Bruntsfield Edinburgh Square

How the Scottish Government could hurt the tenants it wants to help 

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MANY READERS will be aware Scotland now finds itself in a housing crisis. While this may seem an obvious, nay repetitive point, it would seem the Scottish Government is determined to overlook the facts in front of it.

As Scotland’s largest membership organisation for private rented sector landlords and letting agents, the Scottish Association of Landlords has repeatedly warned of a shortage of properties available to rent over the winter. This will ultimately increase pressure on emergency housing provided by councils and the situation is critical.

Our members are reporting drops of 80 per cent or more in the number of properties available to let. That is in just the last two months alone. The shortage is caused by landlords exiting the sector over the past few years because of the threat of excessive regulation.

Complaints from students’ groups about the lack of properties to rent are an evident consequence of the introduction in 2017 of the Private Residential Tenancy (PRT). That legislation reduced the number of homes available to students as landlords could no longer offer fixed-term leases that matched term times. Landlords and letting agents are telling us of massive drops in the average number of properties they would typically have available to rent, with some saying they have none at all left to let, despite enquiries from hundreds of people looking for a home.

Concurrently, we see considerable jumps in the cost of buying a house. With limited supply and increased demand in the private rented sector, many people will be left with nowhere to live, inevitably putting massive pressure on the emergency housing supply as well.

There is a fundamental misunderstanding from some in the Scottish Government of the critical role played by the overwhelming majority of private landlords within Scotland’s housing mix.

If there is to be a lasting change, the Scottish Government’s attitude to landlords must shift. Patrick Harvie, before he became the new Minister for Tenants’ Rights, repeatedly caricatured private landlords as “exploitative” and sitting on piles of growing unearned wealth.

Mr Harvie and his party blame landlords’ lobbyists for being well funded and getting their way. While I am glad Mr Harvie recognises our effective lobbying on behalf of our members, I can assure him it is a small part of what we do and not where we direct much funding.

Much of the current difficulty can be traced to the hostile anti-landlord rhetoric from the Scottish Government. Landlords leave the sector in fear of planned rent controls and a total ban on evictions. There is an almost subliminal tendency to suggest landlords are ‘in it for the money’ with no concern for their tenants.

This narrative ignores that private landlords have worked productively with the Scottish Government over the past 15 years to create a much better deal for tenants while offering some safeguards to landlords.

We strongly supported the model tenancy reforms; mandatory registration and training of letting agents, and improved electrical safety and environmental standards.

I would like to see a faster implementation of the recommendations of the Scottish Parliamentary Working Group on Tenement Maintenance which would include legislation to allow owners to compel neighbours to carry out repairs.

This would help improve conditions in tenements, where there can be more private tenants and make it easier to reduce carbon emissions from housing. SAL has also called for more vigorous enforcement for more than two decades and welcome Mr Harvie’s support on this.

Much of the growth in the sector has happened as a result of the reduction of social housing. This has led to tenants with no choice other than to rent privately when they would otherwise have been more appropriately housed in the social housing sector.

It may also surprise Mr Harvie that SAL favours an open discussion about the correct size of Scotland’s private rented sector  and an increase in social housing. This would lead to a corresponding re-balancing of the size of the sector.

SAL remains committed to sustained dialogue with the Scottish Government. The Scottish Greens must find their policy footing and abandon a long habit of shouting, not listening, in a bid to effect change. As the availability of private tenancies reaches crisis point, they must ditch the need to demonise, look at the sector, and consider tenants and those needing accommodation.

None of us must pretend there are silver bullets or sweeping moves which will solve all of Scotland’s housing problems overnight or that the consequences do not require careful consideration.

What is clear, and what must happen immediately, is a robust consideration of how proposed legislation could create a perfect storm of pain in an icy winter. If it is not careful, the Scottish Government could end up hurting disastrously the very people it claims to try and assist.

SAL, as ever, remains committed to listening, representing, and working for our members. We would encourage all others to do the same in a bid to tackle a critical moment in the housing crisis.

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Photo of tenement properties in Bruntsfield, Edinburgh by Lachlan1 from Shutterstock.com

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