No we won’t sit down! (We’re glad we’re rocking the boat)

Rarely does an issue come around in the world of housing policy which divides the sector so completely. At Shelter Scotland, we’re used to working with partners across the divide when policy issues unite us. But when necessary we’re not afraid to ask the difficult questions. So if the Scottish Government is on the cusp of bad policy we don’t mind saying so, even if it does rock the boat.

The issue in hand is that of ‘probationary’ or ‘introductory’ tenancies. Early last year, the Scottish Government went out to consultation on ways to introduce more ‘flexibility’ for social landlords. Buried deep (proposal 9 of 10) in this wide-ranging consultation, was the idea of ‘probationary’ tenancies so that all new social tenants in Scotland would be on probation for the first 12 months of their tenancy. If, after that time, they are deemed to have behaved appropriately, that tenancy would convert to a Scottish secure tenancy and they would have the same tenancy rights – and responsibilities – as their neighbours.

While supporters of the proposal, primarily housing providers and existing (unaffected) tenants, argue this is a mechanism to actually support tenants and improve tenancy sustainment. Scratch a little deeper and it is clear this is really about tackling anti-social behaviour (ASB). The Scottish Government’s own press release announcing the consultation boasted it was “getting tough on antisocial tenants”.

As a housing organisation, we are more than aware of the difficulties that arise from antisocial behaviour and how it can blight communities and be a very real and expensive challenge for social landlords. But there is little or no evidence that putting everyone on probation would be an effective way of tackling the problems. Problems we feel tend to stem from relationship breakdown, health or addiction issues, changes in family circumstances or unmet support needs.

Aside from the fact that there is little explanation of why this legislative change is needed, who it aims to help or what the outcome would be, there is something far more fundamental at stake: tenants’ rights.

So last week, we felt compelled to act and we wrote to the Minister for Housing and Welfare, Margaret Burgess MSP to urge her to reconsider such drastic tenancy reform. Leading a coalition of organisations including national charities, housing organisations and welfare groups, in the letter we laid out the very real concerns that this proposal, if taken forward, would:

  • destroy hard won tenants’ rights,
  • create a two-tier rights system in communities and
  • penalise vulnerable tenants.

At a time when social landlords are trying to cope with and mitigate the impact of Westminster’s welfare reforms, this proposal would distract attention and resources from the critical issues of the day. Moreover, at a time of progressive homelessness legislation, an increasingly holistic approach to housing options advice and information and an increased focus on homelessness prevention, this proposal effectively judges all social tenants before they even get the keys to their home. It tars everyone with the same very-negative-brush assuming everyone is anti-social, until proven otherwise.

And so what of the sector? While the Chartered Institute of Housing Scotland has come out in defence of the proposal, characterising our campaign as ‘not helpful’. On the other side, Angus Housing Association has written a stinging reply, calling on national housing bodies and local authority groups to back Shelter Scotland’s campaign.

The debate will continue but ultimately the proposal is with the Minister who will need to make a decision before the publication of the draft housing bill in the autumn. And in the meantime, Shelter Scotland and our partners will continue to speak out against a proposal which strikes at the very heart of Scotland’s social housing tradition and seems to start down the rocky road of reduced rights and reduced security of tenure. As we’ve seen in England where this policy has been in place for some time, the door has been opened for the end of lifetime tenancies, as in Hammersmith and Fulham where they are now a ‘thing of the past’.

And so if this campaign is viewed by those at the top as ‘not helpful’, then so be it. On this one, we really don’t mind rocking the boat.

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Fiona King

Fiona King

I’m Campaigns & Public Affairs Manager at Shelter Scotland and have been part of the team since 2010, previously having been a policy nerd. Our campaigning work takes me all over Scotland and beyond and I work closely with politicians and stakeholders across Scotland to get housing up the agenda. Outside the world of policy I like to eat and drink, ideally by the seaside and I am an office sweepstake enthusiast.

  • eddiehart

    from reading this article I am left with the overwhelming idea that Shelter Scotland are making a huge mountain out of a very small mole hill. Its not even close to “tarring” everyone with the same brush its just common sense.
    Having lived in a fantastic close with great neighbors and seeing first hand what happens when a great neighbor moves out and an anti social one moves in and not being able to do anything about it, I fully support this bill.
    Within weeks of them moving in the close was a nightmare to live in and it wasn’t safe for my kids to leave the house with needles and all sorts left about and nothing could be done, I couldn’t even get moved. A happy home was turned into hell and this bill could have saved us.
    Shelter Scotland should take its blinkers off and actually look at communities and not its own political agenda, this campaign of theirs has made me loose sympathy for their charity and I feel I can no longer support it

    • Its not a huge mountain at all. It removes protections for future tenants that you and many thousands of others have had.
      Anti-social behaviour is not resolved through moving the problem on. All this would do would be to move the problem to another locale. That’s not a solution to anything.
      Shelters opposition is logical and sound.
      I wonder what moves your housing association made in order to work with the tenant you refer to?
      You talk about needles being left around I just wonder why that would happen? In the majority of cases when someone injects in a close, it tends to be because there is no where else to go to in order to inject. This would likely mean that whoever left needles in your close did not, in fact stay there.
      If as you say, your were in fear for your children’s safety then there is legislation that could be used in order for you to move. Its not ideal of course, but where a child or anyone persons safety is under threat in their tenancy, there is legislation to house you elsewhere.
      If this policy is on the horizon then its a worry for those of us who work with vulnerable people. There are already significant barriers stopping those who have been or currently are chaotic/vulnerable getting tenancies.

  • Fiona King

    Thanks for taking the time to comment on the blog Eddie and for engaging with this important campaign. Shelter Scotland is more than aware of the huge problems caused by anti-social behaviour and how situations can be long and painful for neighbours of anti-social tenants. Anti-social behaviour needs to be tackled effectively when it happens and when necessary it should be a criminal matter not a housing management issue.

    Our problem with this proposal is that there is absolutely no factual information to show that this particular proposal would ‘tackle’ ASB or that it would be an effective deterrent for anti-social tenants. It would be expensive and onerous for landlords of all shapes and sizes to implement and would be a very disproportionate response. To have all existing tenants with full tenancy rights and new tenants to have reduced security, creates a two-tier rights system which would be extremely unfair. Despite some support from housing providers, respondents to the consultation raised a number of issues and the very mixed response can be seen from the individual responses: http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2012/06/4149/downloads

    We would urge the Scottish Government to ditch this proposal or at least to publish evidence to support the policy intentions behind it. We would also like to see the Scottish Government and others look against at Anti-social behaviour and what can be done to use the existing legislation and enforcement mechanisms more effectively.

    Penalising all tenants is not a positive or well evidenced way to tackle anti-social behaviour.

  • My concern is ls about economic “unsocial” tenants. With the bedroom tax coming many folk may be unable to pay their full rent due to a cut in housing benefit. Will social landlords be able to use this to evict those who can’t afford the short fall in their housing benefit and fall behind with their rent?

  • Yes there are cases when anti social neighbors move in and destroy the harmony that exists in a street or block of flats, but equally this can happen at any point in a tenancy and not just at the outset.

    We need rules that effectively deal with anti social behavior and provide support for tenants who are affected by it, whenever it happens.

    Shelter are absolutely correct, the beginning of a tenancy is when people should be supported not put on probation.

    There is something about this proposal that feels unsavory and populist and I hope the SNP will not implement it, or otherwise it will be another breach in the hull of social justice in this country.

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