Jocelyne Fleming: Why we need to take a step back in order to support Scotland’s social housing

Jocelyne Fleming: Why we need to take a step back in order to support Scotland’s social housing

Jocelyne Fleming

In the organisation’s monthly column for Scottish Construction Now, Jocelyne Fleming, policy and public affairs officer for CIOB in Scotland, explains why the Scottish Government is missing a trick in its efforts to support social housing providers.

I recently had the privilege of sitting down with representatives from Scottish housing associations and the contractors who support their retrofit projects for a wide-ranging discussion on the challenges facing their sector. These discussions, part of a research-based roundtable, were conducted to identify key barriers to the widescale retrofit of Scotland’s social housing stock, with the aim of making tangible policy recommendations to the Scottish Government.

This research, as good work often does, came together organically from informal conversations with experts in the field. They noted the difficulties they were facing with current funding models and offered creative and practical suggestions for improvements. These conversations have now been translated into a formal report: Harnessing Scotland’s Social Housing Expertise.

I went into this roundtable with the following presumptions and biases: social housing is an integral part of Scotland’s overall housing system; having a robust supply of good quality social housing is central to providing a just transition; and those who are on the frontlines of any given issue are experts whose opinions are invaluable and should inform policymaking.

I left with all of these biases and beliefs intact and an even greater commitment to supporting Scotland’s housing associations. In looking at the data – both the roundtable discussions and the wider literature and statistics – it is abundantly clear just how important housing associations are to Scotland’s housing system and how imperative it is that change is made now to support their work.

Housing associations have a demonstrable track record of success in delivering affordable, high-quality homes. Social homes are some of the most energy-efficient in Scotland, and, as Shelter Scotland has noted, are more likely to meet the standard for decent housing than other tenures. Facing increasingly stringent standards like the Energy Efficiency Standard for Social Housing (EESSH) and EEESH2, housing associations have already invested heavily in improving their stock.

As a result, as the 2021 Scottish House Condition Survey outlines, 65% of these units are in EPC band C or better. All of this has been achieved in what are often difficult financial circumstances. Housing Associations have to carefully manage budgets; their income ultimately comes from rents, and, as roundtable attendees noted, “we’re not dealing with people that have money in the bank – we’re dealing with people who are struggling as it is.”

Here’s where the government is currently missing a trick: Scotland’s housing associations represent a wealth of untapped knowledge. They have shown what they can achieve even with limited funds. They remain dedicated to providing good homes and are focused on the well-being of tenants, raising concerns about living conditions, fuel poverty, and overall tenant satisfaction many times during our discussions.

This is a highly regulated, highly experienced sector whose knowledge of their stock and the needs of their tenants leave them well-positioned to make informed decisions on the best way to manage their stock moving forward. Research participants easily identified, down to the unit, where their biggest concerns and priorities lie regarding retrofitting these homes.

It’s important to acknowledge the heterogeneity of the social housing sector. Housing associations in different regions and with different remits and sizes will face different challenges, and things will go wrong along the way. However, the government is missing a trick in creating barriers to funding access for a group of organisations with the expertise to take a proactive role in achieving Scotland’s social housing retrofit objectives. The Scottish Government simply needs to give housing associations the funding they require, step back, and let them lead the way.

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