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Modernising Scotland's Social Housing

UNISON Scotland's response to Scottish Executive Consultation on Modernising Scotland's Social Housing

June 2003

Executive Summary

  • UNISON supports the proposals for a Housing Standard to reflect standards of quality, comfort, energy efficiency, affordability, accessibility and security.
  • Trade unions should be involved in the development of the Housing Standard given their role in maintaining and implementing the Standard.
  • We welcome the proposals to apply the prudential borrowing regime to council housing. This will add some flexibility, but does not offer solutions to councils burdened with substantial housing debt.
  • UNISON supports greater flexibility in set aside rules.
  • UNISON rejects the use of PFI and Large Scale Voluntary Transfers to finance and manage social housing.
  • Empowering and properly resourcing local authorities so as they can use the new powers in the Local Government Act, is a first step towards addressing housing and wider social and regeneration issues.


UNISON Scotland welcomes the opportunity to respond to the Scottish Executive's consultation on Modernising Scotland's Social Housing. UNISON is Scotland's largest trade union representing 150,000 members working in the public sector. We are the leading union for housing workers. Our members are employed by Scotland's local authorities, housing associations, co-operatives and housing companies. In addition, many thousands of our members work in partnership with housing staff to provide vital services to the community, for example home care workers, social workers, health visitors, etc.

This paper constitutes UNISON Scotland's response to the consultation document issued by the Scottish Executive on Modernising Scotland's Social Housing.

Scottish Social Housing Standard

  1. UNISON welcomes the proposal for a Housing Standard to ensure that social housing meets the highest standards of quality, comfort and security.
  2. UNISON believes that accessibility should be included as a key element. Whilst we recognise it is going to be difficult to meet accessibility requirements in certain instances, we feel that it is important that the Housing Standards should incorporate accessibility requirements given the accessibility needs of the elderly, families and disabled people. The Executive should aim to make as much social housing as accessible as possible.
  3. An affordability element should be included in the Housing Standard. Affordability is key to social housing. If rent levels are set too high people on the lowest incomes have difficulties in meeting payments and become dependent on housing benefits. Research done by UNISON on a UK wide basis demonstrates that housing association tenants receive more housing benefit on average than council tenants because housing association rents are higher. In August 2002 the average weekly housing benefit payment to a housing association tenant was £16.10 more than the average weekly housing benefit payment to a council tenant. Affordability is therefore important to prevent people from becoming dependent upon the benefit system.
  4. We also believe that all housing development should be environmentally sustainable.

  5. The detail in the Housing Standard is generally acceptable. UNISON is clear that the Social Housing Standard should address energy efficiency and measures to tackle fuel poverty. The standard should include the provisions of the 1995 Home Energy Conservation Act and the Home Energy Efficiency Scheme.
  6. As noted above other detailed area should include standards on affordability, and environmental sustainability.
  7. UNISON believes the quality standards should be set as high as practicable, to ensure that people are not living in substandard housing. The criteria set out in the consultation appear to be acceptable so as people are living in warm, comfortable, healthy and safe homes.
  8. We believe that the Housing Standards should refer to the Secured By Design standard which encourages the building industry to adopt crime prevention measures to create a safer and more secure environment.
  9. The availability of resources and training and development for staff is key to the time scales for meeting the new standards. Local authorities will require significant additional resources to improve sub-standard housing, and staff need training and development in assessing the standard, and support in improving social housing. Meeting the standard is going to be an ongoing process, as older housing falls below acceptable levels. Therefore, we believe careful consideration needs to be given to setting appropriate targets for meeting the new standard. A rolling target date which is dependent upon individual local authorities' existing social housing stock, resources and other local factors is most appropriate.
  10. As above, interim milestones could include ensuring percentages of social housing is meeting standards, and putting in place action plans to comply with the new standard.
  11. We agree that local authorities should provide details on the points set out in relation to the standard. However, we believe there should also be references to availability of staff and resources to ensure housing meets the standard.

Additional Points

Trade unions should be consulted on the development of the standard, given our members' key role in maintaining and implementing social housing standards.

Developing the Standard is clearly a medium to long term process, and whilst there is an urgency to improve Scotland's social housing, UNISON is clear that we should not opt for short term approaches which will place financial burdens on future generations.

The Prudential Regime and Housing Capital Finance

General Comments

UNISON in general terms welcomes the Executive's proposals to extend Prudential Borrowing to council housing in Scotland.

The Prudential Borrowing regime will allow a greater degree of flexibility for councils financing housing investment from their Major Repairs Allowance or via Arms-Length Management Organisations, reducing the need for Large Scale Voluntary Transfers (LSVTs) and PFIs. However there will still be very strong incentives for councils whose housing stock is in poor condition with high levels of outstanding debt, maintenance and refurbishment requirements to consider LSVTs. This is recognised by the Executive, as these councils' Housing Revenue Accounts will be so heavily committed to ongoing unavoidable payments that they will face highly restrictive prudential borrowing limits. Yet no other options to assist these local authorities with substantial housing debt are offered.

In research for UNISON Scotland, Caledonia University's Professor Stephen Bailey argues that the prudential borrowing regime would increase the incentive for councils to raise rents to support even higher levels of increased investment. This could lead to a reduction in the Scottish Block grant available to the Scottish Parliament to spend on other services due to the impact on Housing Benefit payments.

Set Aside Rules

UNISON supports greater flexibility on set aside rules. If local authorities are going to manage all of their debt it makes sense to do away with rules requiring local authorities to set aside specific percentages of receipts.


The reporting levels are appropriate, particularly the long term element giving a 30 year projection, encouraging local authorities to plan for the medium to long term.

Innovative Approaches to Housing Finance and Management

UNISON rejects the use of PFI and LSVTs to finance and manage social housing. We believe that direct investment using investment allowances to finance borrowing is the simplest, quickest and most cost effective means of achieving decent social housing. UNISON position is that social housing should be run by publicly accountable organisations.

It is by no means clear that LSVTs are open, transparent, community-based solutions to financing and managing social housing. There is evidence that the new Dumfries and Galloway Housing Partnership changed its allocations policy without consultation with tenants or local councillors, clearly contradicting the community-ownership approach.

UNISON's evidence, as noted above, is that LSVTs are a long-term tax liability, in that housing association tenants receive more housing benefit on average than council tenants, creating an increasing tax burden. Whilst the prudential borrowing regime gives more options to councils that can afford to take them, UNISON believes direct investment in dilapidated housing stock is required in local authority areas with substantial debt burden.

Improving the links between housing and regeneration

UNISON welcomes the Minister's proposals to better co-ordinate housing investment and regeneration. We agree that housing cannot be divorced from wider social issues. The real challenge for the Scottish Parliament and Executive is to find the resources to build better homes and create inclusive societies. In UNISON's view this is best done by properly funded local authorities, directly accountable to local communities.

Social provision and health care, along with leisure, childcare and community facilities are linked to the provision of decent safe housing. People are entitled to live in a environment which is safe and free from crime and fear of crime. Minority ethnic communities and other groups in society should be able to live in an atmosphere which is free from racial harassment and abuse and discrimination. UNISON is clear that housing policies must be developed which deal not only with the provisions of housing, but which also take account of the social needs of tenants whilst protecting the rights of the individual.

Community Planning, along with other provisions in the Local Government Act - the Power to Advance Well Being, and Best Value - will be important drivers to implementing the Housing Standard, modernising social housing, and addressing the social and community issues noted above. However, UNISON believes that stock transfer or partial stock transfer will not solve the problems of Scotland's poor housing stock, nor address social issues.


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For Further Information Please Contact:

Matt Smith, Scottish Secretary
14, West Campbell Street,
Glasgow G2 6RX

Tel 0141-332 0006 Fax 0141 342 2835

e-mail matt.smith@unison.co.uk

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