Housing (Scotland)

Part of Prayers – in the House of Commons at 9:34 am on 20th March 1996.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond Leader, Scottish National Party 9:34 am, 20th March 1996

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the issue of housing in Scotland. I suspect that housing is still the dominant issue raised in most hon. Members' constituency surgeries, and the trend has certainly accelerated over the past few years.

It seems to me, as I am sure it does to many hon. Members, that the right to live in a warm, dry and secure home is a basic human right that should be afforded to each and every person in society. The provision of decent. affordable housing is a key factor in determining quality of life, economic well-being and the health of all people. As such, it is the highest priority of the Government and every political party. In securing this debate, the Scottish National party is signalling that housing is and will remain at the top of its political agenda.

A nation cannot ever, to quote the Prime Minister, be "at ease with itself" when people are badly housed and while 500 to 1,000 people sleep rough on the streets of Scotland's cities and towns every night; while last year 40,000 households applied to local authorities as homeless. That figure equates to 78,000 people—about the population of a town the size of Paisley. Nor can the nation be at ease with itself while 150,000 children in Scotland are living in damp housing, where they are at risk from cold-related illnesses such as bronchitis and asthma.

Acceptance of the basic right to a home is one factor that distinguishes a civilised society from a non-civilised society. Decent. affordable housing is also the passport to participation in society. We know that people who live rough on our streets are denied not only the right to a home, but often the right to a job, as well as proper access to the health service and even social security benefits.

Housing authorities are uniquely placed to act as a centrepiece of care in the community. That means more than bricks and mortar; it means taking preventive action and providing community support and strategic planning for people with support needs, not only those living in institutional care but those who are already resident in the community and who require support. If there is to be any hope of meeting the needs of such people, more, not less, central Government funding is required to adjust the housing stock accordingly.

We know from a variety of authoritative sources, and from our experience as Members of Parliament hearing constituents' pleas for help in our surgeries, that the basic right to a warm, decent. affordable home is denied to far too many citizens in Scotland. That is either because they have no homes or because the properties that they occupy fail to meet the most basic housing standards.

Housing problems in Scotland are of a magnitude that can be properly described as a crisis. That is certainly the view of the housing professionals' organisation, the Chartered Institute of Housing in Scotland. In its recent report, "Investing in Scotland's Housing?", it said: There is a real crisis of underinvestment in housing", and it called on the Government seriously to address the issue.

The 1996 house condition survey has just begun, so we do not yet know the updated profile of Scottish housing, but it is worth recalling the results of the 1991 survey, for which hon. Members campaigned for many years. It found that one in 20 occupied houses in Scotland—95,000 houses—were below tolerable standards. One in eight homes—267,000 homes in Scotland—suffered from damp. Indeed, more than a quarter of Scottish households—392,000 homes—were affected by damp, condensation or mould. Shelter in Scotland has estimated that, today, about 186,000 households are on council house waiting lists in Scotland—about one third of the total council house stock, compared with one seventh in 1981.

Over the past few years, the realisation has dawned that the crisis in Scottish housing is not confined to urban areas—it extends to rural areas, too. Conditions in rural areas are particularly severe. Between 1985 and 1995, rural homelessness increased by 154 per cent. A report to be published in the coming week by Shelter will expose the extent of rural housing problems.

Figures for the number of houses that are below the tolerable standard are now highest in rural areas. I see the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) in the Chamber. I am sure that she is aware that 24 per cent. of houses in her constituency are below the tolerable standard, which is the highest of any area bar the Western Isles. On average, rural houses are 50 per cent. more likely to be affected by dampness. One in six homes-63,000 in rural areas—have a dampness problem, and that proportion rises to a third of all homes in the privately rented sector in rural areas.

If we examine the Government's response to the housing crisis in rural and urban areas, we find that it simply fails to match the scale of the problem. In fact, Government policy has contributed directly to making matters worse in many respects. They have slashed housing expenditure, which in turn has led to a decline in investment. According to figures from Shelter, between 1989–90 and 1995–96, capital investment in housing fell by 26 per cent. in real terms. If investment had been maintained at 1989 levels, an additional 27,000 affordable homes could have been built during that period.

The total level of housing support grant made available to Scottish councils next year will be a paltry £19.4 million, compared with £228 million in 1981. The scale of that cut testifies to the savage onslaught that councils, as housing providers, have suffered over the past decade at the hands of the Government.

All sectors of public provision—council housing, Scottish Homes and housing associations—are facing massive cuts. According to the Chartered Institute of Housing in Scotland, housing expenditure faces an overall cut of 22 per cent. in 1996–97. Local authority allocations will be cut by 17 per cent. in cash terms, and that is certainly not enough to tackle housing stock disrepair or homelessness. The Scottish Homes budget is to be cut by £55 million—a 21 per cent. cut in real terms—which will severely and seriously reduce the development programme for housing associations and co-operatives.

Yesterday, I had a series of meetings with housing associations and campaign groups in Scotland. One of the points that each of them made related to their resentment that the cut in the Scottish Homes budget did not receive the same publicity or interest as a smaller, although equally undesirable cut in the Scottish Enterprise budget. They took that as a signal that housing is currently not a sufficiently high priority in the political debate in Scotland. I hope that this debate and hon. Members' speeches will redress part of that impression.

Last year in the Scottish Grand Committee, the Minister's predecessor, now the Minister of State, Scottish Office, assured my hon. Friend the Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh) that There will be more than £2.8 billion for housing in the coming three years."—[Official Report, Scottish Grand Committee, 3 May 1995; c. 8.] I shall be listening very carefully to hear whether the Minister cares to repeat that that is still the target for the next three years. Many housing organisations say that that target will not be met.

Across Scotland, investment in council housing will decrease by at least one fifth. Capital allocations for Scottish local authorities totalled £423 million for 1995–96, which was made up of some £254 million in receipts and £168 million in borrowing consents. That was an 8 per cent. reduction in cash terms and an 11 per cent. reduction in real terms for the year.

Scottish Office cuts in housing investment in the coming financial year will exacerbate the problems that councils will suffer because of the shortfall in receipts. Tenants who live in the poorest housing and who have the lowest incomes—those whose homes need essential repairs or who need a home itself—will lose the most. The survey on capital allocations found that 30 out of the 42 authorities that responded are experiencing a shortfall in receipts this year. Due to a reduced number of houses being bought through the right to buy, local authorities will have a shortfall of at least £33 million in capital receipts this financial year.

Local authorities will, of course, now be required to use 25 per cent. of receipts to help pay off the housing debt, rising to 50 per cent. in the following year. In itself, paying off that debt will take millions of pounds out of housing provision in Scotland. The Chartered Institute of Housing reports councils as summarising their situation as follows: Contracts may have to be postponed, rewiring will have to be deferred as will heating replacement. The start date for projects will have to be delayed, which will also impact on spending for 1996–97. Authorities modernisation programmes will have to be curtailed. In the new Aberdeenshire council, my new local authority, it is estimated that investment will decrease by at least 32 per cent. in real terms. In 1997–98, further investment cuts of 17 per cent. are planned.

The approved development programme for Scottish Homes has been slashed from £325 million to £280 million. That will mean that the number of housing association starts will be cut from 9,000 in 1995–96 to just over 6,000 in 1996–97, a reduction of one third. In other words, 3,000 families who would have been adequately housed are set to lose out in the coming financial year because of cuts in the programme.

As a result of funding cuts, there is pressure on housing associations to increase the percentage of private finance and to decrease quality, leading to higher rents and increased long-term costs. The Government are proposing to sell the UK loan book to the private sector. One of the questions that I should like the Minister to deal with today is whether the Scottish Office will support a separate sale of the Scottish loan book, thereby opening the door to at least the possibility of Scottish housing associations buying out their own debt.

As I said, yesterday I had the opportunity to meet representatives of housing organisations in Scotland. I met representatives of The Big Issue, the Scottish Council for Single Homeless, Shelter in Scotland, the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations and the Chartered Institute of Housing in Scotland. They all agreed that the overriding challenge facing Scottish housing is lack of investment, and each of them argued that the resources available for housing are inadequate to deal with the problem.

Hon. Members will recall that, during the 1992 US presidential election, those working to secure a Democrat victory constantly and famously reminded voters that the major issue in the campaign could be summarised in the phrase, "It's the economy, stupid." The Minister responsible for housing in Scotland should have the phrase, "It's investment, stupid," on his ministerial desk, because that basic political and social fact encapsulates the problem and the solution facing Scottish housing. The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations put the situation rather well in its manifesto, "Putting Housing on the Political Agenda", when it said: Housing is a long term national and community asset. We believe that our current housing crisis will not be resolved until a greater proportion of our nation's wealth is invested in our housing stock. The short-sightedness in the Government's approach could not be more apparent. They fail to recognise that investment in public housing is not only of social benefit, but almost certainly of economic benefit. In addition, it brings substantial advantages in the reduction of health service costs to the national health service, and has a role to play in reducing crime. Housing is a key factor in economic regeneration, reducing unemployment and kick-starting local and national economies.

The Chartered Institute of Housing has estimated that, for each £1 invested in housing, there is an immediate return of 50p in reduced welfare benefits, increased personal and company taxation and in the generation of local expenditure. Shelter calculated that every house in poor condition costs the health service £300 per year per occupant, putting into stark relief the relationship between poor housing and bad health.

The cost to the national health service of cold and damp housing alone has been estimated at £800 million per year. That figure is for the UK, from the Standing Conference on Public Health working group in 1994.

The average energy rating of a Scottish home, on a scale of one to 10, is only 3.3. I am sure that hon. Members need no reminding that there are 3,000 cold-related deaths in Scotland every year, yet, for a 5 per cent. increase in building costs, we know that energy efficiency can be raised by up to 50 per cent. We also know that asthma directly costs the NHS £437 million, according to current figures, and that that figure is increasing yearly. It is estimated that a further £400 million in lost productivity and £70 million in costs to the Department of Social Security result from the prevalence of asthma.

Much crime and anti-social behaviour such as burglary and vandalism is housing-related. The Chartered Institute of Housing in Scotland, which published "Housing and Crime—How well we are managing", found that a major element in managing crime is partnership with the police, local agencies and community groups, but whether that approach is via management initiatives such as this, security-led initiatives or design initiatives, they all require proper resourcing to have any chance of success.

The Scottish National party offers an alternative, which we think is capable of dealing with the scale of the Scottish housing crisis. We want to establish a Ministry of Housing, to provide strategic policy direction, with a Cabinet Minister with sole responsibility for housing. Our intention is to transfer three quarters of the councils' housing capital debt to central Government over a four-year period, which would release up to £945 million of new resources that would otherwise be spent servicing that debt. At the moment, the bulk of council rent in Scotland goes to paying loan charges from previously accumulated capital debt.

We argue for the replacement of Scottish Homes with a new agency, whose sole purpose would be to provide good-quality housing and a high standard of public sector management. It is remarkable that we have in Scottish Homes one of the few housing agencies in the world whose sole intention and drive seems to be to get out of housing and managing houses.

Through the transfer of capital debt to central Government over a four-year period, Scottish councils would have substantial additional resources to tackle dampness, insulate homes and repair and maintain existing stock, and an additional 10,000 empty homes would be returned to use in that period.