Being a Minister isn’t a job I would relish in boom times, let alone in bust. But as recent cabinet reshuffles north and south of the border have shown, there is a seemingly endless stream of ambitious politicians ‘incredibly honoured and looking forward’ to taking on bigger and more challenging roles – while budgets shrink and discontent continues to grow.

The Scottish Government reshuffle has been conceived primarily through a prism of ‘the independence question’, but has thrown up some interesting new portfolios.  Portfolios that, dare I say it, might actually make some sense.

Margaret Burgess MSP, Photo – Scottish Parliament

The appointment of Margaret Burgess MSP to the role of Minister for Welfare and Housing may have received fewer column inches than any other in the past last week, but for many ‘regular’ people across Scotland, could be the most significant.

We’re facing an acute shortage of housing across the board while Westminster’s clunky welfare reforms  are increasingly making what little housing is available unaffordable for a lot of people and families.  So the lashing together of these two briefs is a big step forward in acknowledging that the problems need to be looked at in the round.

Having a home is a basic priority for everyone and critical to the success of individuals and the country as a whole.

Rarely recognised as an election winning political issue – such as education, criminal justice and health – ‘housing’ is the strong foundation on which positive employment, health, social networks and education can be laid.  But more than 45,000 people applied as homeless across Scotland last year and there are over 150,000 people waiting for a council house.  Added to that we have instability for private renters with no security of tenure and a house-buying market still reeling from the body-blow it received when the banks collapsed.

brick terraced housing

Housing has a deeper significance than some might think

So the new Scottish Housing Minister has quite a ‘To-do’ list.  From her previous role at East Ayrshire Citizens Advice Bureau, Margaret Burgess will be more than aware of the cycles of poverty that people are trapped in and the enormous pressures on household budgets.  She will also be aware that the demand for housing across all tenures is outstripping supply and that from the end of this year, all unintentionally homeless people will have a right to a home through the landmark ‘2012 commitment’. So when Margaret Burgess gets cracking, there are 3 key things to know:

1.    There just aren’t enough houses

Since 1979, almost 500,000 social houses have been sold off through the Right to Buy policy. At current letting rates of around 21,000 new social lets a year, it would take a whopping 7 years to clear the housing waiting list if we closed them to new applicants.  Whichever way you look at it, we just don’t have enough homes when you take into account both the population and the number of individual households.

2.    We need a better private-rented sector

With lack of security, the risk of rogue landlords, unscrupulous letting agents and police unwilling to take action on illegal evictions, the private rented sector is not yet the choice of housing for many. This is despite it being the only growing housing sector in Scotland [217kB].  There must be a more strategic approach to private renting, greater security for people who choose to live there and it needs to be affordable in the face of drastic welfare reforms.

3.    People need support

The papers are peppered with stories highlighting the symptoms of poverty, but each of these headlines, consultation responses or political pledges, relates to a real person, actually struggling to find a home/pay their bills/feed their children in 21st-century Scotland.  Calls to our free national helpline saw a 20% increase in July  with more and more people struggling to keep their heads above water.  Any new policies across this housing and welfare brief need to concentrate on supporting people who really are struggling to find or keep a home.

It’s going to be a busy year in parliament and Shelter Scotland is looking forward to working with the new Minister on addressing the challenges in housing, but also looking for the opportunities and partnerships to create the solutions.