An end to homelessness in Scotland?

Hogmanay marks the abolition of the priority need test in homelessness law, and the crystallisation of the Scottish Government’s promise to 'end homelessness' in Scotland. Any individual who becomes homeless unintentionally has been promised the right to a home. What does this promise mean in practice? Will people really have the right to a permanent home in Scotland?

In practice, local authorities already side step statutory homelessness duties by turning single homeless people away, telling them there is no available temporary accommodation. This is unlawful but it happens every day in Scotland, and can be very difficult to detect or prove. Why don’t councils have sufficient temporary accommodation?

Ultimately, it’s the lack of a joined-up national housing policy, whereby the specific policy of large-scale stock transfer has meant that many local authorities have no houses at all. Add this to the fact the 2001 Housing (Scotland) Act contains no power for councils to require housing associations to accommodate homeless persons on a temporary or interim basis, and you have a bottle neck in a system where demand always outstrips supply.

Of course living in a temporary furnished flat, or more typically a homeless hotel or bed and breakfast room, is not the same thing as the promise of a permanent home. Much of Scotland’s private sector temporary accommodation ranges from low quality to shockingly bad, if you are lucky enough to get it. 

The reality is we don’t have enough good quality social housing in Scotland; we need to build more, and giving people legal rights to such homes is meaningless unless they are available to let. Indeed it could be argued that raising expectations of access to good quality, decent homes is unfair and unhelpful if many people may never get one.

Our homelessness laws look fantastic on paper but we have a stretched and broken system on the ground, with a lack of infrastructure. And that system will be unable to cope with the additional homelessness caused by the bedroom tax cuts from April, and thereafter the hideous problems created by the universal credit system in October.

If we want to end homelessness in Scotland there is no better starting point than doing much more to prevent it. The Scottish Government has the power to prevent increased homelessness from the bedroom tax cuts, which will adversely affect 95,000 Scottish households from April.

Govan Law Centre (GLC), the STUC and Shelter Scotland are calling for a change in the law to prevent evictions based on bedroom tax arrears, by instead treating such arrears as an ordinary debt. GLC has already drafted a simple solution which the Scottish Government has agreed to look at.

Local authorities must be allowed to build or acquire more homes, or at least be empowered to formally require housing associations to assist them in meeting their emergency homelessness duties, particularly so with the Homelessness (Abolition of Priority Need Test) (Scotland) Order 2012 coming into force on 31 December.

Unless we act now to prevent the expected evictions from next year’s welfare reform cuts, and recognise the need to improve our social housing infrastructure in Scotland, the right to a home may become nothing more than a promise which cannot be honoured.