Outlining the Glasgow and West of Scotland Forum of Housing Associations’ response to the Scottish Government’s Rented Sector Strategy consultation, director David Bookbinder argues that the notion of a unified rental sector is wishful thinking with little grounding in reality.

At any one time there are always a few bandwagons doing the rounds in the housing sector. One of the current ones is around moving towards a unified rental sector.

I think there’s a distinct ‘pie in the sky’ factor at play here, and an unintentional consequence can be to irritate a social housing sector which has always been needed to address ongoing market failure in the private rented sector (PRS).

Some of the ‘unified sector’ talk comes from key strategies such as the soon-to-close Scottish Government consultation on its Rented Sector Strategy. This reflects the increasing tendency in recent years for ministers and officials, as well as some housing bodies, to refer to developing common, cross-sector standards and working towards unifying the two rental sectors. It has a feel-good factor about it and induces a warm glow of ‘we’re all in it together’.

And if people talk about a unified sector enough, MSPs and other politicians will start to believe it really exists.

GWSF’s response argues that for the most part, the notion of a unified sector is no more than wishful thinking, and has little grounding in reality. Whatever may be put in place in the future, standards of both accommodation and housing management in the social sector are, and always will be, way ahead of those in the private rented sector.

The entire bases on which the two sectors came into being are entirely different. At best we should be talking about continuing to incrementally improve things for private tenants, and for the most part this is about how the PRS can play catch up.

But unless we’re talking about lifetime tenancies, greatly reduced rents and strict regulation in the PRS, the only way in which a truly unified sector could start to be created would be by reducing security of tenure and other standards in the social sector – which no-one would seriously propose. And by drastically paring down regulation: yes I know, tempting to some perhaps, but regulation gives our sector a robust credibility factor among tenants, lenders and others.

The quality of homes and of both property and tenancy management in the PRS is hugely variable. In the social sector, the Scottish Housing Regulator doesn’t of course inspect individual homes just as the proposed PRS regulator won’t. But tenants can raise issues without fear of threat or intimidation, and their satisfaction levels (as surveyed by independent market researchers) inform the landlord’s annual Charter return to SHR: This kind of systematic feedback is never likely to be collected on a large scale by PRS landlords.

The proposed ‘unified standard’ looks likely to be limited to physical property standards. The question is whether it’ll cover energy efficiency and zero emissions heating alone or whether it’ll be broader – for example covering relet standards, space standards and other design issues.

Even if a common standard can indeed be created without reducing or diluting social sector standards, true commonality will never be achieved without a uniform system of regulation across all housing tenures – something we recognise is simply not possible across the social housing, private rented and owner occupied sectors.

The largest slice of pie in the sky comes with the consultation document’s statement that people needing homes should be able to consider affordability in a tenure-neutral way. Again this overlooks the fundamentally different way in which the two rental sectors operate – something that’ll always be the case, even with some attempt at rent control in the PRS.

Some private landlords would very much want to meet higher standards, but across the PRS as a whole there’s a danger that lip service would be paid to new standards, and it’s hard to see any new regulator being able to meaningfully change that.

Raising standards in the PRS is a worthy goal, and in the social sector we never take our eyes off improving things where we can. But all the talk about unifying things is careless and – in the housing association sector – can inadvertently demean the efforts of staff and voluntary governing body members to provide the highest quality homes and services.