Northern focus: what next for homelessness policy in Scotland?

Scotland’s progressive homelessness legislation was a giant step forward, but there is much more work still to do, by Fiona King

Scotland’s homeless legislation is recognised as among the most progressive in the world. Few would argue against the notion that everyone homeless through no fault of their own should have the basic human right to a home – but very few governments would go as far as to enshrine that right in law.

Yet in 2002, a cross-party consensus at the Scottish parliament made that commitment. Then in December 2012, the aspiration became a legal reality and the unfair “priority” and “non-priority” rationing system for those going through the homeless system was removed.

This achievement was the culmination of a 10-year process of redesigning services, building partnerships and changing attitudes. The Scottish government, local authorities and their voluntary sector partners have worked together to change the system for the better.

And so we’re past the post, we’ve made it to the new dawn. Is that job done? Well not quite.

The triple threat of recession, welfare reform and a lack of housing supply means we may end up having taken one step forward only to take two back, with the progress on reforming the homelessness system seriously under threat.

The last decade has seen a fundamental culture change. Primarily through the housing options approach, local authorities have changed their housing advice and information services. As part of this overhaul, we have seen a 49% reduction in social sector evictions in the past four years. Tenancy support is now explicitly linked to the prevention of homelessness and a new housing support duty for homeless applicants comes into effect from June 2013.

And yet, last year there were more than 35,000 people accepted as homeless. This means the rate of statutory homelessness in Scotland remains six times higher than in England. There are also more than 157,000 people on council house waiting lists and that the capital budget for investment in affordable and social housing in Scotland has been cut a disproportionately high 40%. Calls to Shelter Scotland’s national advice helpline are up by 43% on this time last year and we’re increasingly dealing with mortgage repossessions and money and debt issues.

Anyone who has even glanced at a newspaper in the past six months will realise that radical changes to the welfare state are going to affect housing both directly and indirectly.

With the controversial bedroom tax slashing the housing benefit of some of the most vulnerable people in our society by up to 25%, there is a very real risk that those clinging to the bottom rungs of that ladder, rather than being offered a ladder out of poverty, are going to be pushed off all together.

The 2012 commitment was and is a historic milestone. However, it should be viewed as the starting point of an ongoing commitment to those who find themselves experiencing the crisis of homelessness. People working in housing and homelessness in Scotland must continue to develop and share good practice on prevention, invest in housing support and work in partnership across all tenures to try to better match the demand for homes with the housing available.

As unemployment remains high and household budgets are squeezed, the need for informed and proactive advice and support for people in crisis is more important than ever. The statutory safety net is critical, but the 2012 commitment was always about so much more than that. The challenge now is to safeguard people’s rights despite the hurdles.

Fiona King is senior policy officer at Shelter Scotland