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Housing

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 4th December 2013.

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Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

The paucity of the SNP’s ambition in housing policy is deeply depressing. We have heard again the tired old mantra that, if only we had independence, everything would be better—the sun would shine, Scotland would win the world cup and housing would be improved. However, responsibility for housing is devolved, so there is nothing to stop the SNP taking action now. Like Patrick Harvie, I will focus on what the Scottish Government can do.

Since the advent of devolution, the Scottish Parliament has passed some of the most progressive homelessness legislation in the world. Along with ending child poverty, eradicating rough sleeping and tackling homelessness were major objectives of the first Labour Scottish Executive. We established a homelessness task force to review the nature and causes of homelessness, and its recommendations fundamentally changed our approach. For the first time, we delivered a rights-based framework that put us at the forefront of the global fight against homelessness.

We phased out priority need, although they told us that we could not do that. No longer are homeless applicants assessed and categorised regardless of the underlying cause of their homelessness. All are now entitled to settled accommodation.

The current Government has built on that and has introduced housing options. On the face of it, that approach is needs based and rooted in prevention. However, I say genuinely that there is a sneaking suspicion that it is masking the true level of homelessness and that the figures are being massaged. Whether or not that is right, I hope that the minister will commit to urgent research on the subject, because the SNP must not be complacent about that.

I am proud of our achievement, but it is not a case of job done. Huge challenges are ahead. As the cost of living increases and as incomes decline in real terms, more people and families will be plunged into crisis. For some, austerity will mean being driven from their homes by mortgage repossessions; others will just be unable to sustain their tenancies.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that more people are sleeping rough on our streets—contrary to what the minister said. I hope that I do not need to tell her how brutal an existence that is. Suffice it to say that a man who was sleeping rough outside Glasgow Central station a few weeks ago died of hypothermia. This is 21st century Scotland—the SNP must do better than that.

I want the SNP Government to instruct a count of rough sleepers and I have asked the minister to do that. Why will the Government not do that? The minister sticks her head in the sand, in denial that there is a problem, but the problem is growing. There is no data to inform action and the Government is taking no specific action on rough sleeping.

An overview of homelessness data in the past 10 years, which I commend to the minister for careful consideration, shows that, although the number of applications and homelessness assessments has reduced, the number of households that are assessed as intentionally homeless has increased. The most recent quarterly data on homelessness reported that, of the 5,500 unintentionally homeless households whose case was closed, 76 per cent secured a local authority, housing association or private let as an outcome. That is welcome, but it means that 24 per cent did not achieve a positive outcome. That proportion has remained the same for the past six years. What is happening to those people? The Scottish Government does not know.

The minister requires to take urgent action on the issue. That is her responsibility and the Scottish Government’s responsibility; it is not the responsibility of Westminster or anybody else. It is in the Scottish Government’s power to do something now.

We know that changes to housing legislation—along with the lack of social housing and an increase in demand—have triggered an exponential increase in the number of households in temporary accommodation. According to the Government’s statistics, as of June of this year there were 10,494 households in temporary accommodation. That is a significant increase since 2007 and we need to understand why. Those households in turn contain 4,574 children. That is 1,000 more children in temporary accommodation than there were a decade ago.

I said earlier that homelessness is not simply about bricks and mortar, but we have to ask serious questions of the Government when it has taken decisions to slash the house-building budget in recent years by tens of millions of pounds. While the number of temporary households remains so high, those genuinely seem to be perverse decisions to make.

Temporary accommodation will, for many, represent that crucial first step away from homelessness and towards a home. If we are to minimise the trauma that we know is associated with becoming homeless, we have a duty to ensure that the standard of temporary accommodation is as high as possible, especially when we consider that many individuals and many families can spend not just months but perhaps even years in temporary accommodation. The evidence is there. We know the serious impact that temporary accommodation has on a child’s development and wellbeing, so I genuinely say to the minister that in light of the growth of temporary accommodation, it is absolutely critical that the Scottish Government does not delay further and introduces statutory standards for temporary housing.

Housing in Scotland is in crisis. There is urgent action that the Scottish Government and the minister can take. The minister has demonstrated breathtaking complacency. I hope that she will finally take the veil from her eyes and do something to help people in Scotland.