Housing Affordability Working Group minutes: May 2022
- Local Government and Housing Directorate
- Part of
Minutes from the meeting of the group on 25 May 2022.
Attendees and apologies
- Professor Kenneth Gibb, Director and Principal Investigator of the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (CaCHE), and Professor of Housing Economics (Urban Studies) University of Glasgow
- Callum Chomczuk, Chartered Institute of Housing
- Mike Callaghan, Convention of Scottish Local Authorities COSLA
- Shona Mitchell, Scottish Federation of Housing Associations
- David Bookbinder, Glasgow and West of Scotland Forum of Housing Associations
- John Blackwood, Scottish Association of Landlords
- Lisa Borthwick, Shelter Scotland
- Aoife Deery, Citizens Advice Scotland
- Dr Madhu Satsangi, School of Social and Political Sciences, Glasgow University
- Helen Shaw, Scottish Housing Regulator
- Sean Baillie, Living Rent
- Emma Saunders, Living Rent (observer)
- Professor Angela O'Hagan, Dept of Social Sciences, Glasgow Caledonian University
- Terry Kirby, Social Rented Sector representative
- Rebekah Stroud, Crisis
- Colin Stewart, Social Rented Sector Tenant (observer)
- Tony Cain, Association of Local Authority Chief Housing Officers.
- Dr John Boyle, Rettie and Co.
- Dr Gillian Young, Newhaven Research Scotland
- Jake Tarrant, Private Rented Sector representative
Also in attendance
- Janine Kellett, Scottish Government
- Andrew Weild, Scottish Government
- Nicole Pettigrew, Scottish Government
- Joseph Jobling, Scottish Government
Items and actions
Welcome and introductions
The Chair, Ken Gibb, welcomed all members to the call. He declared that he is a new committee member of Shelter Scotland. He advised that the Scottish Government, for a number of reasons, wants to generate a consensus around what housing affordability means and stated that he is delighted to be chairing the group over what he expects to be the next 12 months.
Prof Gibb asked members of the group to introduce themselves. Most gave a brief overview of their role and interest in housing affordability, some gave a little more information:
- Dr Madhu Satsangi advised that as well as being a lecturer at the University of Glasgow, he is also a long-term board member of Rural Housing Scotland which seeks to promote affordable housing across rural Scotland and is Convenor of PATH (Scotland), an organization that seeks to address the under representation of people from black and minority ethnic (BME) communities in housing and cognate sectors
- Terry Kirby declared that he is a member of the governing body of Hillcrest Homes, a voluntary committee
Remit and scope, work programme and shape of our activities
Prof Gibb reiterated the four proposed principles, from the terms of reference, to guide the work of the group:
- person-centred perspective – affordability is viewed from the standpoint of the household rather than the market place
- equality and anti-discrimination at the heart – women, minority ethnic people, young people, disabled people, migrants and refugees should have equal access to affordable housing and barriers to this should be understood and addressed
- human rights-based approach – housing is not affordable if its cost threatens or compromises enjoyment of other human rights
- a system wide approach – which considers the interactions between the social rented sector , private rented sector and owner occupation, balancing affordability, decarbonisation, quantity and quality of provision
Prof Gibb then went on to discuss the meeting programme. He said that there will likely be four to six meetings then provided a trajectory path of how they might go. Today will involve general discussions around affordability, including the icebreaker questions provided in the agenda and a discussion following his presentation. The next three will have a similar structure, he has three people as proposed speakers for each of the next three meetings (although he has not asked them yet). Each one will give a different provocation on affordability.
Prof Gibb advised that the group will also need to arrange external focus groups, which will be an essential part of the work. A draft brief for the focus groups will be circulated to all for input and questions for the focus groups will be discussed at meeting two. This is an opportunity to get a significant number of the public to steer us on what affordability means to them.
The second and third meetings are key, critical learning meetings. Meeting three should also be used to discuss the output of the focus groups. By meeting four, there should be draft output to debate and the fifth meeting should be used to refine the output. Prof Gibb believes that the meetings will be in September, December or January, March and then the final one in May. He asked the group if they had any other suggestions on the structure of the meetings but everyone was happy with his suggestions. Prof Gibb advised that there is scope for flexibility with the meetings and if the group feels like they would benefit from more, then the option is there for this.
Madhu Satsangi queried the composition of the focus groups and the extent to which they will be looking at people who perhaps have experience in the care system and secondly households with disabled members. He asked if the group would be looking at issues for people in supported housing as well. Prof Gibb replied that these will be added into a list of things that they feel like the group must/can/want to do.
Sean Baillie asked if the focus groups will run concurrently or after the working group meetings. Ken Gibb thinks that they will run between second and third meeting with feedback being given on them at the third meeting. He advised that it will be a tight turnaround so he knows that the group will need to work hard to get this done. He said that the timing can be adjusted accordingly if there are any issues.- There is also the option to return to the focus groups to test out draft recommendations which would need to be between working group meetings four and five.
Shona Mitchell commented that she believes single person households would really need to be considered as part of the focus groups as it is this group of people who their members report most often as experiencing affordability concerns. Ken Gibb agreed that there will be discussions around what groups of people should be involved in the focus groups.
Ken Gibb said that the Homelessness Prevention and Strategy Group (HPSG) publishes its minutes with the members named. He asked if everyone would be okay with this group running similarly and if anyone had any concerns about the minutes being public and their names being attached. There were no concerns. Ken Gibb advised that the minutes can be published on the appropriate website. He finished by saying that the group will be asking questions of people that can be philosophical and he knows that this will lead to debate so it is important to have minutes with key things people are saying to fully capture the conversation.
Ken Gibb, with Scottish Government assistance, will draft a focus group outline briefing, which will be circulated around members soon so everyone else can have input.
Ice breaker questions and opening discussion
Ken Gibb then moved on to the ice breaker questions that were sent out in the agenda and asked members to come in and answer these if they felt comfortable doing so.
Q1: What is wrong with the way we use the term housing affordability in contemporary housing policy and practice in Scotland?
Lisa Borthwick said that the term does not mean anything currently and that there are many different definitions of affordable but if someone is not in ‘affordable’ housing it does not necessarily mean they are/are not entitled to different kinds of support. She said that a lot of people are coming to Shelter for help from the social rented sector despite the belief that these people receive a lot of support already and that people in “affordable” housing may still have affordability problems. She said she does not find it a useful definition for people getting support.
Callum Chomczuk said he believes similar to Lisa Borthwick and that it is just a label. He said that the person-centric nature is not there but it should be. He also stated that there is unaffordability in the affordable sector and affordability in the “unaffordable” sector.
Madhu Satsangi stated that one of the issues we have is that ‘affordable’ is used to cover a number of issues, like a catch-all for different phenomena. Affordable housing means one thing for one organisation and another thing for a different organisation when it comes to the planning system. He believes that one of the questions when talking about housing as being unaffordable is whether the concern is about housing costs only or income support and Universal Credit (UC) levels being wrong, or that wage levels are low in relation to what we think is a desirable standard of living. He said this raises a number of questions that impact on the housing system but are not really within the housing system.
John Blackwood stated what stood out to him in a recent podcast on the meaning of affordability and why it is important (Scottish Housing News podcast by Jimmy Black: Scottish Housing News podcast by Jimmy Black) was tenants saying ‘it’s simple, I don’t have enough money to live’. He questioned what affordability is in all its guises, it is not just about the payment of rent but also heating our homes, feeding ourselves. He said that these are what is important to people and that affordability is not just about the rent that is being charged. There are other social issues around low paid jobs, lack of access to benefits or knowledge around entitlement, the cost of living. He believes a holistic view of affordability is required and that affordability should be assessed on an individual basis. He struggles to see how the private rented sector (PRS) can be “affordable”, but for many people it is affordable, if one has enough money. Therefore, affordability can only be assessed on an individual basis. He can see that the PRS is becoming less accessible. He said that rent cannot be looked at in isolation and that for people who do not have enough money, their priority is eating, heating their home and other circumstances which impact their family. Paying rent is low down on their priorities.
Terry Kirby said that, because there is no clear understanding of affordability, to tenants, affordability means any type of tenure which is less expensive than PRS or outright purchases. Affordable to him means being able to afford to pay rent and to afford the cost of living after paying rent which in turn gives a better wellbeing as well as a secure tenancy/home for the future to enable living in dignity.
Shona Mitchell said that there is confusion when affordable housing is talked about, does it mean rent or whole house costs? She believes data on a more individualised basis is required. She believes the other big challenge is the changing nature of things and highlighted that what the group agrees on has to stand test of time. She advised that since 1993, Scottish Federation of Housing Associations (SFHA) has had to change its definition of affordability in the social housing sector seven or eight times because of the changing nature of society. The work of this group will need to be future-proofed.
Sean Baillie believes that the ambiguous nature of ‘affordability’ can be used to justify a host of different decisions made. There is concern around how people use the term affordability and how it can be equality proofed. He said if there is no core definition then how do we protect equalities? He believes that how it is currently used pushes people into hardship and in-work hardship. He thinks a clear definition will have a positive affect across society rather than it being used to muddy the waters as occurs now.
Mike Callaghan believes that there is a multifaceted definition of affordability at present. He thinks that consideration to variations locally is important. He said the increase in the cost of living is critical right now and has to be taken on board with the proposed definition. He said that people are being made to make choices between eating and heating and that this needs to be considered throughout.
Q2: What is the single biggest gain that would be derived from achieving a truly shared understanding of the term housing affordability?
Callum Chomczuk said that having clarity around affordability will allow us to start to recognise solutions for different parts of the sector, whether it be owner-occupiers, the PRS, the social sector. While the devolution settlement limits social security, there are levers we can pull. He recognises there may be regional disparity, and that a definition of affordability changes nothing, and that we need to start at a foundational level to address affordability which will give a starting point for building public policy. Affordability is to do with the totality of someone’s income, and just about rent. The shared understanding will give us a foundation to start building public policy.
Aoife Deery believes that it would provide a catalyst for change and allow us to start thinking about taking action and finding solutions. She said that it would give a starting point on what can we do now, for example is there anything that is challengeable, and start important conversations.
Rebekah Stroud believes the main thing is having an understanding of which groups should be targeted for support, who needs help the most? She thinks there needs to be a framework to compare the effectiveness of different policies in supporting households.
Mike Callaghan believes there needs to be an understanding for local and national politicians and policymakers, planners, and housing professionals to help them better understand and evaluate housing policy. That will help to understand the profile of local communities, including housing need and demand. A clearer, shared understanding of affordability could assist in empowering tenants to engage meaningfully with landlords around rent setting policies. Ken Gibb agreed that it is difficult to get tenants and landlords to discuss rent increases in a meaningful way.
Angela O'Hagan believes that housing should be about dignity and not profit. She said that affordability has become a proxy for so much that is wrong with the housing market and that housing is seen as an asset to be maximised for profit rather than a means to ensuring dignity, security and safety. If one cannot afford housing then we are back to a deficiency model of social security rather than these are basic entitlements. So shifting away from housing for profit to housing for human rights, that would be a ‘game changer’.
Terry Kirby said that there is a need to seek a clear definition specifically in relation to social housing and said that they often find with Housing Associations (HAs) that some set affordability at 25% of income and other has set it at 30%, he feels it should be standard throughout Scotland. He also mentioned that there is not a fairness within housing as some landlords use Consumer Prices Index (CPI) and others use Retail Prices Index (RPI) when looking at rent increases. He was also concerned about when rent increases are set, advising that many are October and that we have an aging population whose pensions are set in September. Should rent increases be moved to September because of that?
Lisa Borthwick said that having a shared understanding housing affordability will allow us to measure the progress of policies addressing housing unaffordability which are crucial as part of the human rights obligations to achieve progressive realisation of the right to adequate housing. She believes that the understanding should be based on the person’s or household’s experience rather than what the government can resource.
Sean Baillie added that having a clear definition will help everyone hold each other accountable on what they are saying and doing.
The working group secretariat will reflect on these helpful comments.
Ken Gibb overview presentation and discussion
Ken Gibb gave a presentation on his paper that was distributed to the group prior to the meeting. He apologised for sending out the papers later than planned. He then opened the floor for discussion.
Ken Gibb advised that there is a need to pull together what all the different definitions mean then measure them up against issues like human rights then work out what unintended consequences there may be and what it means for fairness. He said that different perspectives are important for debate purposes but hopes that the group can go forward and develop a consensus, work with the focus groups and develop recommendations.
David Bookbinder said that the presentation and previous discussion was useful in outlining to him the duality of can we have a shared understanding of what the measure for affordability is and can we also have a shared understanding of what it would mean for this measure to exist. He said in the past dual affordability measure was used and 75% passed it and 25% did not, he believes it will be similar this time round. He believes that having a formula to measure affordability will enable us to see who is falling through the gaps and what supports are/are not there and need to be there, rather than that private or social landlords lower their rents because too many fail the affordability measure because it may not mean that at all. He hopes the group can come to a shared understanding of a measure but also what it means to have that measure.
Madhu Satsangi said that coming to a consensus will involve the process of coming to a view of what is an acceptable level of income left to a household or an effective residual income for that household given housing of a certain standard. He queried the extent of which the group will be going beyond what already exists in the income support system at the moment. He said that poverty campaigners say the threshold talked about isn’t satisfactory from the human rights perspective and that is ‘too mean’. He finished by saying that the question is the extent to which the group should engage in that kind of discussion or should conversations be limited to the income support system with current thresholds. Will the group be pressuring for change?
Ken Gibb said that the group’s work is directly related to a human rights dimensions. He was under the impression that under 2016 Scotland Act, Scotland had the power to intervene with the housing costs part of UC but so far had chosen not to. [The function of making regulations with regard to universal credit: costs of claimants who rent accommodation is exercisable by the Scottish Ministers concurrently with the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State must be consulted about the practicability of implementing the regulations and can amend the regulations so that the change is to start to have effect from a time later than the time originally set. Scotland Act 2016 Section 29.] He said that this would be a political point to get involved with, as it is a massive expenditure to Scotland. He thinks it is an important point for the group to discuss.
Colin Stewart advised that with low income, you can qualify for Housing Benefit (HB) but this is not a qualifying benefit to get access to the Warm Home Discount, which is frustrating given the rise in costs.
Ken Gibb said that the group will need to take into account the costs of fuel, energy efficiency etc. as they are inextricably linked with affordability.
Shona Mitchell said that SFHA uses some of the measures mentioned in the presentation and each has its merits.
Ken Gibb replied that the group might not want to recommend a specific number of the measures, they may want a cluster for different reasons and different answers. He said this does not help for holding people accountable but that it can be quite helpful for other purposes.
Ken Gibb asked Angela O’Hagan if what she had heard made sense in housing’s relation to social security, and what Scotland can do that is different. Angela responded that that was a very big question and that she is a specialist in neither. She said that many of the ingredients are there in this conversation, particularly around income (sources, variation) and therefore variations in affordability (and affordability for whom). She stated that for her it comes back all the time to the realisation of rights and having that at the front of the group’s mind around adequacy is important as this has a direct impact on people’s quality of life.
Ken Gibb questioned how this is delivered on the ground once we have consensus. He said that these will be bold ambitions which need to be delivered locally in reality and the group must not lose sight of this.
Emma Saunders said that agreeing to a definition of affordability is important but that she is also aware in Living Rent there is a need to talk about not just income support but also regulation. Something she has seen around the PRS is that increasing HB is not making a massive difference to the lives of tenants as the money is just going into pocket of landlords and this costs the government a lot of money. Around energy performance, tenants are footing the bill for the lack of energy performance because they are having to pay for energy price rises. There is not any regulation yet on the PRS landlords around that. She said that it may be better value for money for the government to invest in genuinely affordable public rented properties rather than money just going to landlords.
Ken Gibb said that is a good system-wide point. He realises any changes will impact everyone across the housing sector.
Lisa Borthwick asked whether the group will only comment on their shared understanding of what affordability is or if they will also be looking at what policy levers should be pulled. She also mentioned that she was happy to hear Ken Gibb mention that if the group doesn’t reach a consensus, that will also be noted with the reasons why. She also queried whether the group’s work will feed into the New Deal for Tenants work.
Ken Gibb answered that in coming to a shared understanding of what affordability is, it will be incumbent on the group to say ‘the government can then do x, y, z’ and outline implications and opportunities.
Janine Kellett added that the primary remit for the group is to reach a shared understanding on affordability and, ideally, a consensus-based understanding, but for that to be meaningful the group can then make additional recommendations.
Angela O’Hagan advised that there must be capacity to support and deliver implementation, there must be receptiveness in institutions and institutional frameworks to engage in whatever comes out of the group. This goes back to the starting point, what was the prompt for the original question? Who are we talking to or who are we talking at? She questioned in making recommendations, what kind of groundwork will be done, what kind of engagement will be ongoing and how will the recommendations be received? She also questioned whether it will be framed around human rights or public finance and to what extent pushback from officials around cognitive overload i.e. how much is being demanded in a busy and crowded operational environment, may affect how the group frames what it has to say.
Ken Gibb said that this is a good argument and it is why the group must spend time discussing it all. He asked Janine if she could say anything about other work going on in this area.
Janine said the work stems from a consultation in the lead up to Housing to 2040. She said that during the consultation, stakeholders reported there were too many different meanings of affordability so ministers committed to work with stakeholders to come to a shared understanding on it. She advised that the recommendations will need to be framed in relation to other things ministers are considering (e.g. working towards our net zero target and so on). Also, the Scottish Government is incorporating the right to adequate housing into Scots law. So there will be a focus on the resources being put in to the progressive realisation of that, and whether it is the right level of resources.
Everyone: Read over Lord Best Affordability Commission - important document to look at
Everyone: Talk to people outside of the group about the fundamental issues to get an idea of the key things that come up
Nicole Pettigrew: Put together a shared drive/folder to put reading and things relevant to discussion
Any other business
Ken Gibb advised that the next meeting will be in September and that a draft brief for tender for the focus groups will hopefully go out sometime before then. He thanked everyone for coming along and for the great discussions had and advised anyone with any questions to get in touch by email.
Date for the September meeting will be made available soon.
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