Local authority housing

Bruce Walker

Two major pieces of legislation at the end of the 1970s set the tone for public housing policy over the last two decades of the twentieth century. These were the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 and the Tenants’ Rights Etc (Scotland) Act 1980. The former was important because for the first time it placed upon local authorities a duty to provide housing for those in priority need, for the most part families with children, who were homeless. The latter greatly enhanced the rights of individual Council tenants and most importantly gave them the Right to Buy (RTB) their homes at discounts which by 2000 stood at 70% after 15 years tenancy of flatted property.

In East Lothian, the consequences of these two pieces of legislation, combined with other economic and demographic factors, were that the number of Council houses available for let was greatly reduced and the number of homeless people with a statutory right to housing rose.

In October 1980 East Lothian District Council owned 16,304 houses. Sales under the RTB proceeded at an average annual rate of 2.8%, reducing the stock to 12,865 in 1990 and to 10,019 in 2000. Because of the financial disincentive the RTB represented, the Council itself stopped building houses to let in 1991 and was instrumental in establishing East Lothian Housing Association (ELHA), a charitable organisation, as the principal means of providing affordable rented housing. However, neither ELHA nor the other specialist and non-specialist Housing Associations working in East Lothian, for example Bield and Castle Rock Housing Associations, were able to build houses at a speed that matched the loss of stock through the RTB and as a result waiting lists for vacant houses rose indicating an increase in housing need. Other factors exacerbated the pressure on the rented stock during this period. These included the rise in house prices which took even the lowest priced houses outwith the reach of many who, in the past, would have looked to that sector for accommodation. Demographic changes saw the number of separate households rise at a faster rate than the population as a whole. It is worth noting that between the 1971 and 1991 censuses, the number of separate households rose by 34.9% from 25,254 to 34,077 while the population rose by only 9.5% from 76,779 to 84,114.

The increase in housing need was reflected in the rise in the number of households who became, or were threatened with, homelessness. As waiting times lengthened, pressures made by families on whatever temporary arrangements they were able to make, increased. A short-term solution – like a daughter and her family staying with a parent – would not meet long-term needs, and when temporary no longer meant months, but years, the situation became untenable. As a result, the likelihood that the family would become homeless increased.

A rise in the numbers of people that were sleeping rough because of the lack of suitable accommodation was noted towards the end of the nineties. Research carried out in 1997 estimated that between 91 and 189 individuals slept rough in East Lothian on at least one occasion during that year. With the formation of East Lothian Council in 1996 and the Scottish Parliament in 1997, a number of initiatives were introduced to tackle the problem. Resources were made available to address homelessness and in particular the Council was successful in attracting finance to establish a Housing Company, ‘Homes for Life’ in 1997. It was given the target of providing 500 affordable houses, the majority for rent, within five years. By 2000, fewer than 100 houses had actually been built and occupied, as the early years of such projects were taken up with the planning tendering and the construction processes; house completion will be achieved by the end of the five-year plan. However, welcome though these initiatives were, they only slowed down, rather than eliminated, the rise in housing need.

Stock Condition

In the three decades after the war, the Burgh and county Councils in East and Midlothian had not followed the example of public housing providers elsewhere in Scotland of constructing large numbers of high-rise or deck-access flats using systems building techniques (there were a few in both Musselburgh and Dunbar). As a result, council housing stock was largely of traditional construction and in good condition. In the 1960s and 1970s the older stock had been systematically upgraded and in the early 1980s the Council undertook to provide all its houses with central heating. This was achieved by the early 1990s when a programme of double-glazing and door replacement began throughout the stock, and was completed a decade later.

Special Needs

The Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 was indicative of the way in which priority within public housing policy in the last quarter of the 20th century tended towards the meeting of housing need in all its forms. Other aspects of this were the increased provision of housing specifically for elderly people. Between 1975 and 1990, the Council and other social housing agencies provided some 350 sheltered houses across East Lothian. The growing emphasis on care in the community resulted in other examples of special housing provision combined with support and care. This allowed people previously confined to institutions to live more fulfilling lives in the towns and villages of the county. ELCAP’s work with people with learning difficulties and various projects for people with mental health problems was examples of this approach in practice.

Housing Policy

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s there were two principal strands to the council’s housing policy:

  1. Ensuring that the housing stock was maintained in a good condition in accordance with the changing standards and aspirations of tenants.
  2. Ensuring an adequate supply of good quality, affordable rented houses.

In pursuing these policy objectives the council consistently opposed government initiatives that promoted the transfer of housing stock from council to other housing agencies whilst at the same time maximising the resources available to provide new rented houses. Its strategy was to improve the services it provided as a landlord in order to retain the support of its own tenants and to promote and encourage the work of other housing providers where the rented stock would not be eligible for the Right to Buy.

The situation in East Lothian at the end of the period was that housing pressure continued to rise. The impact of the Edinburgh housing market continued to be felt, and house prices in the county continued to rise to an extent that more and more local people were unable to compete. They then looked to the affordable rented sector, where the number of available houses continued to fall. The Housing (Scotland) Act, 2001 brought about changes that strengthened the rights of existing tenants, and improved access to housing for homeless people, but did very little to increase supply. In the early years of the 21st century, the revised Lothian Structure Plan will increase further these pressures, and the council will continue to explore a range of mechanisms to ensure the supply of affordable housing also rises.