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Austerity hits homeless housing goal

By Keith Aitken in Edinburgh | 5 February 2013


A cross-party Holyrood guarantee of homes for all Scotland’s homeless people could be scuppered by the UK coalition government’s austerity programme, housing charity Shelter Scotland has said.

Shelter Scotland director Graeme Brown told Public Finance that a combination of fiscal, economic and demographic factors could de-rail the internationally admired ‘2012 Commitment’ that came into force at the start of 2013. He warned it might prove necessary to back it up with sanctions unless the supply of affordable housing increased.

‘We wouldn’t want to introduce the commitment and then see a huge rise in temporary accommodation, and we know of families that have been in temporary accommodation for two years, some of it of a very low standard,’ he said.

The commitment enshrined an -undertaking in legislation, with all-party support and local authority agreement, that councils would phase out the priority/non-priority distinction in assessing housing applications from homeless -people. This extends the obligation to house all categories of unwillingly homeless people rather than prioritise those with dependent children, health needs or other vulnerabilities. The main -beneficiaries are single homeless people.

Brown said Shelter welcomed the -initiative: ‘Local authorities have had to change not just the process, but also their working culture – the response a homeless person gets when they present themselves to a local authority – and that’s important.’ But he added: ‘This was -legislation from 2003. We were in a very different economic context then. There were 45,000 people assessed as homeless by local authorities in Scotland in 2011/12 – that gives us a sense of the scale of the challenge.’

Homelessness, explained Brown, is not the only demand on housing supply, as 150,000 people are on waiting lists for social housing. Restricted mortgage finance had created a boom in demand for private rented accommodation, which in turn fuelled high private rents and led to the so-called ‘Italian Son Syndrome’ of young professionals stuck in the parental home. The numbers of people seeking Shelter Scotland’s help over mortgage debt and potential repossession had also more than doubled.

These pressures, said Brown, were exacerbated by the coalition’s austerity measures. Scotland’s capital budgets were facing ongoing cuts of more than 40% to 2015, and he feared the impact of benefit changes such as the cap on Housing Benefit, which pays out more than £1.2bn in Scotland.

Brown praised some Scottish -Government measures to ease housing pressures. These include the effective ending of the right to buy council homes and rigorous planning insistence for private developments to include affordable housing. But, he said, Scottish ministers had increasingly directed investment at major capital projects instead of housing. The Scottish National Party administration was committed to providing 30,000 new affordable homes during this Parliament, but this appeared to be ‘beginning to tail off’.

The commitment does not include -sanctions for authorities that fail to comply. Brown said he would like this, ‘but we must do something about supply first’.

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