EXCLUSIVE REPORT BY JASPER HAMILL
ONE in 10 working Scottish households is currently living under the threat of home repossession, according to statistics compiled by a leading housing charity.
Research by Shelter has found that 275,000 mortgaged households in Scotland are in such a dire situation that just a small change in the cost of living, such as a fractional rise in interest rates, could make the monthly bills unaffordable and force homeowners into giving up their properties.
Holyrood’s housing minister says the “shocking” numbers prove that Westminster’s spending cuts are hurting Scottish families, while poverty campaigners warned that the country is facing an epidemic of homelessness and poverty not seen since the 1980s.
Shelter, which offers support to people facing homelessness, said it was preparing for a “perfect storm” caused by the rising cost of living, job losses and wage freezes. It warned that poverty is set to engulf a “new demographic” – that of working families – in the coming months. According to its survey, one in three Scottish homeowners are living with the “constant worry” of how to pay their mortgage.
Some 57% of people surveyed said a 0.5% rise in interest rates could push them over the brink and make them homeless. There are 2.6 million homes in Scotland according to figures from the General Register Office.
‘Wages have been frozen, bills are up … It’s a perfect storm’
Keith Brown, minister for housing and transport, said: “These shocking statistics put into sharp focus the consequences of the economic recession and the scale and pace of Westminster’s spending cuts and welfare changes, which have hurt many Scots, putting family homes and families at risk.”
Holyrood recently introduced the Home Owner and Debtor Protection Act, which Brown claims is the “strongest legislation in the UK”, designed to make it more difficult for families’ homes to be repossessed. He added: “We have also helped bolster household income in Scotland by implementing measures such as the council tax freeze.
“But if we had more powers, we could do more. These statistics provide further proof of the urgent need to enhance the taxation, spending and borrowing responsibilities of the Scottish Parliament.
“It is not just home owners who are suffering. Housing benefit cuts will mean 60,000 tenants in Scotland losing on average £10 per week, with at least 95,000 more set for further misery as reductions in housing benefit planned for April 2013 bite.”
Shelter is currently staffing phonelines to deal with a surge in calls from families who fear they are about to lose their home.
“More and more people are worried about how they are going to put a roof over their family’s head. This is not just people who have experienced forms of crisis throughout their lives, but a new demographic of potentially homeless people who have never missed a rent or mortgage payment.
“Everything has gone up in price, while the average wage has not increased. Unless something changes soon, more people are facing the very real prospect of losing their home.”
Last week the Bank of England held interest rates at 0.5%, while inflation was sitting at 4.5% during May – the 17th consecutive month the inflation rate went above the Bank’s target rate of 2%.This has been in part caused by a marked increase in the price of food, with bread up by 5.8%, fruit up 5.4% and meat up 5.1%. Finance Secretary John Swinney recently summoned representatives of energy group ScottishPower to Holyrood, calling for an urgent meeting after the firm increased the cost of gas by 19% and electricity by 10%.
This increase is likely to plunge thousands of households into fuel poverty this winter. The Department for Energy and Climate Change defines a household in fuel poverty as one which needs to spend more than 10% of its income on fuel to maintain a “satisfactory heating regime” (between 18C and 21C).
John Dickie, head of the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, warned that the next generation’s prospects are likely to be damaged by any decrease in living standards.
He said: “Soaring food prices and massive hikes in energy bills are already hitting families brutally hard just as jobs are being lost, wages frozen and family benefits and tax credits cut.
“It is too often children who will suffer as their parents face impossible choices between paying the rent or mortgage, buying decent food, heating homes or racking up debt.
“Thousands of our children are having their health damaged, education undermined and childhoods destroyed because their parents are facing the double whammy of cuts to income and rising costs.”
He called on Westminster to “rethink the devastating cuts” on benefits and tax credits, which poorer families rely on to pay the bills. He also called for the Scottish Government to follow through on its commitment to a living wage, which would allow working parents to meet the rising cost of living.
Dickie added: “Unless politicians at every level take these actions now to boost family incomes and cut the soaring costs families face, we will see a return to the devastating rises in child poverty and homelessness last seen in the 1980s, rather than the progress needed to meet government promises to abolish child poverty by 2020.”
As part of its study, Shelter surveyed 1037 households in 55 constituencies across Scotland.