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Scotland's housing emergency: a timeline

The housing emergency in Scotland has never just been 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. This is about the children living in temporary accommodation, forced to change schools every time they move. These are today's struggles.

But read about how our housing emergency has played out, decade after decade and you'll see the same kind of worries, the same void that comes with not having a place to call home. The slums might be gone now, but there's the same lack of affordable, decent homes in Scotland.

Scotland is still in a housing emergency.


1920s housing crisis in Scotland

Cramped. Unsanitary. Inadequate.

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

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.

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 wasn't 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.

A Glasgow pioneer

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's renowned for her activism in the Govan area during the 1915 Glasgow mass rent strikes, protesting the scarcity of housing, high rents and the squalid conditions of the existing housing.

Mary Barbour fought the landlords and their rent increases, helping to organise tenant committees and eviction resistance, leading to positive change to renting law.

There is a statue of Mary Barbour in Govan to commemorate her amazing achievements.

Mary Barbour, who was a leading social reformer and a leading voice of housing and rent reform in Glasgow in the early 20th century


Construction boom. Slum clearances. 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.

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.

1931: The 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.

Slum clearance and a housing boom in 1930s Scotland


Another war. Schemes. New towns.

Before the second world war, 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. The second world war saw house building stop.

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.


Post-war slum clearance. High rise living.

In the 1950s Glasgow started to develop high rise solutions to its 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.

1954: The Housing (Repairs and Rents) (Scotland) Act 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.


A still image taken from Ken Loach's Cathy Come Home.

Cathy Come Home. Increased public support.

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 most widely known high rises were:

  • Gallowgate II development, Aberdeen

  • Callendar Park, Falkirk

  • Red Road flats, Glasgow

  • Whitfield development, Dundee

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

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 in 1966.

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.

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 emergency – and Shelter’s support grew.

1968: Shelter Scotland was formed on 3 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.

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.

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 Places for People Scotland, goes from strength to strength today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 breaking down the stereotypes associated with homelessness.

Shelter Scotland started to break down the stereotypes associated with homelessness.


Overcrowding in Scottish housing in 1970s

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.

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.

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


Right to Buy. Housing Act 1980.

In 1981, 51% of Scottish people were living in council homes.

1980: Shortly after Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister, 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.

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.

Rough sleeping in Scotland in the 1980s

No single piece of legislation has enabled the transfer of so much capital wealth from the state to the people.

Michael Heseltine, the Secretary of State for the Environment


Recession. Repossession. The Rough Sleepers’ Initiative.

1991: The biggest recession hits 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.

Rough sleeper in Scotland in the 1990s


Welfare reform. Homelessness on the agenda.

1999: Scotland gets its own parliament and the following decade sees long-delayed reforms to housing policy reach the top of the list for the UK Parliament. New rights for people who are homeless 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 people who are homeless 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 homeowners.

A street in Scotland

The Bedroom Tax Monster

2013: The under occupancy deduction, or ‘bedroom tax’, was introduced to the UK. This 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.

Shelter Scotland’s campaign to end the bedroom tax

Right to Buy

Shelter Scotland campaigned to end Right to Buy, 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 didn't stop there: 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 emergency.

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.

As a direct result of this 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.

Homelessness: Far From Fixed

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.

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.

Empty homes

The Scottish Empty Homes Partnership was formed in 2010. It exists to encourage the thousands of privately-owned long-term empty homes in Scotland back into use.

We're currently amid a housing emergency in Scotland and turning vacant properties into homes is an important, cost effective contribution to the 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.

In 2020/21 851 properties were brought back into use.

A picture of an empty home in Orkney.

The next 50 years

The housing emergency today

Scotland is still facing a housing emergency today. Things need to change and urgent reform is needed.

  • Every 16 minutes a household becomes homeless in Scotland.

  • 9,860 children were stuck in temporary accommodation in Scotland last year.

  • 15,625 households are in temporary accommodation in Scotland.