In the Scottish Government’s reshuffle announced earlier this week, a new Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government was appointed. Living Rent welcomes Shona Robison and bids farewell to Kevin Stewart. We take a look at the last Housing Minister’s last year and the challenge ahead.
In March 2020, Kevin Stewart declared “No landlord should evict a tenant because they have suffered financial hardship due to coronavirus.” In the past year, 146 eviction orders have been granted by the Tribunal due to tenants having been in arrears during the pandemic.
In the rest of the UK, the Breathing Space policy has introduced a break on debt-collecting. Meanwhile, in Scotland, civil proceedings continue to be taken against indebted tenants through the First Tier Housing Tribunal, and in social housing, massive housing associations like GHA continue to send out debt collectors for as little as £45 worth of arrears.
Living Rent are hearing of eviction orders being served to members who have lost income during the pandemic. The @scotgov said this wouldn't happen. With an eviction crisis underway, @scotgov and @KevinStewartSNP refused to give an interview for this piece.— Living Rent (@Living_Rent) May 19, 2021
On the 7th of April 2020, Kevin Stewart introduced a supposed ‘eviction ban’ during which tenants were still able to be evicted everyday, legally and illegally. Sheriff officers were able to deliver and enforce eviction orders. Landlords continued to force tenants out of their homes illegally.
In winter 2020, Kevin Stewart let Scottish protections from eviction fall behind the UK government’s protections, where bailiffs were banned from enforcing evictions. A month before Christmas, the Scottish Government passed an emergency legislation to amend this legislative failure.
Kevin Stewart then twice extended the blanket ban on sheriff officers enforcing evictions from 22 January to March 31st. He then outlined that this ban would continue to apply in areas under level three and four restrictions until September. He failed to announce this to anyone apart from in this tweet directed at Living Rent, saying Living Rent were ‘behind the curve’ in learning that the eviction ban had been extended.
The lack of public announcement led to general confusion even amongst housing charities and organisations. It left tenants to believe that they could be evicted in three weeks’ time and left landlords to believe they could evict.
To ensure Kevin Stewart was aware of the gravity of what awaits tenants after the eviction ban, Living Rent members threatened with eviction asked to meet the Housing Minister in early March. Kevin Stewart responded by saying he was busy only to respond with a generic signposting letter and instruction to speak with your landlord if tenants had problems.
On May 17th 2021, the eviction ban ended in areas that entered level two restrictions in Scotland. In the rest of the UK, there is an ongoing eviction ban until 31st May. Kevin Stewart left Scotland to again fall behind the Tory Government in protecting tenants from eviction.
Guidance but not enforcement on landlords on issues of public health
As the scale of the danger became clear in mid March 2020, tenants in the Wyndford began to lobby furiously for urgent action on hygiene protocols to prevent the transmission of the virus in their densely populated scheme.
On the 21st March, uncleaned blood in lifts covering buttons reached national attention in an article in the Sun newspaper and local MP Patrick Grady and local MSP Bob Doris both picked the issue up and made representations to Kevin Stewart. Nothing happened.
At this point, it becomes clear that this is a national catastrophe waiting to happen, with large tower blocks effectively having similar conditions to cruise ships with small badly ventilated lifts and corridors, and people mixing in close quarters as a natural condition of their housing. Tenants had to take matters in their own hand: together with local councillors, union members put up posters advising one household in the lift at the time, and handed out free hand sanitisers and soap. In parallel, the union ran an online survey to judge the extent of the problem, identifying 18 Scottish social landlords who had wholly suspended cleaning services.
Despite broad public support for these demands (we received the backing of Stephen Reicher, who sits on the Scottish Government's Scientific Advisory Panel, support from councillors and dozens of signatories) as well as a dossier of testimony from over a dozen landlords about the impact of the suspension of cleaning, between April and May 22nd, Stewart still did not respond.
It is not until the 29th of May, 23 days after Living Rent sent him the dossier that Kevin Stewart issued non-binding guidance to social landlords. The guidance vindicated the urgent need for public health information in flats, for regular cleaning to be maintained and for vulnerable tenants to be protected from exposure to the virus in communal areas such as lifts, drying rooms, washing facilities etc through physical distancing and hygiene measures. It was not enforceable.
Given the vaguness of the guidance, o the ground, in maisonette properties (which often have dozens of people accessing the same drying facilities, cupboards, stairwells and communal entrances), it became clear that the Wheatley Group, the country’s largest landlord, was still suspending all cleaning and hygiene protocols. On the 6th July Living Rent members from across Glasgow spoke to the BBC about the withdrawal of block cleaning by their landlords since the start of the pandemic. Yet it was not until the 13th August that Kevin Stewart’s office provided clarification on maisonette properties and social housing in tenement blocks etc. The letter noted, "In relation to fully owned or factored tenements in which social landlords ordinarily provide routine cleaning services in communal areas, the Scottish Government has always been clear that regular cleaning should continue during the period of the pandemic.”
Again, it is not until the 11th of September, following furious lobbying and demonstrations, that cleaning services were reinstated in some maisonette properties in the Wheatley Group. These however were subsequently suspended again during the second wave of the virus and have not been formally reinstated despite the government guidance.
Housing to 2040 and the SNP’s housing budget
The Scottish Government’s flagship housing bill, introduced by Aileen Campbell, “aims to deliver our ambition for everyone to have a safe, good quality and affordable home that meets their needs in the place they want to be.”
To be able to deliver safe, good quality and affordable homes, the Housing Minister and Government needed to commit to building social housing at a rate able to address the unprecedented levels of homelessness and social housing waiting lists. The commitment was instead the same promise as the last four years.
Welcome Shona Robison!
The elevation of Housing to a cabinet position is promising and necessary if the government are serious about tackling the rent, eviction and social housing crisis. Shona Robison has recently met with Living Rent members to discuss housing issues in her constituency.
We invite the new Cabinet Secretary to read the Tenants' Manifesto and we look forward to working with her again.