Social housing begins with social justice
The Scottish Government recently created a new Housing and Social Justice Directorate. By putting secure, affordable homes at the heart of fairness and wider life-chances it’s a timely and powerful reminder of what our sector is all about.
The Directorate’s purpose could not be clearer or more important:
- ensure that everyone living in Scotland has a high-quality, sustainable home they can afford and that meets their needs
- work with communities and others to tackle poverty and make Scotland fairer.
It aims to achieve this by increasing the supply of high-quality, affordable homes and creating communities where people can live, work and flourish. This has made me revisit the fundamentals of social justice and consider why it’s so vital to what housing providers do and how they do it.
I think there are four essential parts to social justice: access, equity, participation and diversity. Each is crucial in its own right, but it’s their combined effect that really counts.
Access is about the resources we can command to tackle poverty, foster inclusion and build truly affordable homes as the bedrock for good health, education, work and other opportunities. There were only around 7,000 genuinely affordable social rented homes built in England last year – woefully short of the estimated 90,000 such homes required annually. So we need to do much more while applying maximum effort at the sharp end, to eliminate the need for people to sleep on the streets. The Everyone In initiative triggered by the pandemic shows what’s possible when there’s the will.
Equity means being willing to treat people differently to overcome entrenched disadvantage or discrimination. Targeting investment on estates where there’s particular deprivation or taking positive action to encourage staff from black and other ethnic minorities are important examples of achieving greater fairness through equity.
Participation involves giving customers and other stakeholders a meaningful say – about the priorities and trade-offs in how rents are used and in all strategy and policy decisions. To make their voices heard, some people need help and encouragement, and this can come from support to promote active, independent lives. Countering the stigma that still too often attaches to social homes and services is also important.
Diversity underpins everything – embracing different cultures and needs so we can tailor homes and services to match. This includes designing and managing properties to accommodate a variety of lifestyles and making sure we have the language and media skills to communicate with everyone on equal terms. These things don’t happen by chance, but if housing organisations can consistently do all of them, then social justice should be alive and well. I believe a good starting point is for all providers to have a clear strategy on how they intend to pursue it.
As in so many other respects, the rest of the UK has much to learn from Scotland.