4.1. The housing aspirations of the people of Scotland are complex and multi-faceted. As this research highlights, policy decisions that take account of people's expectations need to consider how people's aspirations come to be. That is, how their subjective preferences are shaped and formed by their objective conditions, such as their economic resources and the opportunities available within their local housing market. This is vital, for aspirations do not exist in a vacuum. They are shaped by perceptions of opportunity and constraint, and so liable to shift and change in response to external social, economic, political and cultural factors.
4.2. Past research has tended to equate housing aspirations with homeownership. Whilst this study highlighted the majority had long-term preferences for homeownership, and the existence of 'frustrated renters', it also drew attention to people with aspirations to rent, and the positive value attached to social rented housing in particular.
4.3. Whilst housing supply policy has tended to focus on national affordable housing supply targets and initiatives to support building in different tenures, it was evident that tenure and house-type were not the main priority for people. The overwhelming majority of participants stressed that location was the most critical dimension in realising their long-term housing goals. A number of factors emerged as significant here, with variances between different social-demographic groups. These related not just to the aesthetic and infrastructure dimensions of where people lived, but crucially were also bound up with social attachment to place, and familial and community bonds. Addressing these locational preferences however requires land being made available by planners in areas people want to live. Yet this is more than just a planning issue. It requires a shift in policy thinking to consider housing in its more holistic sense, as a 'home' nestled within a wider place-based community and regional economy.
4.4. The drivers of housing aspirations were multiple: available opportunities in the housing market; stage in the life-cycle; life-style choices; and most significantly, economic resources and perceptions of what was affordable within the limits of household budgets. This underlines the importance of housing plans and interventions being situated within a broader understanding of the macro (and local) economic context. This includes not only labour markets, but all factors affecting household income such as welfare reform and the rising cost of living. There are strong spatial dimensions to these relationships with rural areas, for example, experiencing particular pressures.
4.5. The inter-connection between subjective preferences and objective conditions, which is the key finding of this research, is well illustrated by the example of young people under 35. They face very different housing and labour market opportunities compared to their parents and grandparents generations. Not only are they in a more economically precarious position with regards to job security and wage levels, but they face different housing opportunities across all tenures, with many now living in the PRS for much longer periods of their lives. Many also start adult life with higher levels of debt due to the shift from student maintenance grants to loans. Social housing is not as easily available to their generation, with mortgage finance also more difficult to access. Yet young people are not a homogenous group. There are also significant inequalities within this cohort in terms of ability to remain in the parental home, access to financial assistance from family, and their own income levels and sense of economic stability.
4.6. Finally, there was limited knowledge of housing options beyond the main three tenures, with ignorance and misunderstanding about low-cost homeownership schemes, and other options such as self-build and MMR. This may reflect the fact people were often relying on the advice of family members or going online for their information, and so may not necessarily be getting a full or accurate picture of their options.
4.7. As this section outlines, there are six key policy recommendations flowing from these findings:
- Housing Aspirations: to meet household's needs and expectations policy makers need to adopt a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of housing aspirations, which situates people's long-term goals within the wider social, economic, political and cultural context. This is about more than terminology. It is about recognising the fundamental inter-connection between individual personal goals and the wider context, and how these aspirations are shaped and come to be. Thinking about aspirations only as individual preferences (in an ideal world) does not tell us much about the rationales behind decisions, or the capacity of households to realise their goals. By contrast, this research has highlighted the important role of objective reality: both individual economic circumstances and the role of state intervention in housing, in shaping people's aspirations. This more nuanced understanding is something that needs to be considered in the development and implementation of future national housing policy agendas. How policy makers think about aspirations ultimately creates a framework within which national policy agendas are delivered in practice at a variety of scales.
- Opportunities for all: the need for more affordable housing (both rental and owned) was a key theme emerging from the research, as was the need to enforce existing legislation regarding conditions and standards within the PRS. This suggests a need to maximise opportunities across all tenures in order that people can realise their ambitions. Social housing remains a valued tenure in Scotland and would benefit from further supply. The consultation on PRS tenancy reforms may deliver greater security of tenure, whilst new legislation in the Housing (Scotland) Act 2014 may force standards up in the PRS, thus addressing tenants' concerns. This latter issue is one that needs to be carefully monitored, but also resourced, so that action can be taken against landlords who fail to meet their responsibilities to their tenants. Yet helping households to achieve their goals of becoming homeowners is also important, and demands further supply in the private homeownership sector. This however needs to be traded off against potentially exposing them to greater financial risk than they can afford, which was a driver for the credit crunch in the first instance. This is where the targeting of intermediate tenures needs to be carefully considered. The 'squeezed middle' would perhaps be the group which would benefit most from these options, for they are economically active, albeit often on moderate incomes. More research is needed to determine how targeting might be best achieved, particularly in relation to MMR, which our participants had no real awareness of.
- Spatial Dimension: housing policy at the national level needs to acknowledge more overtly the importance of the spatial dimension; although this is apparent in processes for allocating affordable rented housing subsidy resources between areas. A focus on national levels of housing supply targets solely in terms of numbers, would run the risk of ignoring the important locational dimensions this research has illuminated. 'Where' housing is built is just as important as 'how many' houses, for people buy into a neighbourhood as much as a property. Moreover, these neighbourhoods are in turn part of a larger regional economy with opportunities and constraints in terms of accessing suitable labour market opportunities that enable households to meet their housing costs. More research is needed to understand these inter-relationships, and the spatial dynamics underpinning them. In addition, as previously mentioned, meeting these locational preferences requires land to be made available where people want to live. This is however more than a planning issue. Thinking about aspirations in a more nuanced way requires seeing housing in its broader context: as a 'home' nestled within a community of people with social connections and attachment to place, and also at a larger scale, as part of a regional economy, with access to jobs being critical in enabling households to realise their housing aspirations. Housing policy needs to be situated within this wider context, for housing aspirations are inherently geographical.
- Understanding Affordability: more in-depth qualitative research is needed to understand the subjective dimensions of housing affordability, and the trade-offs people make in relation to housing and other demands on household budgets. Whilst objective, economic models are valuable, they tell us little about the reality and complexity of household decision making. This is important in the post-credit crunch context where wages are stagnant and the state social security net is being further reduced. The full impact of UK government welfare reforms is yet to be felt, whilst interest rates look set to rise and may create further financial pressures for marginal homeowners. These changes do not just affect householders, but also the capacity of landlords (social and private) to contribute to housing supply given the challenges these bring for their operating environment. Further research could provide an evidence base for future policy on housing affordability, and the development of targeted support measures for specific households.
- Housing Inequalities: Scotland, like many other western nations, demonstrates patterns of housing inequalities (McKee 2012). Most notably between baby-boomer generations and the current cohort of under 35s (often termed 'generation rent') with regards to their ability to realise preferences for homeownership. In turn this accrued housing wealth is passed down generations in the form of financial support, further reinforcing patterns of inequality. Tackling this would require difficult policy decisions around inherited wealth and the often 'lucky' gains made through house-price inflation over the longer-period. Yet it is important not to forget those who want to rent, many of whom are on low and insecure incomes, and who need the protection of a welfare safety-net across the life-cycle.
- Information and Advice: better information and advice is needed about the breadth of housing options available. Practically this could be achieved through citizenship education in schools or through youth organisations - targeting young people before they begin their pathways into housing. But also through local authorities providing 'housing options' style advice beyond their traditional focus on homelessness. Making accurate, information available to people is critical, but of course, needs to be resourced. Linked to this, financial support to enable independent advice agencies to continue to offer advice and advocacy when people are experiencing crisis is also vital. Whilst social housing tenants have recourse to the Social Housing Regulator, and mortgagors the Financial Services Authority, PRS tenants have been somewhat disadvantaged by comparison. The new regulatory and enforcement measures in the Housing (Scotland) Act 2014 are therefore to be welcomed. Educating tenants about their rights and how to enforce them is vital given the sector's increasing size and pivotal role in housing Scotland's population.
Email: Julie Guy