NICOLA Sturgeon has been told by the housing regulator that a rent increases freeze to beat the cost of living crisis will not work as it covers a period when the vast majority of bills will not go up anyway.

The Scottish Housing Regulator has said that the freeze will not help most of the 1m people who are living in social rented housing and has called for urgent action as rent arrears hit a record £169.63m.

The Scottish Tenants Organisation said the rent freeze announced by ministers as part of "the centrepiece" of the 2022-23 Programme for Government (PfG) was "a PR con trick" and "impotent" as it starts after bills go up and ends before they are due to rise again.

The regulator has told the Scottish Government that the suspension on increases in rent provided by "almost all" social landlords running from this month to the end of March will have "no direct or immediate impact", because rents are altered at the start of April of each year.

There are estimated to be 2.6m homes in Scotland with nearly a quarter being social rented properties and 15% being leased privately. Social sector landlords are councils or housing associations who tend to provide lower cost accommodation.

The level of arrears for 2021/22 is at 6.3% of all rent due - the highest since the Scottish Social Housing Charter was introduced by the Housing (Scotland) Act 2010 and came into force in April 2012.

The charter set out the standards and outcomes that all social landlords should be aiming to achieve for their customers when performing their housing activities.

The housing and homelessness charity Shelter Scotland has urged the First Minister to provide clarity for tenants rent freeze plan saying the Scottish Government has "failed to provide any detail about how it will work in practice".

The charity says it has been "inundated" with calls from tenants who were "confused" about the freeze and seeking clarity about the practical impact on their lives.

It says that housing advisers cannot answer questions from those tenants who have received a rent increase notice before or after the announcement on September 6 and say that the "ongoing silence is creating real concern for people at risk of homelessness".

The combined rent freeze and moratorium on evictions to help people through the cost crisis was announced as "the centrepiece" of the 2022-23 Programme for Government (PfG).

Nicola Sturgeon announced an eviction ban and a rent freeze earlier this month as part of a series of measures to protect private and social tenants from the cost of living crisis.

The First Minister revealed emergency legislation will be introduced to bring both measures into place until March as she laid out her Programme for Government.

She said: “It will aim to give people security about the roof over their heads this winter through a moratorium on evictions. Secondly the legislation will include measures to deliver a rent freeze. The Scottish government does not have the power to stop your energy bills soaring but we can take action to ensure your rent does not rise.”

Ms Sturgeon added: “The practical effect of this statement is that rents are frozen from today.

“Two of the most important and fundamental sources of security for any of us are a job and a home. In times of economic and financial crisis. These can be the foundations that help people through.”

The move came just two months after SNP and Scottish Green ministers rejected a rent freeze following campaigning by Scottish Labour’s Mercedes Villalba.

The regulator said every social landlord in Scotland applied an average rent increase in April that was below the CPI inflation rate of 9% at that time, with some not increasing rents at all.

But while confirming record rent arrears, it said: "The Scottish Government may need to consider what more it can do to help social landlords to keep rents affordable and to continue to deliver for current and future tenants."

It said that while the rent increases moratorium will have no direct or immediate impact it said it was a "clear indication of the importance which the Scottish Government places on the role of rents in helping to respond to the cost of living crisis".

"Social landlords will want to consider the implications of this development for their decision making on setting rent levels for 2023/24," the regulator said.

"It is clear that the forthcoming annual rent setting exercise, and potentially those for some years to come, is likely to be the most difficult that social landlords have faced, in which they will need to consider rising costs and inflation while recognising the financial hardship that is a reality for many of their tenants and a heightened potential for government intervention in rent setting. This will inevitably mean that landlords will face some difficult choices and decisions as a result.

Barrhead News: First Minister and local MSP Nicola Sturgeon opens a new housing development by Govanhill Housing Association in Govanhill  Picture: Jamie Simpson

Nicola Sturgeon opened a new complex of 22 Govanhill Housing Association homes in 2018.

"It is this very context, however, that means keeping tenants’ rents as affordable as possible has never been more important."

The 2021/22 findings from the survey of the National Panel of Tenants and Service Users found that 28% of tenants that responded have experienced difficulties affording their rent and other housing costs up from the previous year.

More than 9 in 10 respondents identified energy and food costs as to the fore in terms of increased cost of living, and just over 7 in 10 were concerned about future affordability of their rent.

The Scottish Tenants Organisation said: "The rent freeze is a PR con trick. The bottom line is the Scottish Government are implementing a rent freeze when the rents have already gone up for this financial year, and then it ends before the beginning of the next financial year when rents go up again."

Organisation spokesman Sean Clerkin added:"The Scottish Government rent freeze is in effect impotent. The rent freeze and ban of evictions needs to be extended to two years to give people the chance to financially recover."

Alison Watson, director of Shelter Scotland, said: “At a time when families are worried about keeping their home, the uncertainty around the rent freeze proposals is a worry people can do without. Tenants are worried and don’t know their rights.

"The people in Scotland who need help with housing and homelessness can’t wait weeks for clarification on a six-month plan – time is running out. Making these promises and not setting out how they will work has caused panic when there is already a cost-of-living crisis having an impact on people.

“A rent-freeze may help prevent more people from becoming homeless, but it won’t help the tens of thousands of people across the country who are already homeless. Helping them will require the kind of long term, systemic, change proposed in our Housing Emergency Action Plan.

“We have said time and time again that the people in Scotland who are at the sharp end of the homelessness system cannot wait a second longer for action to be taken. We need to understand how this legislation will work for those suffering from uncertainty. The need for emergency action cannot be ignored.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “These are exceptional measures developed to reflect a rapidly worsening cost of living crisis – if approved by the Scottish Parliament they will increase protection for tenants from eviction and rent rises.

“They will apply until at least 31 March – in both the social and privately rented sectors – and we will keep them under review, including whether they need to be extended beyond March and in what form.”