Income and Poverty

The independence referendum debate on housing in Scotland needs to go beyond the so-called 'bedroom tax'

  • Published: Apr 28, 2014
  • Author: Hannah Aldridge
  • Category: Income and Poverty

With less than six months until the independence vote, the housing debate in Scotland needs to go beyond abolishing the ‘bedroom tax’

The main focus of the Scottish Independence debate so far has been the economy and monetary policy. Promises for the future of housing policy have been small. For instance the Scottish Government’s white paper talks about ending the so-called ‘bedroom tax’ and improving energy efficiency, whilst the Labour opposition has proposed devolving Housing Benefit. But the nature of the housing market in Scotland is changing and this has important implications for the least well-off families.

At the weekend, JRF published the second of NPI’s referendum briefings, looking at the links between housing and poverty. The aim of these briefings is to ensure that the needs of the poorest people are high on the agenda for Scotland’s future and that an informed debate takes place.

The report shows how social housing has become less widespread in Scotland over the last few decades. In 1991, 41 per cent of households lived in social rented housing. By 2011 it was 24 per cent. This decline originally coincided with an expansion of owner-occupied housing but since the early 2000s the private rented sector has grown instead. Between 2001 and 2011 the proportion of households that private rent almost doubled to 14 per cent.

This has had a knock-on effect for poverty. Whilst Scotland has seen considerable improvements in the poverty rate overall (as we reported on in the first referendum briefing), the poverty rate for private renters remains roughly the same. The consequence of these changes is that a growing proportion of those in poverty in Scotland live in the private rented sector. When this happens the relationship between housing costs and poverty becomes more important.

Whilst private rents in Scotland are lower than the UK average, social rents are much lower. As a result, the gap between the cost of private and social rent in Scotland is very high, higher than any English region outside London.

A recent report from the University of Glasgow shows just how important this is. It found that much of Scotland success in poverty reduction compared to England can be attributed to its lower housing costs. But as the share of affordable housing is shrinking and more low-income households live in the higher cost private rented sector, this progress on poverty is under threat.

So far the housing debate on the Scottish referendum has focused on the ‘bedroom tax’. Pledges have been made by parties on both sides of the debate to scrap it in the future. But this ‘tax’ only affects those in the social rented sector. The same degree of engagement is now needed on how to offer affordable and decent housing for those on a low income in the private rented sector.

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