By RYAN TAYLOR
CHANGES in legislation could lead to the island’s stretched housing service catering entirely for homeless people.
Shetland Islands Council’s head of housing Chris Medley said this week the authority is fast becoming the landlord of last resort for a growing number of people with complex and diverse needs.
He said more and more people will be classed as homeless following forthcoming changes in the law by the Scottish government.
The SNP authority is calling for all homeless applicants to be entitled to a roof over their heads by 2012 – a move that effectively abolishes priority needs testing.
Mr Medley said the obligation could hamper the council’s attempts to provide housing for those with more general needs.
Over 900 applicants are currently on the housing waiting list, and the number is expected to rise further in the near future.
The “gloomy” picture is exacerbated by the worldwide economic downturn – the full effects of which could be seen in Shetland within the next 12 to 18 months.
Members of the council’s community services forum were given the rather downcast picture when they met at the Town Hall on Wednesday.
“One of the things I have felt is there is just no glory in this for the council, or its staff or anybody else,” said Mr Medley.
“If you take into account of the credit crunch … it’s compounding the problem in Shetland. I feel eventually, in the fullness of time, the council will only be housing the homeless.”
The committee heard high levels of subsidy were required every year to cover debt payments, with the SIC now the one remaining Scottish council receiving housing support grants from the Scottish government.
Mr Medley said the council would be left exposed if the funding was stopped.
“If the housing support grant dries up we’re left in a position where the housing service has got no way of servicing its debt,” he said.
“We’ve got a constant battle to try to do more with less all the time.”
The credit crunch was another bone of contention for the committee.
Lerwick South member Gussie Angus wondered how seriously it would affect Shetland’s social housing.
Service manager of housing business support Anita Jamieson said it was too early to say exactly what would happen in Shetland.
“The difficulty with the credit crunch is it is happening now, but there tends to be a 12 to 18 month lag between what happens nationally and what happens here,” she said.
“There is growing anecdotal evidence that there is the start of a slow down in the housing market, and some folk appear to have difficulties accessing mortgages.”
Councillor Angus said councils should look at providing mortgages, to help alleviate peoples’ dependency on banks and building societies.
“This strategy group could look at the possibility of local authorities becoming mortgage lenders again, as was done prior to building societies,” he said.
For those seeking to buy their council houses, members were in no doubt the potentially controversial right to buy – introduced during the reign of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government – hampered the council’s housing service as it struggled to cater for its growing number of applicants.
Shetland South member Allison Duncan asked how many houses in the past year had been bought into the private sector.
The committee heard over 40 council houses were sold on an annual basis – many of which will be largely unhampered by the threat of the credit crunch, because big discounts in the purchase price meant right to buy remained an attractive option for many.
Shetland North member Bill Manson said the council should consider withdrawing the right to buy – although he admitted such a move would be difficult, as it was, by definition, a right people had.
“A few councils have suspended right to buy. I’m not suggesting we should do it, but I do think it is at least a step the council should consider,” he said.
The committee was also given a presentation from Hjaltland Housing Association, which is struggling to cope with a cut in grant funding from the Scottish government.
Chief executive Robin Sandison said the association would struggle to complete the 100 houses it was building after its grants were cut from a total of £5.8 million to £2.6 million.
“Our current position is we’re getting used to the new government and its significantly revised requirements,” he said.
“The new government wants a lot more houses for a lot less money, and they want them to be of far higher quality too.
“We think it’s a naïve assumption, but we’re going to give it a bash.”
• Meanwhile, a large number of private landlords have failed to sign up to a national registration scheme aimed at improving the private rented sector’s reputation.
Forum members heard 230 properties make up Shetland’s private rental stock.
A report before the committee said many tenants were reluctant to complain to their landlord for fear they could face eviction.
While most landlords already operate to good standards, the report said many have “one or two properties” and are “not professional landlords”.
“It is not a wilful disregard of legislation that is leading to poorer standards and insecurity of tenants; it is lack of awareness and uncertainty of where to seek advice,” the report said.
The committee was told landlords’ ignorance of the law was just one other contributing factor to the growing demand for council houses.
Mr Manson said a number of people “presented themselves as homeless, because they have been asked to leave private rented accommodation unlawfully”.
“Quite a few people who find themselves with second properties try to help other people out by renting them private accommodation. It doesn’t dawn on them they are landlords.”