The Herald can reveal that the use of compulsory purchase orders (CPOs) as a route to force the buy-back of homes for use by the homeless forms part of an action plan requested by then housing secretary Shona Robison earlier this year.
It comes as two key homeless support charities have argued that any attempt to end poverty in Scotland is doomed to fail if housing and homelessness are not addressed.
In advance of First Minister Humza Yousaf’s anti-poverty summit tomorrow (Wednesday), Shelter Scotland and Crisis said that it would not be successful unless action was taken to get children out of temporary accommodation for the homeless.
They said that the Scottish Government had to deliver on the suggestions made in the action plan.
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Official figures show there are around 43,000 homes liable for council tax that have been empty for six months or more.
Of these around 28,000 have been empty for over 12 months.
Ministers have admitted the number of children in temporary accommodation for the homeless in some local authorities is “unacceptably high”, soaring by 25% since before the Covid pandemic.
In September 2022, there were 9130 children in temporary accommodation – 2335 more than in 2019.
And the number of people spending time in temporary accommodation has also risen from 187 days in 2019/20 to 207 in 2021/22.
Some councils with increases in the use of temporary accommodation have been written to by Scottish Government officials to discuss potential solutions.
Shona Robison asked an expert group, chaired by Shelter Scotland and the Association of Local Authority Chief Housing Officers for a blueprint to slash the numbers of people in temporary accommodation, “with a strong focus on households with children”.
It has emerged among a raft of measures, they have urged a “large-scale national acquisition policy to buy private sector properties” as a matter or urgency to meet a target of delivering 38,500 social homes by 2026.
They said purchases should be “prioritised and aligned to local housing needs, using homelessness data to target purchases of properties that will meet the needs of those currently stuck in temporary accommodation for long periods”.
The temporary accommodation task and finish group said that targeting empty properties should be prioritized to move people from temporary to permanent accommodation.
It suggests that local authorities should look to cut the numbers of long-term empty properties in their local areas and bring them back into use as social homes to “permanently house people living in temporary accommodation”
It said a route for this was through compulsory purchase orders.
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It even suggests making it a requirement for a landlords starting eviction proceedings in order to sell a property to have considered selling to the local authority first.
The move was backed by the Aditi Jehangir, secretary of housing campaigners Living Rent who said: “Rates of homelessness have risen to unacceptable levels while our social housing sector has been ignored and left to deteriorate.
“As the 43,000 empty homes demonstrate, Scotland has homes. Compulsory purchase orders that bring into public ownership these empty homes will go a long way in addressing our housing and homelessness crisis in Scotland.
“Permanent accommodation forms part of the bedrock of stability and security of our lives. The Scottish government needs to enable compulsory purchase orders to ensure Scotland’s tenants have the safety and security they need.”
Shaheena Din, national project manager at the Scottish Government-funded Scottish Empty Homes Partnership, said it supports the use of 8000 homes being brought back into use.
She said: “Scotland is in a housing emergency and it doesn’t make sense to leave these homes lying empty and falling into disrepair, and while it is not realistic that all of these can be used for social housing, some of these can make an important contribution.”
The expert group set out their plan saying that the “broken” housing system meant that too many people were “denied the means to keep the homes they have and too few social homes to provide a secure, affordable, and stable future”.
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It has been six years since the Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities convened the Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Group whose Ending Homelessness Together plan set the goal of making homelessness rare, brief, and non-recurring.
But the adviser said: “The ambitions of that plan have not matched up to the realities on the ground.
“Now in 2023 we have rising rough sleeping, a record number of people trapped in the homelessness system for longer and the national scandal of nearly 10,000 children in temporary accommodation.
“We need more homes; we need to use the homes we have more effectively and we need to fund services properly to treat people with dignity and respect.”
It is understood that ministers indicated in the summer of last year that they were looking to reform the process for CPOS and to consider compulsory sales orders to deal with absentee landlords.
But public finance minister Tom Arthur (above) indicated it was a “complex piece of work” and that it would “require time”.
It comes as the number of applications received by councils during 2021/22 from households looking to help with homelessness soared by 4% in the previous year to just over 35,000.
There were 14,214 households in temporary accommodation according to the housing regulator in March, 2022 – a rise of 20% from 2020.
And the number of cases of Scots councils failed to meet their legal duty to accommodate Scotland’s homeless soared by 20% in a year.
Councils have a statutory obligation to offer temporary accommodation when they assess a person or household as unintentionally homeless. Most councils meet this obligation all of the time.
But in 2021/22 there were 725 instances where there was a failure to provide temporary accommodation, of which Edinburgh accounted for 695.
In 2020/21 there was a failure to accommodate 595 cases.
When the lockdown began in March, 2020 hundreds of rough sleepers were brought in off the streets to help slow the spread of coronavirus.
With full temporary accommodation, many were placed in hotels. But campaigners raised concerns that B&B’s and hotels were not fit to deal with people in crisis and that accordingly, homeless people were losing out on access to drug and alcohol addiction services and mental health care.
Some 2000 homeless people were housed in bed and breakfasts in Glasgow alone in the first nine months while new rules were delayed that were meant to ensure that they were only to be used in emergencies and for no more than seven days.
At its peak as many as 600 homeless people were in B&B and hotel accommodation in Glasgow.
Councils have compulsory purchase orders (CPO) powers to purchase homes without the owner’s agreement if there is a strong enough public interest to do so. But evidence provided to an MSPs’ inquiry found that CPOs were used infrequently as a last resort measure and more commonly used for significant buildings contributing to area regeneration.
Barriers to their use include the staff resources required to prepare a case for a CPO and potential upfront legal costs. At the end of last year, Glasgow City Council approved the beginning of compulsory purchase orders (CPOs) for three flats and a mid-terrace house in three different areas in the city which had long-term empty homes, which would then be transferred to housing associations for use as affordable housing.
The homes, two in Govanhill and one each in Penilee and Pollokshields were to go to the Wheatley Group, Southside Housing Association and Govanhill Housing Association.
The council said that the CPOs would lead to an “increase in affordable housing supply, remove neighborhood blight, and ensure the future maintenance of these properties”.
Funding for the four acquisitions was to be made available to the housing associations through the Affordable Housing Supply Program (AHSP) budget, and the owners of the properties identified for CPO were to continue to be given the opportunity to sell the property to the housing association on a voluntary basis prior to confirmation of the compulsory purchase order.
The council said that the owners would be entitled to seek compensation for the loss of their property from the date of confirmation, in accordance with statutory provisions.
The Scottish Land Commission has previously called on the Scottish Government to introduce a compulsory sales order (CSO) for councils to auction long-neglected land and buildings for regeneration.
This policy was part of the SNP’s 2016 election manifesto The Scottish Government had pledged to bring in plans for CSOs or empty homes by 2021. It would enable councils to force a home which has been vacant for an undue period of time to be sold at public auction.
But in 2019, the Scottish Government faced criticism after admitting a move to introduce sales orders would not be delivered within this parliament.
The SNP’s 2021 manifesto did not promise CSOs.