Sheila Gilmore sets out the structural challenges to solving Scotland’s homelessness problem, and says sleep outs and warm words from Scottish Ministers need to start translating into real investment rather than endless cuts.


Christmas is always an emotive time for discussion of homelessness.  On one of the coldest nights in December a mass “sleep out” in Princes Street Gardens, graced with celebrities, raised an impressive £4m.

Ironically among the celebrities were Scottish Government Ministers, including John Swinney.  As ever the Scottish Government official spokespeople gave their bland reassurances that all was well since the government was planning to provide 50,000 more affordable homes by 2021.

The sleep out organiser was quoted as saying the problem ‘isn’t insurmountable’. Indeed it isn’t. But the key is more homes.

In most weeks in Edinburgh there are only between 50 and 70 social rent homes available for let, in all sizes, types and areas.  Each week around 3000 households have ‘silver’ or homeless ‘priority’ which entitles them to get an offer of housing.  Of these 1,850 are in some form of temporary accommodation.  So they wait, and wait. Or they give up and end up back in the private rented sector, or on a friend’s sofa.

The time people spend in temporary accommodation in Edinburgh, waiting for permanent accommodation, has been increasing. In addition to the 1,850 households in short term temporary accommodation, there are also some 1,400 households accommodated in homes the council rents from landlords.  Many in this scheme, called Private Sector Leasing (PSL), live there for 5 or more  years.

Most of the ‘affordable housing’ the Scottish Government boasts about won’t help these people.  Here’s what was built under this description in Edinburgh in 2016/17:

  • Council & housing association (‘social rent’): 283
  • Mid-market rent: 410
  • Low-cost home ownership (mostly badged as Help to Buy): 483
  • Total: 1176

Virtually none of the 3000 households with ‘silver priority’ will be eligible for mid market rent or Help to Buy.  Nor those in the PSL ‘siding’.  The balance of new homes in the previous year was similar.

The vast majority of social rent lets in the city already go to people either with medical needs or who are homeless.   So without more homes there is little scope for making inroads into the problem.

There is also a distortion arising from the language and imagery associated with  homelessness.  The ubiquitous picture of the rough sleeper in doorway or park bench applies only to a minority.  Certainly a minority who need support as well as homes, something well recognised by the last Labour government that achieved a  substantial reduction in rough sleeping. But for the  substantial majority of people currently waiting in temporary accommodation of one sort or another, or sofa surfing with friends or family, the need is simply for a home at a low rent.

Nor is this just the view of a Labour politician.  An October 2017 report prepared by Heriot Watt University for ‘Social Bite’ (the sleep out organisers) said this:

In Edinburgh, there is an urgent need to expand the availability of affordable housing, to relieve the acute pressure on emergency accommodation services, and to reduce the reliance on B&B. While increased provision of appropriate TA may be required in the short-term, the main emphasis should be on improving the options for longer-term suitable accommodation, with an urgent need to expand social housing supply in the city.

(Interestingly the report  prioritised different issues for different places.)

Most types of affordable housing need some form of subsidy, generally provided by grant from the Scottish Government.  Provision of social rent housing requires the highest level of subsidy.

As well as money to build more homes, a short term boost to help could come from buying properties to increase the stock .  What used to be council houses are increasingly being  bought up by private landlords, who then house the very people who need a low rent home, but charge them double the rent.   In Manchester the Mayor Andy Burnham has announced a programme of buying properties to boost the available stock of social rent homes.  Buying is often cheaper and quicker than building.  It is not a substitute but could be a useful addition.   It still needs subsidy.

Whether buying or building , councils and housing associations need increased resources to resolve this problem.

So it is particularly disappointing that within days of Swinney and his minister colleagues ‘sleeping out’,  the Scottish Government reduced funding for Edinburgh’s ‘affordable’ housing by £1.2m.

Well done to those whose sleep out raised money for support services, and helped raise awareness.  Now let the Scottish Government do its part.