On the 3rd October the team travelled to Kilmarnock, East Ayrshire, for the first kick off of our What Works Community pilot. The purpose of our visit was to get to know the people working there – from leadership to officer level – and the local conditions they are working with to explore how the pilot can best help them harness data and evidence to accelerate progress towards their Rapid Rehousing vision.
East Ayrshire Council spans an area of Scotland that is varied, both in terms of geography and wealth. The region has a population of 122,100 at the last 2011 census – making it the 16th-largest local authority in Scotland - the majority of whom live in and around the main towns Kilmarnock and Cumnock. It is home to some of the highest earners in Scotland and also those living in the most poverty. It also encompasses both rural farming areas and densely-populated towns.
This variation is reflected in the demand for housing, with the Kilmarnock and Loudoun Housing Market Area accounting for 67% of the area’s demand. Conversely, we heard of ‘ghost villages’ left empty due to migration, contrasted with a village which was building its third extension on a primary school in as many years.
East Ayrshire’s homelessness context
In 2017/18, East Ayrshire had 806 homelessness presentations, a significant rise from 617 the year before. Of those presentations, the majority (21%) were due to a dispute within the household (non violent) and (20%) were asked to leave by other occupiers. 12% were due to a dispute within the household (violent), 10% from discharge from institutions and 9% other action by the landlord resulting in the termination of the tenancy. The two biggest demographics were single males and lone parent households.
East Ayrshire’s strategic housing vision is ‘Working together to ensure that everyone in East Ayrshire has access to good quality, energy efficient housing, within safe, healthy and vibrant communities.’ An important part of achieving that vision is to implement a Rapid Rehousing approach.
The Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Group (HARSAG) was established by the Scottish Government in October 2017 to produce short and long-term solutions to end homelessness and rough sleeping and transform the use of temporary accommodation for all people experiencing homelessness in Scotland. A cornerstone of the HARSAG recommendation was for all LAs to transition towards a Rapid Rehousing approach, of which Housing First forms a smaller component.
As a result of HARSAG, the Scottish Government requested each LA to submit a five-year ‘Rapid Rehousing Transition Plan’ by 31 December 2018. Some of the key activities East Ayrshire identified are to increase the number of social housing lets to homeless households, analyse empty homes, introduce an online Self Diagnostic Housing Options Toolkit, commence a Housing First approach, expand the Neighbourhood Coach role and readdress the role of the private sector.
The private rental sector
The pilot challenge we have given them is to design a solution intending to increase the number and duration of successful tenancies in the private rental market to people who have or are at risk of experiencing homelessness. There is a big opportunity for reducing homelessness by using the Private Rental Sector (PRS). The sector has grown year on year. Scottish legislation stipulates all landlords have to be registered meaning that the standards, tenancies and occupants are able to be regulated and monitored, making it a more viable tenancy option. East Ayrshire told us that 20 years ago, placing someone threatened with homelessness into a PRS tenancy would not have felt like a good housing outcome, but that now it is a sustainable and affordable housing option.
One key challenge identified was that the majority of landlords in East Ayrshire are “accidental” landlords, not career landlords. Around 70% of landlords only own one property, and 95% of them own between one and five properties. Many inherent their properties, others are unable to sell, or view their property as a pension investment. This results in the homes remain empty for long periods of time. We recognised that it will be important to bear in mind the relatively small-scale ownership as it has implications for engaging with the landlord community.
It also has implications for their willingness to rent to people receiving Universal Credit or housing benefit, with experiences of homelessness or simply a “bad record”. Especially as “accidental” landlords typically have other full-time jobs, taking tenants on like this could be seen as too much hassle or risk. Changing landlord behaviour or assumptions and the development of tenant training were identified as opportunities, as well as developing a Social Letting Agency.
We also discussed the amount of empty homes and where they are placed. The highest proportion of empty homes are found in areas with the greatest housing demand with 66% of East Ayrshire’s empty homes in the Kilmarnock area. Encouraging owners of empty homes to renovate properties and make them available for social rent could have a big impact.
Something that was clear, right from the top of leadership to the officers and third sector partners we met, was that there is an appetite and determination for improvement and new ways of working in East Ayrshire. As Councillor Elena Whitham stated “This is such an exciting project. It is innovative; data led and will help us to achieve our Rapid Rehousing vision across East Ayrshire. We will be exploring all tenures to ensure a settled housing options is reached for someone as quickly as possible, reducing any time spent in temporary accommodation”.
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