The road to economic recovery hinges on ending homelessness – Gavin Yates

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The destruction wrought by Covid 19 has been almost indescribable. Some 50,000 dead in the UK, many of the recovered left with life changing medical issues not to mention the huge economic cost to virtually every nation in the world.

The immediate affects of the virus are well documented but as we turn our attention to the consequences of the economic fallout, we must try to hang onto some hope.

Enquiries to debt and employment helplines have spiralled in recent weeks and there is no doubt that the spectre of the end of the UK Government’s furlough scheme hangs heavy.

There will be consequences, brutal, nasty consequences as furlough turns to redundancy, that morphs into housing insecurity, empty shelves in food banks and the well known consequences of all that adds up to. Mental ill-heath, impoverished families, rising crime and the inevitable increase in premature death. The situation is inarguably bleak.

So what about that hope?

There is another way to deal with the fallout of Covid 19 that can genuinely benefit society as a whole. It’s not even a miracle cure or economic snake oil. It’s just a question of learning from the previous times that the UK’s GDP was so far in the metaphorical toilet.

After the Great War, the then Prime Minister David Lloyd George promised that returning soldiers would have ‘homes fit for heroes’. The passing of the 1919 Addison’s Act – promised funding for 500,000 homes, although only 213,000 were built. The aim was admirable but its short-term nature was never going to make the change needed. After the next war, there was another expansion of social housing and with sustained progress we reached peak social house building in the early 1970s. A much longer and sustained cross-party commitment.

This period of post war economic growth was not entirely fuelled by house building but it certainly helped. A new wave of social house building could have a huge impact on Scotland’s changes of economic prosperity and also help tackle our stubborn levels of homelessness.

The recent Benny Higgins report for the Scottish Government advised a huge expansion in social housing. Having spoken to house builders over the last three years this is what they have been crying out for. A sustained 30-year house building programme which will allow these businesses to massively increase their workforces, but also providing a genuine economic incentive to increase apprenticeship opportunities for young people.

What we can learn from the past is that short term housing booms don’t work, they need to be sustained and the housing crisis in Scotland needs that kind of long term, cross-party commitment.

Over-cooked housing market

However, the main reason for wanting this social housing explosion isn’t just about those much needed new houses. It’s a way of directly challenging our over-cooked housing market. The lack of suitable accommodation for rent has meant an explosion in housing costs for tenants that are completely unsustainable. The modern day ‘heroes’ might not be those returning from the Somme but instead they are our nurses and other key workers. Often low paid and under appreciated but they also face paying a majority of their meagre wages in rental costs.

The average rental for a two-bed property in Edinburgh is approaching £1000 a month. Try affording that on a student nurses salary. If we want ‘homes fit for heroes’ then they also need to be affordable.

The knock-on effect of a huge expansion of homes for social rent would be the realignment of private sector rents. When more homes become available at £350 per month then the market has to adapt and we will see private sector rents reduce to remain attractive in the market.

The other consequence of this proposed house building programme would be the possibility of the eradication of homelessness. In the short term this would aid our efforts to deal with the public health emergency that Covid 19 represents.

However, in the long term, the proven link between housing security and better health, education and economic contribution outcomes for people cannot be overstated. Simply put, Scotland’s future economically lives and dies on its ability to properly house its citizens. You cannot get the kind of decent society that we all wish to live in without tackling this issue. Promising five year building programmes isn’t enough and will fail miserably. The lack of genuine ambition in social house building is absolutely shocking. To give some context, when Fife Council built 2700 homes for rent between 2012 and 2017 they built more than any other local authority in the UK. Just read that again, record breaking progress best summed up as just over 500 new homes a year for a population of almost 400,000.

All political parties need to put aside any ideological differences they may have and commit to a 30 year social housing plan. Nationalist, unionist, socialist, neo-liberal matters very little. There is literally something in this for everyone.

For our heroes in scrubs, those teetering on the brink and those maybe just about managing, this could be the difference between future prosperity and destitution. There is no time to waste Scotland. Let’s get building.

Gavin Yates is the Chief Executive of Homeless Action Scotland. He is a former local councillor, political advisor and BBC journalist.