08 Apr 2022
The Scottish Government's proposed rented sector strategy is a welcome opportunity to improve standards and tenant experiences across private and social sectors. Achieving lasting change across the rented sector will require tax, regulatory and other policy reforms. While the exact nature of these will depend on the Scottish Government's ambition, we must start with the alignment of standards of our homes. There is no compelling case for why we have differentiation of home and housing standards across the rented sector.
The principal barriers to enacting these changes are financial. As we look to more exacting standards regarding indoor space, green space and accessibility, among others, the challenge is who pays? The Scottish Government is understandably reticent to provide full financial backing for improvements in housing standards. Still, if the State does not fund improvements, then the burden is likely to fall on tenants in increased rents, and it will undermine the Scottish Government's efforts to address tenant poverty where it exists.
Indeed, if private landlords are not supported to improve the standards of their properties, they may leave the sector. While some in the sector may be relaxed about such a disruption, surely everyone can agree that a dramatic reduction in PRS stock serves no one's interest? Regardless of which landlord owns the home, the State has a requirement to support new higher standards across the rented sector financially.
However, tenant experience is about more than just bricks and mortar. Therefore, to capitalise on this opportunity for system change, we also need to consider the opportunities for alignment on tenants' rights and transparency, regulation, professionalism, and customer service. Some of these issues are already under consideration by the Scottish Government, but others, including professionalism and customer services, are notably not.
Our recent paper on the whole rented sector set out a proposal for a new Private Rented Sector Charter. This would ensure that tenants have clear transparency on the standards they can expect from landlords and how they can hold them to account. The behaviours tenants can expect from housing professionals. We believe this could include standards and timescales for core repairs and maintenance, backed by a code of practice for landlords.
But beyond this, we need to consider the housing workforce. If we are serious about improving housing stock, we need skilled, qualified and professional practitioners. Housing professionals have been ill served by a discussion on professional development over recent years. We wouldn't talk about the health service without discussing doctors or nurses, the education system without discussing teaching staff, so why do we talk about the housing system without housing professionals?
Letting agents aside, there is no skills, knowledge or qualification requirement in the housing sector. If we want staff who understand how to support victims of domestic abuse, address rent arrears, and stop people from becoming homeless, they must have the required skills and knowledge.
It is encouraging that the UK Government has initiated a review of qualification requirements for social housing professionals south of the border. The discussions are now considering the broad sweep of housing professionalism and how to embed this across the English social sector. We believe the Scottish Government should at least match the ambition of the UK Government in reviewing professional training and development to consider the appropriate qualifications and standards for housing staff across different tenures and ongoing CPD requirements.
Of course, there is legitimate debate about new standards, the pace of change and the cost of implementation. That is all reasonable. But suppose we are serious about improving outcomes across the whole rented sector. In that case, we must look beyond home and housing standards and consider the need for better transparency, improved accountability, and enhanced practitioner professionalism. These will drive improvement in housing outcomes as much as any focus on the fabric and design of our homes.
Callum is the national director of CIH Scotland.