With a new Human Rights Bill on the horizon, how far are we from realising the right to adequate housing in Scotland, and what difference will the Bill make in achieving this?

This week we published new research conducted by the Diffley Partnership which gathered experiences of rights holders on housing in Scotland, supplemented by some stakeholder interviews. The UN right to adequate housing has been defined as having seven elements to it, and this research used a traffic light rating to explore current experiences of each of these elements. Only one of the elements, location, was rated ‘green’ by the input from our lived experience panel – with five rated amber (security of tenure, accessibility, habitability, cultural adequacy, and availability of services, materials, facilities and infrastructure). The seventh element, affordability, was rated as red.

Essentially, Scotland has a long way to go to realise people’s human right to adequate housing.

Some of the key reflections were many participants mentioning the ‘push and pull’ between affordability and suitability, where the former dictates whether people are able to achieve many of the other elements. Unsurprisingly, an increase in the supply of social housing was thought to be a key way the government could address affordability particularly given high private sector rents at present.

On habitability, the energy crisis and repairs were referenced as key issues and that was in part because of a lack of accountability from landlords to fix issues, particularly in the private rented sector.

“I’ve not really had a ceiling in the kitchen for over a year. There was a leak in the house, so I had flooding, so it’s like damp everywhere and mould growing everywhere. The windows don’t open. There are loads of things, like I honestly don’t think that a person should live in that house until it’s properly done up again”.

On security of tenure, the private rented sector was cited as the key area where improvements were required. People highlighted the lack of control and power imbalance between tenants and private landlords, and the impact that had on the way they felt they could live their lives.

“With private let [housing], you’re going into the unknown.”

“You can’t make a house properly into your home in a private rented property, you don’t know how secure you are there. You can be put out. You always feel like you’re just there temporarily, you can never fully relax like you would in an owned home or a local authority home.”

Long periods spent in so-called temporary accommodation were also highlighted by one of the participants, who had so far been there for nearly 3 years with her children.

“Like, I need stability for my kids because it’s the constant ‘are we moving, are we not moving? How long are we staying here?’ and they’ll have already formed friendships and things so it’ll be even harder for them because we’ve been here for so long.”

And as is well known, time spent in some forms of temporary accommodation also impacts on other elements of the right to adequate housing, namely access to appropriate facilities for cooking and washing.

“We had to support ourselves for breakfast, lunch and snacks during the day. The only downfall was we had no fridge, no freezer, and no cooking facilities.”

Throughout the research, certain groups were highlighted as at most risk of not having their rights realised – namely disabled people, larger families and people from some minoritised ethnic communities, particularly where there might be a cultural norm for multi-generational households with a lack of larger social homes identified as the crux of the issue.

So how can the new Human Rights Bill address these issues? Can it?

We think – and hope – so, but only if key conditions are met. Current proposals for the Bill include that there will be a duty to meet ‘minimum core obligations’ which will be developed for each of the seven elements of the right to adequate housing. The feedback above highlights where there are some gaps in current legislation around protecting people’s basic level of dignity and where the setting of (and abiding by) a minimum core might help address this. Another important duty proposed is that of progressive realisation – whereby duty bearers will have to demonstrate they have taken concrete, deliberate and targeted steps to progress both people’s rights and experience of those rights in respect of the right to adequate housing. Qualitative and quantitative data will be crucial here to understand the experience of particular groups most at risk of having their rights not realised, including women, some minoritised ethnic groups and disabled people. Much of the quantitative data we already have, though there are certainly gaps on some elements, and the 2021 ALACHO and CaCHE report authored by Gillian Young talks through many of the indicators and the strengths and weaknesses of those. Research like this – talking to rights holders about their experiences and acknowledging that rights on paper doesn’t always match reality, is a missing part of the puzzle and the new Bill must ensure that this experience is fed into ongoing monitoring and – importantly – prompts action to make improvements.

And yet, we know that new duties aren’t sufficient and won’t make the change we need to see on their own. Incorporating the human right to adequate housing into Scots law must be matched with the resource required to make that a reality for everyone – by delivering social homes and ensuring local authorities have the resources to uphold rights.  You cannot guarantee people’s rights without funding the policies, institutions and systems that are required to make them a reality.

The research is available here.

More information on the Human Rights Bill consultation is available here [closing 5th October].

Shelter Scotland’s full consultation response and summary briefing will shortly be available on our website.