The great ‘affordable housing’ mystery

WE all love a countdown. So, why is it that one of the country’s flagship policies is not accompanied by this simple and potentially most arresting of marketing devices?

Scots should be rightly proud of their country’s affordable housing policy.

It all began back in 2015 (as reported, here, by Scottish Housing News), when First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, announced a target 50,000 ‘affordable’ houses (35,000 of them, ‘social rent’), to be delivered during the Scottish Parliament term of 2016-2021 – were her party, the SNP, to win the next Scottish Parliament elections. Which it did.

Now, it’s a target 110,000 by 2032 (as explained, here), with at least 70 per cent of them ‘social rent’.

But, try explaining all that in the pub, to a visitor from down south.

Who asks: How many ‘affordable homes’ have been delivered so far? What do you mean, by ‘affordability’? How much is ‘social rent’, and what’s required to qualify for ‘social rent’ housing?

And, as if that wasn’t enough, continues the conversation, by asking how are such homes paid for?

It’s the great ‘affordable housing’ mystery.

There is no doubting the importance of ‘affordable’ housing to the Scottish Government. In a strategy document, issued last year and looking towards housing in 2040 (here), there are no less than 179 mentions of it.

But there’s really just the one concession that ‘affordability’ is difficult to define, contained in the following paragraph: “Stakeholders during our consultation told us that, how affordability is currently understood and defined, does not always deliver the best outcomes for people, meaning the right to an adequate home cannot be realised. We know that there is no, one universally-accepted definition of rent affordability, with differing accounts being taken of household incomes and other housing costs.”

At a more granular level, several local authorities describe their own ‘affordable’ housing programmes in some detail – for instance, North Lanarkshire (here) and The City of Edinburgh Council (here). But they are each their own web page.

You almost certainly need to be a particular type of housing sector geek to have the patience to call up the various, relevant web pages, never mind know that they even exist. For instance, the issue of ‘affordability’ and how it is defined is to be found in a consultation paper (here) on housing provision for tenants, with a deadline of April 15 for views to be submitted.

That’s another piece of the jigsaw.

Further internet searches are required to interrogate a statistical report issued quarterly, concerning the supply of ‘affordable’ housing (for example, here) and then a holding page on the Scottish Government website, which somewhat dryly operates under the heading, ‘Affordable Housing Supply Programme’ (here).

The latest quarterly, statistical report – published on December 7 last year – reported: “A total of 2,094 affordable homes were completed in the latest quarter July to September 2021, bringing the total number of affordable homes completed in the 12 months to end September 2021 to 8,792.”

But it is difficult to interpret a figure like 8,792 when it is presented almost in isolation of anything else. This is where a countdown would come in handy.

Hiding, ‘under a bushel’, the undeniable success story that is Scotland’s ‘affordable’ housing policy seems oddly modest. It is a policy that is potentially country-defining, not least because of the lives it could potentially transform.

The budget required to deliver ‘affordable’ housing is huge. It runs into the billions.

Surely, it cannot be impossible to spare a few coins to build a single ‘affordable housing’ presence on the web, to enable us all to understand and, indeed, proclaim how it all works.

Mike Wilson is a member of the Place Design Scotland team

Pictured: A 300-home ‘affordable’ housing scheme being built in Dunbeg, near Oban. Question: Do you know anything about it? Picture credit: Place Design Scotland

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