Callum Chomczuk: Improving housing outcomes for tenants across the whole rented sector
As CIH Scotland publishes a policy paper setting out where it considers the Scottish Government should focus its whole rented sector reforms, national director Callum Chomczuk, argues why housing standards and tenants’ rights should also be aligned.
The housing system in Scotland is notoriously complex. Different standards and rules apply in every tenure making it difficult for tenants and landlords to keep up with rights and responsibilities. Private sector landlords are regulated by local authorities, but enforcement is dealt with at the First Tier Tribunal. Whereas social landlords, like housing associations and councils, are accountable to the Scottish Housing Regulator.
And it isn’t just regulation, the standards of the homes we rent are defined by our tenure. Homes in the private rented sector must meet ‘the repairing standard’, whereas social housing must meet the Social Housing Quality Standard and Energy Efficiency Standard for Social Housing. And then letting agents in the private sector need to be qualified but independent private landlords and social landlord staff don’t. It is no wonder tenants find it difficult to understand what they can expect from their landlord.
Now the Scottish Government has set out its plans to address some of these tensions with a ‘whole rented sector strategy’ covering the private and social rented sector. And encouragingly we are already on a path towards equalisation of standards.
A new net zero strategy has set out to improve the energy efficiency of every home in Scotland. Yes, there are different time frames, with social and private landlords expected to improve the quality of their housing stock ahead of owner occupiers. But it sets a really important principle about aligning standards.
So if it’s good enough for energy efficiency, where else should we look for alignment? Let’s start with housing standards. There is no compelling case for divergence on what is an acceptable physical condition of a home. Higher housing standards, if available for one home, should be mandated for all.
But let’s go further. If we are aligning standards then let’s consider how private sector tenants can have improved rights, similar to their counterparts in social housing. With clear standards on what they can expect from landlords, how they can hold them to account, as well as the behaviours tenants can expect from housing professionals. This could include standards and timescales for core repairs and maintenance, backed by a code of practice for landlords.
And if we are serious about improving housing stock then we need a skilled and qualified workforce. Other professions such social workers and planners have clear career development pathways. But, letting agents aside, there is 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.
Of course there is legitimate concern about paying for new standards and the pace of change. Enhancing standards will cost money and achieving lasting change across the rented sector will require tax, regulatory and other policy reforms. But the move towards alignment of standards across the rented sector can improve housing outcomes for all tenants and surely that is the purpose behind any reform.