The Margaret Taylor interview: Shona Robison sizing up the challenge of being housing secretary

When Dundee City East MSP Shona Robison was handed the housing mandate following May’s Holyrood election part of her remit was to oversee the delivery of 100,000 new affordable homes over the next decade.

The Margaret Taylor interview: Shona Robison sizing up the challenge of being housing secretary

Shona Robison, housing secretary

Within weeks she had announced that local authorities would be helped to achieve this with a £3.2bn, five-year funding package, which represented an increase of £541m on the sum awarded during the last parliament.

Housing charity Shelter immediately hit out at the plan, noting that while the SNP government has “built the most homes in a generation” it needs to go further. It is a reality Ms Robison says she is keenly aware of, though she notes that issues such as the way the cost of materials has fluctuated since the start of the coronavirus pandemic have made allocating limited resources even harder than normal.

“The size of the housing budget is pretty big and there’s definitely a cross-government commitment to making sure affordable housing supply is delivered,” she says. “That’s a major plank of the budget going forward over the next five years, but there are issues like the cost of materials [to consider]. There’s a lot of money going in but there are a lot of houses that need to be delivered. We need to work with our partners on making sure that we get the momentum that’s needed to deliver good-quality, affordable homes that are also fuel efficient.”

Since it has been in government the SNP has provided funding for 102,000 affordable homes but has consistently spoken about the need to do more. The pandemic, Ms Robison says, has brought this into sharper focus.

“Housing is going to be a key part of the recovery from Covid,” she says. “The home has become a really important place during the pandemic with a lot of people working from home during lockdowns. That has been more challenging for some people who haven’t had a home that’s comfortable, meets their needs and has access to green space. I’m very conscious that housing is a key priority - it always has been but particularly over the next five years.”

In the run-up to the May election, the SNP published its Housing to 2040 strategy, a paper that laid out its 20-year “vision for housing in Scotland” as well as a “route map” of how it intends to get there. As part of that it pledged to put housing “firmly at the centre of our other objectives for people in Scotland”, with tackling poverty and inequality, creating and supporting jobs, meeting energy efficiency and fuel poverty targets, and creating “connected, cohesive communities to live in” all part of the mix.

“Being the new cabinet secretary I’ve been looking through a number of policy areas and Housing to 2040 has struck me as being really impressive because it takes a longer-term view beyond parliamentary terms,” Ms Robison says.

“It’s about making sure that we have homes and communities that are what people need. It’s not just about bricks and mortar, it’s about building communities, making sure they are affordable, that the standards are the same across all tenures, and making sure housing helps to tackle poverty.”

It is a bold ambition that looks good on paper, but will take a considerable amount of work - and money - to deliver. As a first step the Scottish Government published its private rented sector strategy earlier this year and a new housing bill will need to be brought forward during the current parliament. But Ms Robison concedes that effecting the kind of change that has been envisioned is going to be a mammoth task.

“On the economic side, what’s clear is that housing in itself, in terms of building 50,000 homes and then the next 50,000 target, are key economic drivers in themselves,” she says.

“Along with decarbonisation that has a big impact on economic opportunities, particularly for young people or those who haven’t had opportunities to date, [because] we can deliver good-quality, zero-emissions homes that create jobs. We’re going to have to work out the detail and break it down into bite-size pieces with the sector. It’s not just for me, but for other parts of government too.

“We need to make sure that schools are plugged into looking at what the jobs of the future are and we need to make sure that colleges and universities have that skills offer. We have to anticipate the skills that will be required to make sure young people from all communities and backgrounds get the opportunity to go into that.”

While Housing to 2040 will, by definition, take time to come to fruition, a more pressing issue for Ms Robison is dealing with the use of temporary accommodation as a means of alleviating homelessness. Designed as a safety net, temporary accommodation is only supposed to be used for brief periods before people are moved on to settled homes, but government figures show that is not always the case.

In 2021/21, 35,660 temporary accommodation placements were taken up with over 13,000 households remaining in those placements at the end of the 12-month period. Though the aim is to offer permanent homes within 28 days, the average length of time people spent in temporary accommodation rose from 187 days in 2019/20 to 199 last year. It is anticipated that local authorities are going to come under considerable pressure later this year when rules around the use of unsuitable accommodation that were relaxed due to the pandemic come back into force.

“One of the things that was quite remarkable during the pandemic was the can-do mentality - suddenly things happened very quickly,” Ms Robson says. “There has been an increase in the use of temporary accommodation and partly that’s related to the pandemic. We got people into some kind of safe housing provision, but we want to make sure that if people are in temporary accommodation it’s suitable temporary accommodation.

“Exemptions will end in September and that will be challenging for a number of local authorities but it would have been wrong to extend it. We have offered to work with the local authorities that have the biggest challenges. We need to pull out all the stops to make sure no one is placed in unsuitable accommodation. All these planks are important to make sure we continue to tackle homelessness.”

Related to that is the roll-out of Housing First, a Scottish Government-backed initiative aimed at taking people with complex needs off the streets and giving them both a home and the wrap-around support they need to deal with mental health and addiction issues. Pilot schemes were launched in Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Stirling in 2018, with the aim of being housing a total of 830 people by the end of this year. Albeit that considerable disruption was caused by the pandemic, the project looks unlikely to meet its target, with just 531 people being housed by the end of June.

The Edinburgh scheme, in particular, has fallen well short of expectations, providing homes for 120 people against a three-year target of 275. By comparison, in Dundee 87 of a planned 100 tenancies have been secured.

“We’ve seen Housing First working really well in my own home city of Dundee,” Ms Robison says. “This is about moving away from the old shelter model to a model that doesn’t just look at the bricks and mortar needs of the person but the wrap-around care. We need to make sure that is rolled out at pace. We understand the pandemic has been challenging but it’s about getting that back on track.”

Prior to taking on the housing mandate, which incorporates social justice and local government, Ms Robison served as health secretary between 2014 and 2018. Looking ahead over the rest of the current parliamentary term she says being able to influence how all these strands are pulled together to deal with childhood poverty is how she will measure her own success.

“I want to make sure that the child poverty targets are going in the right direction,” she says. “That involves housing, employment, education - it’s not just my portfolio that can deliver that but my portfolio has a key part to play in delivering social justice. We have some really ambitious targets and it will be really tough but if I could pull out one thing it would be to deliver that.”

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