, the fortunes of social housing have risen and fallen. It has been buffeted on the shifting winds of design trends and ideological orthodoxy. Cottage flats, brutalist tower blocks, peripheral estates and new towns have come in and out of fashion.

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Equally changeable is the esteem in which social housing has been held by politicians and the public. At its height, in the mid-70s, 54 per cent of Scotland’s homes were council-owned (68 per cent in Glasgow), compared with just a third in England. But then, 40 years ago next year, came Thatcher’s Right to Buy legislation and the conviction that home-ownership was the goal of anyone with ambition.

One and a half million council homes have been sold across the UK under Right to Buy, making it arguably the biggest transfer of assets to the less well-off in history. But there was little oversight of the process. Some of those properties were immediately rented out to the kind of tenant who would have been better off in a council property, while others were sold on at profit.

More to the point, perhaps, most were not replaced. With one built for every three sold, Scotland lost half a million properties. As politicians across the spectrum began to talk about the country as a “property-owning democracy”, building of new council or housing association properties ceased to be a priority.

There are now fewer than 5 million social houses left in Britain – down from 6.5 million when Right to Buy was introduced in 1980. And what’s left has become increasingly scorned and associated with failure.

It’s a self-perpetuating problem, explains Gordon MacRae, head of communications and policy for Shelter Scotland. “Social housing should be for everyone. But there is a shortage of stock, so what stock remains has to go to the people in greatest need,” he says. “That’s right, of course. We need to prioritise. So a high proportion of the allocation will go to those with the most complex needs, including addiction. This creates a perception that social housing is only for the underclass; that people shouldn’t aspire to social housing in and of itself. It’s a difficult attitude to turn round.”

Dawn Richardson knows all about such attitudes; eight years ago, she was living in a five-bedroom farm house in the Balfron area. But bankruptcy and divorce left her looking for rented accommodation for her and her sons, aged 10 and 16.

She was told she was not a priority for social housing (she was working and so had a wage, but no credit rating). And so she spent a year living in a caravan as she tried to raise the six months up-front rent the private landlord required for her to move into a bedsit.

For the next five years, she moved from private rental to private rental; all of them were too small and all of them short-term lets. Finally she waged a war of attrition against Glasgow City Council’s homelessness service in Maryhill until she was given a flat in a Sanctuary Housing Association in Anderston Glasgow.

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Though the flat is still too small – she sleeps in the living room while her sons have a bedroom each – it is clean and comfortable. Richardson, who now owns a hairdressing business, would like to move to a three-bedroom flat but wants to stay in social housing. “I like renting. I like the freedom. I like being part of a community,” she says. “I don’t want to be identified by my house and my car. I just want to wake up in the morning, walk out of a clean flat and go to my work and not have the stress of trying to be a social climber.”

Yet as Richardson points out, the prejudice she encounters from those who say someone like her should not be eligible for social housing, is embedded in the fabric of the buildings.

There are two types of Sanctuary Housing on the Anderston development: social rent and mid-market rent (higher than social rent, but lower than the area’s market rent level). The mid-market homes are made of blonde sandstone, the social housing of red brick. In the middle, as if judging an architecture competition, sits a statue of Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

“The difference in the stone means you can immediately tell who is living in the social housing,” Richardson says. “There’s stigma whether you want it or not.”

The enduring impact of the Right to Buy policy can also be seen in the homelessness statistics. Homeless applications rose by 3 per cent in Scotland in 2018 – the second year in a row they have increased.

The number of days spent in temporary accommodation also increased by five days to 180 days, although the average time for families is even longer at 220 days.

The problem is even worse in Glasgow, where people presenting as homeless were turned away 3,350 times last year. “If, in a big city, we are not able to find temporary accommodation for those whose only other option is to be on the street or to sofa surf, then we are far away from being able to provide adequate settled accommodation ,” says MacRae.

It’s not all bad news, though. The centenary of the Addison Act has been touted as marking a renaissance for social housing, particularly in Scotland, where attitudes towards it have remained more positive than in the rest of the UK.

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In the past decade, home ownership has become increasingly unviable. House prices across the UK have grown by 160 per cent in real terms since 1996 (although the rise has been less steep in Scotland). The lack of affordable housing has pushed up costs in the private rented sector, making it harder for young or low-paid workers to save up for a deposit; and zero-hours contracts mean many lack a steady income to secure a mortgage.

All this was true before Grenfell. But when the fire ripped through cladding on the North Kensington tower block, claiming 72 lives, it kick-started a new conversation about the value of good social housing.

North of the border, the shift had already begun. By the time David Cameron was extending Right to Buy to housing association tenants in England, the Scottish Government had already abolished it on council new builds. “This was critically important because prior to this, if a council built a new home, someone who was already a tenant could move in and exercise their discount,” explains Ken Gibb, professor of housing economics at the University of Glasgow. This was putting local authorities off. The Scottish Government went on to provide capital grants to encourage them to kick-start new building programmes. Right to Buy on existing council houses was abolished in Scotland, but not England, in 2016.

The Scottish Government also made radical changes in the private rented sector. It ended no-fault evictions and introduced indefinite tenancies. “All this is positive. It reverses the way things have been since 1988,” says Gibb. “However, there’s a caveat. It’s one thing to create a set of regulations we all sign up to, but those regulations have to be enforceable. Most of the regulations fall on local authorities, and there’s no extra resource for enforcement, so it will take some time to evaluate.”

At the same time, the Scottish Government has set a target of 50,000 new affordable homes, 35,000 of them for social rent, before the end of this parliamentary term. A recent study of its progress was broadly positive.

Even as these new social houses are being built, others are being demolished; North Lanarkshire is in the process of tearing down most of its remaining tower blocks. Still, if the government hits its target, the number of social homes being built will start to outstrip the number being lost for the first time since the Right to Buy was introduced.

Shelter Scotland praises the Scottish Government “for taking the plunge”, but says more still needs to be done. Its latest research suggests the 10,000 a year target is 2,000 short of what is actually required.

“What we need is a new deal for social housing in Scotland,” says MacRae. “We need the skills to build them, the land to build them on and a focus at a national level on what it is we are trying to achieve. Is it better communities? Is it better lives?

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“As we look towards the next election, we will be asking: how do we get the construction industry, the schools and colleges to see the building of social homes as one of the best forms of economic investment we can make in Scotland? In the last parliament the emphasis was simply on getting the houses built. This time we need to take a more mature approach; to ask: How do we maintain that level of output? How do we go make sure the homes are going where we need them?”

And what about architecture? In the past we have swung from cottage flats, to tower blocks to low rise. Is there a consensus on what constitutes the best in social housing? “I wouldn’t say there’s a consensus on a type of building,” says MacRae. “What does seem to work, however, is involving communities in the design process so the housing provided meets the needs of the community.

“It’s interesting to look at the approach taken in Poundbury [Prince Charles’ traditionalist model village in Dorset]. The model of participation it has developed puts the community at the heart of the design. The question is: How do you take that boutique approach and do it on a bigger scale as part of an effective programme to build the homes we need?”

Broomhill is a far cry from Poundbury. Though its community garden now boasts miniature bug tunnels, it could hardly be described as “Disneyfied”. Nor were its residents happy with every aspect of the regeneration. The decision to pull down the Drumfrochar Square blocks, for example, was deeply unpopular.

Before the flats came down, the community were encouraged to make their peace with the demolition in a RIG Arts event called Bye to the Bells. You can see pictures of that event online. One photograph shows dozens of ceramic bells, each containing a memory, dangling in a stairwell. Others show giant images projected on to the blocks and drummers playing the buildings like musical instruments.

What you can’t see is the impromptu memorialising; the residents who, on a whim, started chalking on the walls: “Davy lived here 2004-2009”; “I had my first baby in Flat 2”. “It was a magical moment,” says Orr.

The Up the Broomy project has transformed lives. “It’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” says Hair, who previously “hated” art because she was scared of it. Involving residents in a wider celebration of their heritage and the creation of a more aesthetically pleasing environment has helped erase negative preconceptions.

Broomhill is testament to what can be achieved. It’s not perfect, but the community garden, which RCH had feared would act as a magnet for anti-social behaviour, is well-maintained, while the community hub has a steady flow of customers. Cannon says every flat that becomes available attracts a flurry of bids. Broomhill Court, now retirement homes, has gone from 33 per cent to 99 per cent occupancy.

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“It has improved so much, you can quite easily forget how it once looked,” says Orr. “I get a thrill driving past Broomhill Court at night because it used to be dark and now all the windows are lit up. I like to see that; it’s uplifting.”