The housing crisis in Scotland isn’t just about houses – it’s about people. It’s about the family struggling to meet next month’s mortgage payment. The young family renting a rundown flat, wondering if they’ll ever be able to afford a home of their own. It’s about the children living in temporary accommodation, forced to change schools every time they move.

The slums might be gone, but the lack of affordable, decent homes in Scotland today still affects families and individuals across the whole country.

Scotland’s housing is still in crisis.


1920s Cramped | Unsanitary | Inadequate

Throughout the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, Scotland’s housing was generally cramped and unsanitary – without access to the conveniences we now take for granted. Whole families lived in just one or two rooms without basic amenities. Large numbers of people shared toilets and cooking facilities and the lack of hygiene and severe overcrowding caused diseases such as cholera, typhus and tuberculosis, to spread.

Some of the worst conditions anywhere in the UK were in Glasgow, where it was not uncommon for four, six or even eight people to share a room. Often up to 30 people might share a toilet with 40 to a tap.

The Government’s first Housing Act in 1919 was passed to improve these terrible living conditions. People were assured an improved standard of living with more space, running water, toilets and electricity.

Imagine sharing a tap with 40 other people.
1923: Knightswood in the north-west of Glasgow, was built by Glasgow Corporation to relocate people from slum tenements cleared near the city centre. The estate would build a mini community with a library, social centre and seven shopping parades
Scarcity of housing, high rents and the squalid conditions of the existing housing led to mass rent strikes in Glasgow. Mary Barbour fought the landlords and their rent increases.

No piece on housing reform in Scotland would be complete without a mention of Mary Barbour, who was a leading social reformer and a leading voice of housing and rent reform in Glasgow in the early 20th century. In particular, she is renowned for her activism in the Govan area during the 1915 Glasgow rent strikes and helping organise tenant committees and eviction resistance. Her campaigning against profiteering landlords resulted in positive reform and change to renting law. A statue of Mary Barbour is planned for Govan to commemorate her amazing achievements.


1930s Construction boom | Slum clearance | Quantity over quality

The 1930s saw a boom of private builders constructing large numbers of suburban houses offering clean running water and electricity to power new ‘luxuries’ such as fridges and radiograms. The reality was that only a well-off minority could afford these new homes.

The 1931 Census showed that 63% of Dundee's population still occupied one or two roomed homes, compared to 62% in Glasgow and 31% in Edinburgh. In Dundee 50% of the homes still shared toilet facilities.

Building as many new homes as possible became a higher priority than quality. The quality of new council homes dropped, with all the emphasis being on clearing the city slums. This meant poorer space standards, higher density and less attractive locations. A survey of 1936 found that almost half of Scotland’s houses were still inadequate.


1940s WWII | Schemes | New Towns

Pre WWII, suburbs built in the green belt had spread to the edge of the larger Scottish cities: Knightswood, Pollok, and Mosspark in Glasgow; Pilton and Sighthill in Edinburgh; and Downfield in Dundee.

WWII saw house building stop. By 1945, overcrowding, poor hygiene and damp conditions reached their peak and urgent action was needed.

The Government’s “after war” program for Scotland called for 50,000 homes per year to be built to get people out of the slums.

Large schemes were built to try and address the problem: Drumchapel, Easterhouse, Castlemilk in Glasgow; Muirhouse, Craigmillar, Niddrie in Edinburgh. These were soon seen as too far out of town and with too few local amenities. They eased the housing shortage temporarily, but it was no closer to being solved. New towns were built – moving people out of the big cities and setting up new communities.


1950s Post War | High rise living | Slum clearance

In the 1950s Glasgow started to develop high rise solutions to their housing supply needs. In 1953 tenants moved into the new and modern ‘skyscrapers’ of Moss Heights near Hillington and in the late 1950s the Corporation approved 19-storey high blocks of flats to be built in Gorbals in Glasgow.

The Housing (Repairs and Rents) (Scotland) Act of 1954 forced local authorities to draw up plans for slum clearance. In the 10 years after the Act was passed, 32,000 homes in Glasgow were closed or demolished. Many of the rehoused families found homes in the new towns of East Kilbride and Cumbernauld. Many others moved to the housing schemes of Easterhouse, Castlemilk and Drumchapel but these homes were very basic with few (if any) amenities, and transport into the city for work was expensive. The demolition, to create the infrastructure around and through the cities, destroyed communities which had existed for generations.

Building a dream house


1960s Cathy Come Home | Increased public support | Shelter is born

Across Scotland in the 1960s there continued to be problems with overcrowding and there were still stark contrasts in housing conditions. Cramped flats in parts of Edinburgh still existed well into the 1960s and were still housing families of ten people in 1968.

The 1961 census showed that there were still 11,000 homes in Glasgow unfit for habitation. The focus was now definitely on high rise building to drive families out of the slums and reduce the massive waiting lists that had built up in Scotland’s cities.

The most widely known high rises were:

  • Gallowgate II development, Aberdeen
  • Callendar Park, Falkirk
  • Red Road flats, Glasgow
  • Whitfield development, Dundee
The red road flats - a million new homes

Shelter’s beginnings

In Notting Hill in London, the Reverend Bruce Kenrick was so appalled by the shocking conditions many families had to call home in his parish that he was moved to set up an organisation called Shelter. Shelter’s vision was to create a national body that would speak out for the hidden homeless, and unite the work of different housing charities.

Ken Loach's film Cathy Come Home highlighted the extent of the housing crisis

In the same year Shelter was formed, the BBC screened Ken Loach’s film about homelessness, ‘Cathy Come Home’. Twelve million people watched the film on its first broadcast. The public, media and the government were alerted to the massive scale of the housing crisis – and Shelter’s support grew.

The appalling state of many Glasgow tenements, such as these photographed in July 1968, helped galvanise support for the newly launched Shelter Scotland.

Shelter Scotland was formed 50 years ago on the 3rd of October 1968, harnessing the anger and compassion that had catapulted Shelter into the nation’s conscience in 1966.

Right at the start, Shelter’s founders recognised that the housing problems in Scotland were as acute as anywhere else in the UK. These problems demanded immediate attention. But the founders also saw that, with separate Scottish law and institutions, the campaign in Scotland needed a different response.

Ronald Dick, Shelter Scotland’s first director, and Isobel Fleming Boyd, our first appeals organiser.

So the Scottish campaign was launched on 3 October, with Ronald Dick as its first director, and chaired by Sir David Steel, later to become the leader of the Liberal Party and first Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament. Other leading figures included Richard Holloway, later Bishop of Edinburgh and chair of the Scottish Arts Council; Winnie Ewing, at various times MP, MEP and MSP; and entertainers Stanley Baxter and Andy Stewart.

Richard Holloway discusses establishing Shelter Scotland
Shelter’s early campaigning woke the nation up to the shocking conditions endured by many of our fellow citizens.

The immediate focus of Shelter Scotland was the appalling legacy of slum homes in the towns and cities, where poor health and overcrowding were rife.

Shelter Scotland lay behind the formation of several housing associations, including Castle Rock Housing Association in Edinburgh, which, as Castle Rock-Edinvar, goes from strength to strength today.

Overcrowding was rife in the 1960s. In more recent times, the sale of many of the largest council houses through the Right to Buy scheme means there is still a chronic shortage of family-sized homes – and overcrowding remains a problem today.
Shelter Scotland breaking down the stereotypes associated with homelessness.


1970s Priority Need | 1-2-1 help | Shelter Scotland housing aid

Shelter Scotland opened its first housing aid centre based in Edinburgh. Housing aid meant that Shelter Scotland could give 1-2-1 help to people who were homeless or in housing need. In 1977, the UK Government introduced the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act. This meant, for the first time, local authorities had the legal duty to house homeless people in priority need and to provide advice and assistance to those not in priority need.

Roz Micklem on the changing legilsation in the 1970s

The legislation took another six months to go live in Scotland, because
some local authorities and politicians sought to halt it. Events like these
proved how crucial it was for Shelter to have a dedicated Scottish set-up.

Families gained a right to accommodation in 1977, but all too often this meant months, or even years, stuck in bed and breakfast hotels.

The Scotsman Publications Ltd

Slums in Glasgow. (This video has no sound)


1980s Right to Buy | Housing Act 1980 | Shelter Scotland housing aid

In 1981, 55% of Scotland's people are living in council homes.

After Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in May 1979, the legislation to implement the Right to Buy (giving council tenants the right to buy their property at a significantly discounted rate) was passed in the Housing Act 1980. Some 6 million people were affected; about one in three actually purchased their unit. Michael Heseltine, the Secretary of State for the Environment, noted that “no single piece of legislation has enabled the transfer of so much capital wealth from the state to the people.”

In Scotland, the Right to Buy has resulted in the sale of over half a million council homes in the 30 years from 1980. This has left a massive hole in the available housing stock. Fewer social homes meant longer council waiting lists, and also a reduction in the quality of housing available (since the most desirable homes generally sold first).

Spending on new social housing was reduced and benefits to young people were cut.


1990s Recession | Repossession | Rough Sleepers’ Initiative

1991 saw the biggest recession in Britain since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The main causes were high interest rates (15% at its highest) and falling house prices.

Repossessions hit 70,000 a year – equivalent to around 200 households losing their home each day.

In the early 1990s, Shelter’s Scottish Housing Law Service was launched to offer free, expert legal help to people who were homeless or in housing need, followed in 1997 by the Rough Sleepers’ Initiative after a two year Shelter Scotland campaign. This programme ran between 1997 and 2003, and more than £40 million was given to new projects that sought to reduce the rise in street homelessness.

Liz Nicholson on progress in the 1990s


2010s The Bedroom Tax | Welfare Reform | 2012 Commitment | New Private Rented Tenancy | Homelessness on the agenda

Scotland had its own parliament by 1999 and the decade saw long-delayed reforms to housing policy reach the top of the list for the UK Parliament. New rights for homeless people were introduced and new tenancies for social tenants. Long-term commitments were made on fuel poverty and better housing. The flagship commitment was to give all homeless people the same entitlement to a home by 2012, known as the ‘2012 commitment’.
While the 2012 commitment was achieved, the credit crunch and “bail-out” of well-known financial institutions ushered in a more austere period for public policy with changes to the social security safety net.

This landscape fuels Shelter Scotland’s campaigning for Scottish social and private tenants and home-owners.

Shelter Scotland worked with the Scottish Government to clarify the Housing Scotland Act and launched the Reclaim Your Fees campaign. A Reclaim Your Fees website and toolkit has been provided to help tenants reclaim their fees. Read more about tenant success stories using the toolkit.

The under occupancy deduction, or ‘bedroom tax’, was introduced to the UK which reduced the housing benefit social tenants received if they were deemed to have a spare bedroom. Shelter Scotland campaigned to make sure that these changes didn’t hit the most vulnerable and the Scottish Government increased funding for discretionary housing payments in response.

Shelter’s Scotland successful ‘Banish the Bedroom Tax Monster’ campaign called on the Scottish Government directly to help local authorities to top up their discretionary housing payments funds. This meant tenants could apply for extra funds in order to cover the money lost through the bedroom tax. This approach was adopted and the Scottish Government put an extra £20 million into local councils to make this possible.

Graeme Brown on recent campaigns
Shelter Scotland’s campaign to end the bedroom tax

Right to Buy

Shelter Scotland campaigned hard to end the ‘Right to Buy’ policy to safeguard social rented homes for future generations. The Right to Buy policy meant many of the most popular homes were sold, narrowing the choices for those left behind. After many years of campaigning, Right to Buy finally came to an end on 1 August 2016, helping to relieve the pressure on social housing stock.

Build More Homes

Once the Right to Buy was ended our campaigning did not stop there, as we knew many more social rented houses were required. With 150,000 people on housing waiting lists we knew a significant step change in the supply of affordable housing was needed. The Scottish Government responded to our campaigning and in 2016 committed to build 50,000 new affordable homes to help tackle Scotland’s housing crisis.

Make Renting Right

Shelter Scotland campaigned for over 10 years to ‘Make Renting Right‘ as we wanted a safer, more secure, flexible renting market that works for everyone.

Shelter Scotland’s campaigning to make renting right

As a direct result of this campaigning a new tenancy called the Private Residential Tenancy was introduced in December 2017. This new tenancy will provide the 370,000 households in the private rented sector with indefinite security of tenure, subject to the grounds for eviction, meaning an end to “no-fault” evictions. In addition to the new tenancy, all landlord and tenant disputes will be heard in a new specialist tribunal and all letting agents will be required to register and adhere to a new code of practice.

It is our hope that these three measures will put tenants who need this security and stability on a much stronger footing when it comes to making a private let a home, and asking for essential repairs to be carried out.


Every 18 minutes a household in Scotland becomes homeless, and there has been a 10% rise in the number of rough sleepers applying as homeless. At Shelter Scotland we think it’s a disgrace that in one of the richest countries in the world, we still can’t provide a home for everyone.

In response to these concerns about homelessness, Shelter Scotland launched the Homelessness: Far From Fixed campaign in 2016. Our campaign called for renewed national leadership on homelessness and a new National Homelessness Strategy for Scotland.

Shelter Scotland’s Far From Fixed homelessness campaign kicks off

This campaign gathered strong support from national and local politicians, Scottish organisations and the public. On 5 September 2017, a year after our campaign began, the First Minister announced the 2017/18 Programme for Scottish Government, making homelessness a national public priority.

The Next 50 Years

Our work at Shelter Scotland has always been informed by the issues people come to us with. With our supporters’, volunteers’ and clients’ support we have successfully campaigned for significant changes over the past 50 years. However, we are currently in a housing crisis and we know that there’s still a lot more to do. By working together, we know we can bring about the vital changes needed to ensure that we see an end to homelessness. We will continue fighting until there’s a home for everyone.

What about empty homes?

In Scotland, the latest data (collated in September 2016) shows we have approximately 35,727 long term, private sector empty homes. These are figures reported to Scottish Government from the 32 local authorities and are based on council tax records. Since the inception of the Empty Homes Partnership, 2843 properties have been brought back into use.

We are currently amid a housing crisis in Scotland and bringing empty homes back into use is an important, cost effective contribution to housing supply. We believe that a dedicated empty homes officer is required in every council to support these owners. This will allow the local authority to map out empty homes, tie them into regeneration plans, build them into local housing plans and focus on tailored solutions. Many authorities are ahead of the curve with empty homes work, and sharing their innovative solutions and best practice allows other councils to develop and maintain their own services. In fact, 97% of the properties that were brought back into use last year were in areas with a dedicated resource.


Today Scotland needs more affordable homes

So what does the housing crisis look like today?

The housing crisis is alive and well in Scotland today, although its shape may have shifted. Things still need to change in Scotland. Urgent reform is still needed.

This is why we will continue to campaign tirelessly to end the housing crisis and to make sure everyone has a decent, affordable home.

If you would like to see more information about the housing and homelessness statistics in Scotland please click here.

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