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.