The housing context in Scotland - a personal view.



Living Rent is a tenants union which emerged first in Edinburgh from the campaigning activities of the NUS, the Edinburgh Private Tenants Action Group and others with an enthusiasm for combating landlordism. The worst excesses of landlordism have historically been in the private sector so it is natural that our new union, filling big shoes in terms of a collapsed tenants movement has concentrated on this. Scotland however is a country that has historically large quantities of public housing, and is no stranger to neglect, price gouging, bureaucracy and at times corruption, and this story is one that needs understood and acted on if our union is to ever become a majoritarian organisation. One of the impacts of having a legacy of large quantities of public housing is that the pressures felt or changes within public sector housing have a larger impact on all tenants' experience, in the private as well as the various forms of public sector. Changes over the past generation and a half have transformed public sector housing; right to buy has changed the nature of estates; mass demolition has had huge knock on consequences; stock transfer has profoundly influenced housing governance and the impact of homelessness legislation and mid market rent policies have changed the nature of allocations.

Since the advent of mass council house building and the creation of the new towns in the post war settlement a disorientated tenants movement which had been concerntrated in the slums of the sprawling inner cities, and continuing 20th century rural to urban migration saw more and more people live in communities which had to be reconstructed socially from the ground up. Many communities failed, but many more prospered. In the mid 1970s functional communities were organised for power. In a great many places tenants committees controlled allocations, where organised tenants would help to decide who moved in to communities and where; Letting Agreements, the technical term for this system, were a feature of the Scottish political scene. Even in communities the union has organised within, often neighbourhoods once organised for powerlessness meeting remote bureaucracy that would not address their needs managed to form tenant management cooperatives and take power. The legacy of this process of struggle against both high handed bureaucracy and positive efforts to form community in new housing schemes was a mass tenants movement organised within that old vehicle of slum housing struggle against landlordism, the Scottish Tenants Organisation, then already a venerable organisation, formed out of housing struggles in World War I.
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This landscape of rising tenant organisations and increasing self-management was a landscape to be destroyed by right-wing governments, who made a mantra of a 'home owning democracy' and 'shareholder democracy' to individualise housing and social movements. They introduced the infamous ‘Right to buy’ policy in 1983, which saw tenants purchase tens of thousands of public homes for nominal fees from the government. In many neighbourhoods like the Wyndford (with lots of attractive family sized homes) this process was allied to the earliest stock transfers, where central government public housing was hived off to housing associations, which the central government at Westminster then immediately indebted for the 'sale' of these homes in these factitious 'transfers.' Right to buy in particular has been used as a rod to divide and rule in housing schemes ever since. Tenants resent that rents are more expensive than mortgages. Attitudes between tenants and owners in the same buildings are often opposed, with tenants seeking improvements in services, and owners seeking reductions in bills.

The experience of right to buy owners however is that they remain beholden to public sector landlords in a way that is radically divergent from traditional owner occupied housing. In a bungalo or a wholly private apartment block it is for the Council or other statutory body to determine if works need to happen around or on the building, and the risk and choice is entirely with the owner.

This is much less true in a housing scheme where a public landlord must meet a statutory requirement on behalf of its tenants and owners are liable for whatever charge is incurred. This has led to huge numbers of right to buy owners (who demographically tend to be working class pensioners) being ruined with charges for schemes such as overcladding - in one egregious example in Possilpark in the mid noughties owners were charged £12,500 after a grant for overcladding to Winget houses, bankrupting them and forcing many to sell.

Large landlords such as the GHA and others have refined these practices as an artform. Tenants are considered to vote for these schemes but are denied a vote, and usually votes are gerrymandered, for instance in the Wyndford when a range of investments the landlord knew would be unpopular with owners because of the expense were enacted, owners were asked feu by feu to attend individual meetings often held at inappropriate times, at short notice, without any clear idea what the meeting concerned, or any pre-billing.  Upon learning that they're non-attendances was counted as consent for works that would lead to bills of thousands of pounds there was understandable fury, and most learnt this information first from a bill through their door asking for thousands of pounds to be paid up within one month. It's worth repeating again that this is something that generally happens to fairly elderly working class people often living only on a state pension.

Right to buy was a policy that we can condemn strongly, and be glad that previous organising has officially ended, but its effects, and the need to organise against them continue. Indeed, there is firstly the question of what happens to these homes when they are resold (often when the owner dies or enters a retirement home). Experience in the Wyndford in Maryhill, in Douglas in Dundee, and anecdotal experience elsewhere suggests that institutional investors acquire these properties to rent out as private lets. Housing associations have attempted to buy back homes from right to buy owners, but they are rarely cash buyers. Rather, experience shows that landlords will move quickly to acquire these properties. There is no legal first right of bid for public sector landlords.

Such re-selling changes the dynamic very considerably, as owners who lived in their public home bought it in order to stay put in their home community. Where communities are functioning well, very often this layer of people forms the organic leadership of a rooted community. Private tenants are much less secure and rooted, but more importantly the process towards privatisation of housing stock has been completed, as housing built at least in part to stop the problem of landlordism and sky high rents is now being transformed into a new arena for it to take place. To spell out what this means in practice, in the same home in the Wyndford a person may live free from a mortgage, but worried about big bills from the housing association, be renting from the housing association at around £400 a month (itself an obscene cost for public housing built in 1968), or be renting from a private landlord at over £700 a month, without having a strong sense of being able to stay longer term in the community.

Mass demolitions too have been an extreme feature of the past 20 years. When Glasgow City Council tranferred its housing stock to the Glasgow Housing Association it did so with around 90,000 properties. GHA's stock today is around 40,000. Some housing has been built but it palls in comparison to the 60,000 or so homes in the public sector that were demolished[1]. The net effect of this is the same or similar numbers of people looking for housing but nearly half as few public sector homes available. This is a core reason for why rents have risen consistently above inflation in the private sector, as well as the public sector. Gap sites litter the landscape and struggles to save homes which were lost stand as testament to the brutality of this policy. It is often argued that homes demolished were not fit for purpose. This author was instrumental in saving 3000 family sized public homes which today have seen investment, but were intended to be demolished to make way for private luxury flats which would inevitably have been built to a lower specification. Unless and until this housing demand is met by housing supply that was lost pressure on rents and incentivisation of landlordism will remain at a fever pitch.

The argument advanced for stock transfer was that the experience of the late eighties and early nineties where small housing associations emerged to challenge bureaucratic and remote organisations (like those which our Muirhouse branch faces) and develop a person centred approach, often providing the very first fully disabled centred homes and being ran as cooperatives, could be replicated by taking housing out of the control of local councils and placing it into huge holding companies like the GHA, which would then be broken up into small community controlled housing associations. Those who disputed this theory at the time can have no valedictory joy. Today stock transfer monoliths like the GHA now form nationwide housing companies, dependent both on public sector funding, but with profit seeking arms, and with business plans that mandate increasing scale in order to access capital markets. Many of the small community run housing associations have grown into large quasi-public companies; Queen's Cross Housing Association and North Glasgow Housing Association, two large Glasgow public sector landlords, both rival Edinburgh City Council in scale, and while their management may be more responsive, they have travelled some distance from the notion of a housing cooperative with a professional staff.

Increasingly it is these large stock transfer landlords, that behave like housing companies, despite their public sector funding, that define public housing in Scotland. In the Wyndford the union branch has been seeking a negotiation over discontinued repairs, suspended close cleaning, and a campaign of harassment against tenants with the Wheatley Group (the creation of the GHA, which swallowed the local Housing Association in the scheme a few years ago). In previous negotiations it has become clear that nobody in the local organisation is empowered to actually take decisions. The Wheatley Group for example has swallowed all of the former Council Housing in Dumfries and Galloway: the notion of community control there has given way to remote control by a publicly funded but not publicly accountable organisation headquartered 80 miles away taking decisions based on its own access to global capital markets.

Scottish Government figures, correct to 2018

There are 1,170,000 public housing tenants in Scotland. This is a large majority of the nation's tenants, and including the roughly half a million owners of homes in housing schemes (who share similar interests) this is a big plurality of those subject to the whims of a landlord. Increasingly public landlords are remote and distant, and beholden to capital markets rather than the needs of their tenants. Mass demolition of homes has shattered many communities which were rebuilt from the slum clearance programmes in the post war period, deliberately designed to organise for powerlessness. Landlords in the public sector have weaponised even very progressive legislation to create organisation for powerlessness. However organisation in the public sector has a strongly depressive effect on rents, but big challenges in housing schemes such as the potential wholesale takeover of right to buy homes by the country's increasingly profiteering landlord class, particularly in light of the Covid pandemic's depressive effect on property values, threaten to exacerbate tensions on rents. Moreover while it is beyond the scope of this article, the process of stock transfer was also the process of the wholesale destruction and cooption of the tenants movement. Living Rent is all that stands in the way of these grand systemic changes towards a landlord driven economy. This can be addressed however. Scotland has hundreds upon hundreds of private landlords. Scotland has 183 public sector landlords. If we are organised to face these historic changes, as a majoritarian organisation, we can deliver a hammer blow to landlordism in this country, and tranformationally democratise the majority of communities subject to the deleterious efects of rising rents and non-accountability of housing when driven by profit motives.