Calculating the level of housing need in Scotland

WITH each new appeal for more housing to be provided – to meet what is often described as a ‘housing crisis’ – there is often a figure attached, designed to underscore the gravity of the situation.

But calculating the level of housing need in Scotland kind of depends who you are speaking to.

The first port of call might be a charity, such as Shelter Scotland, and its take on homelessness, which might be viewed as the most urgent housing challenge – homelessness being not just rough sleeping, but people living in insecure or unfit accommodation and also those ‘sofa surfing’ with friends or family.

It says (here): “In 2019-20, 36,855 homeless applications were made, and 31,333 households were assessed as homeless by their local authority. This equates to a household losing their home every 17 minutes.”

A housing application is an appeal for support from one’s local authority and involves completing a questionnaire which asks, among other things, where the applicant was previously living and why they had to leave.

A different set of numbers, however, emerges when considering applications for social rent housing, provided by either a local authority or a registered social landlord, such as a housing association.

We talking about the ‘housing waiting list’.

And says the latest figures from the Scottish Government (here), as at March 31 last year, 2019, “158,439 applications were recorded on local authority or common housing register housing lists”.

Meanwhile, Shelter Scotland has a slightly different take: 132,000 households on housing waiting lists, but adding:

“The 132,000 figure is likely to be an underestimate of the true level of need, and doesn’t include households on lists for housing association homes (which, for example, is all the social housing in Glasgow).”

It’s a moot point whether waiting lists include those young people who feel unable to move from their parents’ home, because of the cost of housing. Some will have submitted their name to a waiting list; others not.

Shelter Scotland was recently one of three organisations – the other two being the Scottish Federation of Housing Association and the Chartered Institute of Housing (Scotland) – to call for further investment in the provision of ‘affordable housing’ – adding to the stock already supported by the Scottish Government which embarked on a programme of helping deliver 50,000 ‘affordable homes’ (including 35,000 for ‘social rent’) across the Scottish Parliament term of 2016-2021.

‘Affordable Housing Need in Scotland, post 2021’ – (here) published in March last year, revised two months later, and launched in June (as reported by BBC Scotland, here) – called for 53,000 ‘affordable’ homes to be built between 2021 and 2026. 

The 53,000 figure (with 37,100 for ‘social rent’) came about following an analysis of ‘backlog’ – (1) arising from inadequate housing (29,068) and (2) homelessness (20,517) – which adds up to just shy of 50,000. The additional 3,000 or so, to bring the figure up to 53,000, might be best described as ’rounding up’, not least because it is a projection starting this year.

Says Alison Watson, director of Shelter Scotland: “It’s not right that more than 132,000 households are stuck on waiting lists, many of them clinging on to unaffordable housing that takes every penny they make.

“It’s not right that we have record numbers of households in temporary accommodation because they’ve lost their homes.

“The Scottish Government has the power to fix this by increasing the supply of social homes. If they agree to fund 37,100 homes for social rent over the next five years, they will begin reducing Scotland’s housing need.

“That means fewer people and children in poverty, fewer kids facing disruption to their education and more people reaping the benefits of a safe and steady home.”

Quite what ‘affordable’ actually means is open to debate; one person’s ‘affordable’ being another’s ‘unaffordable’. 

Page 13 of ‘Affordable Housing Need in Scotland’, gives it a go: “As with all assessments of housing need, it remains important to distinguish between social and affordable housing at the outset.

“This is not as straightforward as it may first seem as what makes a home ‘affordable’ has become a serious point of contention. Despite the contested nature of the term, there is the need for a distinction which captures the difference in terms of policy and tenure.

“For the purposes of this report, a tenure-based definition is used rather than a household one, as what is affordable to one household may not be affordable to another in a similar position in the housing market.”

Presenting her recent draft Scottish Budget – now approved – Scottish Government finance secretary, Kate Forbes MSP, delivered what sounds like good news for the sector: “COVID has… underlined the value of a safe, secure and affordable home and our homes will also now be somewhere many of us work from.

“We’re providing more than £800 million for housing in the budget.

“Building on our  achievement of having delivered almost 97,000 affordable homes since 2007, I am allocating funding of more than £711 million to the Affordable Housing Supply Programme.”

Meanwhile, an annual housebuilding target of 25,000 properties (of all tenure types) is being called for by house-builders representative body, Homes for Scotland, in its manifesto for this year’s Scottish Parliament elections – here.

Says Homes for Scotland head of Public Affairs, Jennifer Kennedy: “We are calling for all parties to support a clear statement of intent on this, highlighting the wide-ranging policy objectives that depend on a strong and diverse housing sector, with public and private organisations jointly delivering a wide range and choice of homes across tenures – to not only meet need and demand but also enhance social wellbeing and economic success.”

The challenge of accurately identifying an exact level of housing need in Scotland is neatly summed by Professor Ken Gibb, of the Glasgow-based UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence, who says: “We tend to know unmet need or unaffordable housing when we see it need but modelling it in the aggregate makes assumptions and deploys conventions and a degree of judgement, even if the internal logic and the empirical technique themselves are robust.”

Mike Wilson is a member of the PlaceDesignScotland team

Picture: Oxgangs, Edinburgh

Picture credit: PlaceDesignScotland