Experts highlight threats to social housing sector in Scotland at Harper Macleod's National Housing Conference

Professor Paddy Gray, one of the most prominent figures in the UK social housing sector, has praised the performance of Scotland's housing providers but warned about the growing impact of wealth inequality as housing continues to be "financialised" across the UK.

Delivering the closing address at the 17th National Housing Conference organised by leading law firm Harper Macleod, Professor Gray said: "As a nation the UK hasn't paid enough attention to social housing and tenants haven't been listened to. We need to value the impact good housing has on health and wellbeing, safety, community cohesion, education and employment. Good housing is central to all of that and if people can just get it into their heads what good housing would mean for the reduction in other budgets it could make such a difference.

Professor Paddy Gray National Housing Conference Harper Macleod

Professor Gray speaking at Harper Macleod's National Housing Conference

"However, other nations are looking at what Scotland is doing. Social landlords in Scotland are innovating and have a key role in lifting people out of poverty through training and education opportunities, tackling fuel poverty, providing a range of support in the community, digital inclusion and working in partnership with others on behalf of their customers. These things are very much part of this new approach in Scotland."

However, Professor Gray joined other conference speakers in highlighting the difficulties caused by UK welfare policy, the ceaseless commercialisation of housing and the blurring lines between public and private sector.

He added: "Housing should be a basic human right but it has been financialised. We're now a £140 billion sector with £66bn debt in 2016, forecast to rise to £77bn by 2021. Almost 30% of that debt is at floating rates of inflation linked. You only need to look at the example of building societies to see the dangers. They moved from being not for profit organisations owned by their members but grew, became banks and you ended up with a Northern Rock situation."

Around 100 delegates, representing registered social landlords (RSLs) and other key stakeholders in Scotland’s housing sector attended the conference at the Dunblane Hydro on Wednesday (13 September).

The need to cut costs in light of reduced UK Government subsidies for social housing, the danger of creating mega-RSLs, the potential for paying housing association Board members, fall-out from the Grenfell tragedy and the potential impact of deregulation in Scotland were among the big issues.

Paddy Gray Lorne Crerar James Tickell Nhc 2017

Professor Gray, HM Chairman Professor Lorne Crerar and James Tickell

James Tickell of Campbell Tickell, another leading figure in UK social housing, shared Professor Gray's sentiments, and highlighted other concerns for the sector in Scotland – including the potential for RSLs to remain on the public balance sheet.

He said: "There was no clamour for the deregulation of social landlords, it is simply a reaction to the ONS decision to classify them as public bodies. However, the ONS can be fickle and there is no certainty that the proposed legislation in Scotland will go far enough to have RSLs deregulated – and the consequences of being in the public sector long-term are serious."

Mr Tickell, who reflected on the recent experience of social housing providers in England, urged everyone in attendance to reconsider the prime purpose of a housing association and their role in social justice. He said: "It is difficult to operate in a time when much of UK housing policy is ignoring the evidence. The tragedy of Grenfell will no doubt change thinking for a spell, but will it bring long-term change?"

Susan Lane, Head of Innovation Initiatives at the More Homes division of the Scottish Government, addressed the conference on behalf of Housing Minister Kevin Stewart MSP and emphasised that "housing is, and will remain, a high priority for this Scottish Government".

She gave the administration's view on current housing policy and the future prospects for affordable housing in the country, urging delegates to continue developing ways to collaborate and work together to help meet the Scottish Government targets.

James Tickell Lorne Crerar Susan Lane Jason Macgilp Nhc17

From left: James Tickell, Professor Lorne Crerar, Susan Lane and Jason MacGilp

Also speaking on the main stage, Jason MacGilp, Chief Executive of Cairn Housing Association and a Board member of the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations, gave his personal view on the current Scottish landscape – highlighting the need to continue to reduce costs and demonstrate value for money.

He said: "There are 160 RSLs in Scotland, and to get more resources to the front line there is scope for more conversations at local and regional level about sharing overheads and skills. Exploration of options for possible service partnerships, particularly for back-office arrangements, could well be part of the solution."

The National Housing Conference is hosted by Harper Macleod, recognised as leading adviser on social housing in Scotland and whose specialists work with housing associations of all sizes around the country.

Derek Hogg, Partner and Head of Housing at Harper Macleod, said: "The Scottish housing sector has a lot to be proud of, but everyone is aware of the significant enormous challenges facing us. We are extremely grateful to our speakers and delegates for contributing to the collective effort of finding the best way forward."

The conference also allowed delegates to attend a series of workshops tackling key issues for housing providers including funding options, technology and innovation, procurement, and developing projects to meet housing targets. Other speakers included Heather Kiteley of Port of Leith HA, Colin Foskett of Blackwood Group, David Rider of Capita Asset Services, Douglas Gold of the SFHA, Dr John Boyle of Rettie & Co and Colin Culross of Link Group.