Callum Chomczuk: Alignment across the rented sector
National director of CIH Scotland Callum Chomczuk considers the opportunities presented by the Scottish Government’s draft rented sector strategy.
The Scottish Government’s proposed rented sector strategy is a welcome opportunity to improve standards and tenant experiences across both the private and social sector. Achieving lasting change across the rented sector will require tax, regulatory and other policy reforms and 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 as to 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 with regards to 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 but if improvements are not funded by the State then the burden is likely to fall on tenants in the form of increased rents. A position that will undermine Scottish Government efforts to address tenant poverty where it exists.
Indeed, if private landlords are not supported to improve 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, there is a requirement from the State to financially support new higher standards, across the rented sector.
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, how they can hold them to account, as well as 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 then we need a skilled, qualified and professional practitioners. Housing professionals have been ill served by discussion on professional development over recent years. We wouldn’t talk about the health service without discussing doctors or nurses, nor the education system without discussing teaching staff so why we talk about the housing system without talking about housing professionals?
Letting agents aside, there are no skills, knowledge or qualification requirement in the housing sector. If we want staff that understand how to support victims of domestic abuse, address rent arrears and stop people becoming homeless, then 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 and that 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 if we are serious about improving outcomes across the whole rented sector then 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.