Housing

– in the Scottish Parliament at 9:34 am on 13th January 2000.

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Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour 9:34 am, 13th January 2000

Last month, I announced to the chamber our plans for a radical new start for Scottish housing. I promised then that there would be an opportunity for a full debate; today's debate is the longest so far scheduled in the Parliament. The bonus is that members will hear from all of us the longest opening speeches yet.

An all-day debate reflects the fundamental importance of housing in Scotland, the interest among members in the chamber and the radicalism of our plans. Good housing and strong communities lie at the heart of delivering social justice and economic competitiveness.

I will set out the Executive's core vision for housing in Scotland. I will not shirk our more controversial proposals, nor shall I treat lightly any critical contributions—the Parliament has not only a real interest in housing issues, but real expertise.

Today matters. This is a serious debate on housing and presents an opportunity for us all, as Scotland's elected representatives, to discuss, listen, reflect and influence the draft bill that is to be published later in the year.

I want to begin with the legacy that is so familiar to many members: 500,000 damp homes and 350,000 Scottish children growing up in damp houses. Shelter estimates that it would require £10 billion to repair and improve our housing stock. There are rising homelessness applications, alongside vacant dwellings.

Change is needed. The old ways have failed. The Parliament confronts real problems and challenges and today we can embrace real solutions. This is our chance to say to the people of Scotland that the partnership Administration, Labour and Liberal colleagues together, is getting to grips with the people's priorities in housing.

We have decisively broken with the past. We have raised £300 million extra investment to be committed to housing and regeneration in Scotland. The partnership promises that, by next year, public sector expenditure on housing in Scotland will be 40 per cent higher than in the plans we inherited.

We will confront homelessness. People sleeping on our streets was the enduring symbol of so much that was wrong about the social and economic priorities of the Tory years. Young people curled up in sleeping bags gave the lie to trickle-down economics. The partnership promises that no one should have to sleep rough in Scotland by 2003.

For too long, dampness has been the scourge of Scottish housing. The partnership is delivering the warm deal, which is unique to Scotland and offers those without work new jobs insulating the homes of those without warmth. It is the biggest grant scheme of its kind ever offered in Scotland.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

The minister may be aware that there is a great deal of concern about the future of the warm deal; I have lodged a motion on the subject. Following comments yesterday evening by Frank McAveety, when he implied that the insulation company that was referred to was a one-off, I must tell the minister that I received an e-mail this morning from another installer saying that six Scottish installers are about to go bust or pull out of the warm deal because they cannot find the work. Does the minister agree that we need an urgent review of the warm deal and its operation, however much we support the need for increased investment in insulation?

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

As the member will know, we always keep all our policies under review. The criticism last night blamed the Government for two things. First, we were blamed for going where the problem was worst, yet that is a principle that should command support from the whole Parliament. Secondly, we were blamed for training unemployed young people. One of the wonderful aspects of the warm deal is that it says that we do not just want jobs for people in work—we want them also for people without work.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

There is a problem with the warm deal and the new deal. The flagship new deal policy was not just about giving people six months' job experience; it was about placing people in employment afterwards. Many members went to people's homes during warm homes week. I met new deal trainees who were enjoying the experience, but were grossly disappointed that they were not getting employment at the end of it. It is an expensive mistake. We must direct the new deal more efficiently and we must not confuse the two issues.

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

Order. Interventions must be brief, particularly if a member is to be called later.

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

It is the most gross hypocrisy for the SNP to defend the new deal—a policy that it did not support because it was funded by the windfall tax, which it also did not support.

The important and substantive point is that 70 per cent of the people who participate with many of the installers in the warm deal programme get the opportunity of full-time work. They are getting a traineeship in construction. We expect that, if our plans for Glasgow go ahead, there will be up to 4,000 construction jobs in the city, giving those people, and many more, full-time jobs.

Photo of Lloyd Quinan Lloyd Quinan Scottish National Party

Does the minister agree that the figures for warm deal and new deal together show that only 25 per cent of the trainees who have worked through those programmes have successfully found a job at the end and that 75 per cent of the trainees have found themselves unemployed after 6 months?

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

No, I do not accept Lloyd's figures, and I would like to move on.

We have a warm deal package that is the largest of its kind ever in Scotland. I say to Opposition members that instead of criticising and saying that perhaps not enough old people are taking up the scheme, they should go to their local elderly forum, take the leaflet with them, and urge people to apply—because the substance of the Scottish National party's criticism last night was that not enough people have the chance to take up the scheme.

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

Opposition members should play their part—and, no, it is not my problem, Fiona; it is a problem for all of us to ensure that people know what their rights are.

Last night, we touched on the issue of debt in Glasgow. Under the Tories, housing debt kept on rising and access to new private investment was only for the chosen few. We now have a partnership that is promising that—when tenants are in the driving seat—we will help to lift the debt burden. We will do that by supporting community ownership, by bringing in new investment, by putting people first and by giving tenants the right to choose their destiny.

The dividing lines between the old world and the new world are clear. The old world was about debt, dampness and scant democracy. As we start to deliver, all that is giving way. However, we will not do the people of Scotland justice if today we simply trade rhetoric about what has been achieved in the first six months.

I want to come to the heart of the matter, and talk about what is too often thought but too rarely said: for those with eyes to see, it is clear that the old ways of doing things will not work. We cannot prosper through the McLetchie economics of markets and incomes that fail households. Nor can we take refuge in the ideological purity so characteristic of the Siberian or Sheridan world view, so chilling in its disregard for the individual.

I invite every member of this chamber, at the start of the new century, to have the courage to admit that this is the time to create change, rather than to fear it, and to harness the strengths of everyone to deliver policies that can work. Let us try to have a shared understanding of the problems. Let us reflect today not on the successes of Scottish housing, but on how we can address the failures. Those failures have been remarkably consistent, not just over 10 or 20 years, but over 100 years. Too often, massive commitments have produced poor outcomes. We have had decades of high spending—by European standards—on housing; we have been long on ideology and shorter on practical ideas. The common thread running through it all is one of hopes that—generation after generation—were never quite realised. Those hopes should echo through this debate.

We have seen the destruction of neighbourhoods and the destabilisation of local economies. There are cries that echo from the beginning of the previous century to the letters page of The Herald this week. We have seen the decay, first of the tenement, and then of too much council housing—houses linked by their scale, their monotony and their poor condition. We have seen the insensitivity of too much housing management and a bureaucracy, whether private or public, that leaves tenants confused, frustrated and disempowered.

Finally, we have seen quantity triumphing time and time again over quality. Despite the efforts of many committed people, our responsibility is to address that legacy of dashed hopes, bad design and disempowerment.

This is not, however, a story without hope, vision or possibilities. People in the communities of Scotland have demonstrated the solutions and know what works. Over the past 20 years, there has been community involvement in housing associations, decentralised housing management and different tenures, each of which has a part to play and all of which are united by a common philosophy of putting people first. No party has a monopoly on putting people first. What works comes from the experience of thousands of people across Scotland who have taken control in their communities and of their own homes.

The future starts with people, which means offering Scotland's social tenants the best ever tenants' rights package. There should be no second-class tenants in the new Scotland. We want new rights to succession so that carers who give up their homes to look after others then secure the tenancy themselves. We want new rights that compel landlords to consult tenants about future plans for their homes. We want the right to buy not just for some, but for all council and housing association tenants outwith the charitable sector.

Photo of Lloyd Quinan Lloyd Quinan Scottish National Party

In light of the minister's remarks about consultation and the fact that people in Scotland and housing associations know what is best for housing in Scotland, does she agree with the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations? In a paper that has been given to most MSPs, it says:

"The inclusion of an extended Right to Buy in a single statutory tenancy is neither necessary nor practicable."

And:

"An extended Right to Buy would make achievement of the Government's objectives less rather than more likely."

And:

"The Executive's proposals run counter to a strategic approach to housing provision."

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

During my speech, I will deal extensively with the views of professional housing lobbyists.

I know that there are concerns about the right to buy. Our starting point is that more than four out of five Scots want to own their own homes, but two out of five are still in the social rented sector. We, their elected representatives, have a choice: to accept that aspiration, or to deny it. If we accept that aspiration—as I believe we should—it is also our responsibility to do so in a way that does not disadvantage people who want to rent. That is not just some rhetorical flourish; there should be both the right to buy and high-quality homes for those who want to rent.

That goes to the heart of the difference between our proposals and what has gone before.

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

Let me finish my argument, Lloyd.

Delivering the right to buy is the easy part of our commitment; the real challenge is delivering high- quality rented houses. For too many years, when public housing was starved of new investment, it sometimes seemed that the only way to keep good rented housing was to choke off the right to buy. Instead, we are promising to protect all new investment in new rented housing for at least 10 years after it is built.

The issue is that people who benefit from substantial new investment should pick up the tab when they buy; however, if there has been no new investment or modernisation in their homes, they should pay nothing more. That means that the basic discount system is left unchanged. What matters is how much new investment has been put into someone's home. That is the fair way; it protects the public purse and recognises that, after 30 years of faithfully paying rent in an unimproved house, it is right that tenants should qualify for a full discount. Furthermore, where there are clear cases of abuse, offer us practical suggestions about how to close loopholes, but do not invite us to punish everyone for the misdemeanours of the few.

If some houses are bought, what happens to the rest? The challenge is to use public and private investment together to create more higher-quality rented houses.

We will not make Scotland a better country by denying low-income families the right to buy in a vain attempt to protect the very poorest people. The solution for those who simply want a better house is not for them to stop their neighbours buying—or for us, on their behalf, to stop their neighbours buying—but to get new investment into homes. That is why the Executive's top priority is to create 7,000 new and improved homes—1,000 more than we promised just last autumn.

That is where we and the Siberian tendency—the Sheridans and perhaps even the Scottish National party—part company. They say that we should wait to invest—that we should wait for the ideologically pure investment—and that tenants can benefit from public investment only, so they must get in the queue behind the national health service, schools and social work services. Children in damp houses do not want members to hang around for ideologically pure investment; they want the problem dealt with.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Is the minister aware of the SNP's position? I will put it on the record. We acknowledge that private finance is needed in housing, but we believe that there must be public finance to back it up. Our proposed public service trust would allow us to do that. There are mechanisms that the Government could use to invest now. It is the minister's policies that will take four or five years to secure investment in housing in Glasgow, Edinburgh and the rural areas of Scotland. Her policies are delaying investment in housing.

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

Far from it, but I am glad that we share common ground on the need for public and private investment.

The other point on which we differ is debt. Seven authorities are actively considering community ownership and another 21 are looking at the opportunity. In each case, the Government is willing to lift the historic debt burden and spread some of it across the whole of Scotland—to all taxpayers—so that not just tenants contribute to a new start. That is what putting social justice at the heart of our agenda means.

There are different challenges in different parts of Scotland. In rural Scotland, the challenge is to ensure that it gets its fair share of the 6,000 new homes that we will build every year. If rural Scotland got the lion's share of those houses, it would take only three years to ensure that one in four homes in Scotland's eight most rural authorities was available for rent. We therefore do not need to stop tenants of 30 years having the right to buy their own homes to create a real mix in rural or urban Scotland.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

Is the minister aware that the view of Highland Council and of the housing associations that are visiting the Parliament today is that the policies that the minister proposes will not increase the availability of affordable rented accommodation, but reduce it substantially? Is the minister right and it is they who are wrong? Does the minister resemble Mrs Thatcher, who was always right and everyone else was always wrong?

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

That is a serious point. Based on the modelling that we have done, the details of which nobody has disputed, we calculate that 850 additional sales will be generated by the extension, of which about 120 will be in rural areas—120 houses against the total uplift in the number of new houses that will be built every year. None of the people who have spoken to us has suggested that the figures will deviate substantially from those reached on the basis of the modelling. Shelter asked us to project retrospectively, which we have done. That may take the figure to under 1,000, but it will not lead to any substantial change in the current position.

It is important to ensure that we have a vibrant rental market so that the future is not just about those who cannot buy, but about those who choose to rent. Increasingly, young people who move from job to job want to rent, and not to put down roots just yet. We should help such people to rent.

Some elderly people want to move into sheltered accommodation and to have the security of a landlord to look after them in their old age. We will use the right to buy to protect sheltered housing so that that is possible.

Some people say that there is a better way to approach the right to buy; I say that there is not. Either the single tenancy, to which every party represented in this chamber is committed, includes the right to buy, or we deny it. If we shirk that choice, we are telling the people of Scotland that although they fought long and hard to have this Parliament, we, the first generation of its politicians, are not prepared to let them continue to have the rights that they currently have. That would be wrong. Who would make the decision: the local councillor, the local housing official, or some local committee? We cannot be part of taking away a right that people have and want to have.

Too often, the old Scotland was about professional prejudices rather than about people. On the subject of professionals, I know that many people have an ideological objection to the right to buy. Too much of the lobby briefing is about opinion, not about fact. We have not received one refutation of the figures in the consultation paper. More important, we have not heard from tenants objecting to the proposal.

I will read briefly from one letter of support that I have received.

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

Let me continue. The letter says:

"Dear Ms Alexander,

I am just writing to let you know how ecstatic my wife and I felt upon hearing the news that assured tenants of housing associations would at last have the right to buy . . . Could I also add that, as expected, I see by a report in an evening newspaper that the SFHA are vehemently opposed to your proposals. I trust you will resist by all means at your disposal their attempts to get you to reconsider as in my opinion they are trotting out the same tired arguments that they have always done in order to protect their own fiefdoms. I thought the point you made about ending second class citizens was a most salient one. I apologise for taking up your time as I know how busy you must be." [Laughter.]

There are thousands of people across Scotland who say that they would like a home. This is about tenants writing in and saying, "We want the rights that our neighbours have."

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

Can I turn to Mr Sheridan: let me—

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP

Will the minister give way? I wouldnae mind getting a wee mention.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP

Is the minister telling us that her policy is based on the strength of one letter that she has received—

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP

Sorry—I have not finished my question.

Is the minister basing policy on one letter from a housing association tenant? If so, does that not mean that she is ignoring the wishes expressed through housing associations across the country, for example Calvay Housing Association, which has stated that it is against the extension of the right to buy?

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

I remind the minister before she answers that she has had 25 minutes.

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

I am interested in supporting the punters, not the professionals and, on that point, let us take Mr Sheridan's ward of Dormanside in Pollok. The housing association in that ward wrote to me last week. Its letter did not say, "Please don't take away our right to buy," it said, "Wendy, you are being too hard on people who want the right to buy; we would like the right to buy to be made easier." That is what the punters think in Mr Sheridan's ward and elsewhere.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP

Was the letter from a tenant or from a professional?

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

It was written by a professional on behalf of housing association tenants in Mr Sheridan's ward.

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

Tenants in Mr Sheridan's ward are saying that they want the right to buy.

The choice is clear. As politicians we either stand with the people or we let the professional lobbyists resist the right to buy, family by family.

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

I will conclude with one new proposal. We will include in the housing bill provisions to target improvement and repair grants on owner-occupiers who are least able to pay. It is in accord with principles of social justice that the resources available to owner-occupiers through improvement and repair grants should be handed out on the basis of ability to pay.

This year's Booker prize shortlist included the novel by Scots writer Andrew O'Hagan, "Our Fathers". It deals with Scottish housing in a very human way: the messiness of people's lives; domestic violence and alcohol abuse; good intentions and hopes crushed; the loss of faith. It offers an insight for us today. It talks of the vision that inspired women at the start of the 20th century to strike for fair rents and of their sons who built skyscrapers to escape the smog of tenements and breathe clean air. It also charts the disillusionment of their grandchildren. It pleads with us not to crucify earlier generations for their mistakes. I hope that we can bring that humanity to our first full-length housing debate.

At the end of the 20th century, we know what works in Scottish housing: trusting the people. That is what lies at the heart of the bill. We can meet the challenges ahead not simply by talking about social justice, but by delivering it. If we put the interests of the people first, we will succeed.

I move,

That the Parliament acknowledges the need for action to provide good quality and accessible housing and strong and secure communities; welcomes the Executive's proposals to achieve this through a range of measures including the introduction of a single social tenancy, the development of a single regulatory framework for social housing, the promotion of a stronger strategic role in housing for local authorities, and a new role and status for Scottish Homes, and notes that the Executive will bring forward a Housing Bill to deliver these objectives.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party 10:02 am, 13th January 2000

The Minister for Communities closed with the comment that we need humanity in housing. I remind her that there are women and families in Scotland who want to pay a fair rent but are denied the possibility of doing so because of record levels of homelessness under this Government and the prospect of policies that could make the situation worse. I sympathise and agree with her that we must ensure that people have fair rents and fair homes, but that is not what is being promised or has been delivered by the Executive.

Listening to her this morning reminds me of one of the reasons why the Parliament has powers to provide checks and balances and to hold the Executive to account. The greatest check the Executive requires is a reality check. What we see from the Lib-Lab coalition is a mess in housing policy: record levels of homelessness that they cannot deny; a crisis in housing investment that they have acknowledged; faltering stock transfer proposals with serious concerns raised by lenders; and a misguided, wrong-headed flagship policy on the extension of right to buy. Even on simple issues where cross-party agreement exists, such as the reform of mortgage repossession law, we are left hanging for months.

Today the Minister for Communities told us about the new proposals in the housing bill. Although we welcome the prospect of a housing bill, we are deeply disappointed that it will not be published until the second year of the Administration with the act not approved until the third year. The hustle and bustle of activity and announcement by the minister has more to do with being seen to do something than with delivering on housing.

The Minister for Communities acknowledged that she inherited a green paper with most of the work and thinking done. There has been cross-party agreement on issues such as the single secure tenancy, the single regulatory framework, the abolition of the quango board of Scottish Homes, and, according to the last announcement, the establishment of a community fund to help with common repairs. The fault line exists on the issue of housing policy—on the big issues of homelessness, stock transfer and housing finance—where the disagreement is fundamental.

The Minister for Communities tells us that the Executive has a radical housing policy. If a discredited Tory agenda is a radical policy, the minister is welcome to it.

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

I would be grateful if Fiona Hyslop could clarify for me the SNP's position on the right to buy. Her party is committed to a single social tenancy. Is the right to buy within that single social tenancy? Would 700,000 tenants lose the rights that they have under the SNP's proposals? Where does the SNP stand?

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

The SNP has made its position quite clear: the right to buy should be preserved. We are not talking about taking rights away from people. A single social tenancy can have variations. The minister has already said that she wants to exempt charities and special housing. She acknowledges that different systems for the right to buy can exist within a single social tenancy. She knows that, I know that, and people outside know that.

On consulting the voluntary sector on the right to buy, the Executive is reneging on the compact agreement with the voluntary sector. What consultation took place with the tenants who volunteered in housing association movements? I do not think that any did. I think that the Executive has reneged on the compact with the voluntary sector.

Like the Tories, the current Administration is obsessed with the idea that home ownership is best at any cost. Although the SNP supports people who want to own their homes, that right should not be granted at the expense of those who want to rent. The Administration's housing policy is shot through with the notion that renting is second class, and that affordable rented accommodation in this country should be further reduced.

The key difference between the SNP and Labour is that we believe that, in a single social tenancy environment, the right to rent is imperative, not just for existing tenants but for those of the future. We have a responsibility to provide quality affordable housing for everyone. We need vision and policy, but we also need to deliver investment to address the real housing agenda, which concerns quality and standards.

The minister says that the Executive will divert to rural areas the proposed 18,000 houses to receive development funding from Scottish Homes. If the Executive does that, what will happen to the urban areas? There will be no new development money for sheltered accommodation, for wheelchair users or for a community care environment. The Executive's target is 18,000 new houses—6,000 a year. In West Lothian alone, there are 9,500 people on a waiting list. Do we believe that 6,000 houses a year is ambitious?

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

There will be no change in urban areas only if the SNP's policy to oppose community ownership of housing stock is adopted in places such as Glasgow—community ownership that would bring £1,000 million of new investment into that city, at an average of £17,000 per tenant.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

If the minister will allow me, I shall address that point later. The SNP supports community ownership, and where stock transfer proposals are small and community led there is no problem. The problem lies with the finances and accountability of the Executive's proposed wholesale stock transfer.

The Executive cannot escape from the fact that public housing is unattractive in this country for the same reason that homelessness is on the increase: a lack of investment and vision represent two sides of the same coin. We must not be duped into thinking that the housing bill will be a panacea for Scotland's housing crisis. It will move the legislative framework on, but the key issues of homelessness and the appalling condition of housing in Scotland will be dealt with only following changes in investment strategy and policy. The continuation of wrong-headed policies such as wholesale stock transfer, coupled with the continuing starvation of public support for council housing, will not relieve homelessness: it will increase it.

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative

Can Fiona Hyslop explain why SNP councillors on Dumfries and Galloway Council, who are, rather strangely, in coalition with Labour—sometimes circumstances take precedence over principles—are supporting a transfer of 11,000 houses to one provider?

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

I will make the position in Dumfries and Galloway clear. SNP councillors have agreed to propose a feasibility study; they have not agreed to support a wholesale stock transfer.

The problem that councils face is that they are being forced to consider stock transfer proposals because there is no other game in town. There can be small-scale stock transfers, but there are other means and mechanisms. Scottish Homes gave evidence to the Social Inclusion, Housing and Voluntary Sector Committee to the effect that there are other ways to get the private finance that Wendy Alexander wants into public sector housing.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

I would like to move on to homelessness, if Frank does not mind.

If ever there was concrete evidence that new Labour and its Liberal partners are failing, it is the record—and rising—level of homelessness. A key test of the success of a nation's housing policy is the level of homelessness. This Government has failed, and continues to fail that test. We can also see that the key policies that the Government has announced have started to make the situation worse.

When the minister implies that homelessness is not necessarily a housing issue and tries to redefine the homelessness problem, she betrays the analysis of an Executive that thinks that it can solve the problem by redefining it. While the SNP welcomes the setting up of the homelessness task force, we are disappointed by the experiences of those who work with the homeless and the homeless themselves.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

I must move on.

The Executive's rhetoric meets what is happening on the ground with a sharp and uncompromising bump.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

Fiona Hyslop made a point about the homelessness task force, which has consulted professionals and homeless people directly. I hope that Fiona welcomes that. Let me remind her, however, that it is not just the Executive's assertion that homelessness has to do with more than just housing; that assertion comes from academic studies. People tell us that underlying homelessness are the problems of domestic violence, substance abuse and alcohol addiction. We must address those to find a comprehensive solution. Does Fiona Hyslop agree?

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Why was a Young Women's Christian Association hostel in Edinburgh converted into self-contained flats? That hostel provided support for people with alcohol, mental health and drugs problems. The people who used that hostel do not now have the accommodation they need. The hostel nearest to the minister's plush offices at Victoria Quay—Beth-Haven hostel on Parliament Street, which was managed by the haven housing association and the Bethany Christian mission—was closed just before Christmas because the trust could not get a written guarantee that future funding would be forthcoming. That means that there has been a loss to the homeless of direct access provision.

In Glasgow the Young Men's Christian Association's Downtown project does invaluable work but it faces closure. Its initial funding is complete but there is no sign of new money. Some agencies are changing their remits in order to meet rough sleepers initiative funding requirements. Bid and challenge funding for RSI is causing problems. People are facing difficulties that the Government is not addressing.

I will move on to what the SNP would do.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

I must move on. My time is limited.

We must address the situation that results from 18 years of Tory decline. We must acknowledge that the homelessness task force will bring forward good proposals to tackle homelessness, but the proposals must be backed up by legislation and the minister will shortly, no doubt, make a statement about that to the chamber. Proposals must also be backed up by the abandonment of wrong-headed and divisive policies such as stock transfer. The current investment strategy must be reversed and new resources must be released to replenish public housing. At the moment city hostels need to apply for RSI money because councils are cutting their grants and the councils are doing that because the Executive is cutting funding to them.

To tackle homelessness there must be quality affordable housing and achieving that requires investment, but public investment is in very bad shape following 18 years of Tory decline followed by three years of Labour and now Labour and Liberal Democrat dithering.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

If Bristow does not mind, I would like to move on.

As Bristow well knows, the collapse in income from capital receipts and ever-tightening borrowing consent have left local authorities with a housing investment crisis, the like of which has not been seen in modern times. Squeezed by clawback on one side and by an ever-tightening fiscal regime on the other, it is no wonder that councils are being forced to give up the ghost and to examine wholesale stock transfer.

There has been a 60 per cent drop in the housing capital programme that is matched by a 59 per cent increase in homeless figures in the 1990s. I do not think that that is a coincidence. We now face the consequences of chronic under-investment that stretches over decades—talk about chickens coming home to roost. While Rome burns, new Labour fiddles. Millions of pounds of taxpayers' money is being spent on expensive consultants' reports so that the Executive can get the answers that it wants to hear. That money should be used to build homes for the homeless, but it is being spent on laptops and flip charts. Not one brick will be bought, not one builder put to work, not one roof erected, with the £26 million being spent on feasibility studies and endless financial projections and scenarios.

Even in a best-case scenario, the Scottish Executive will make no substantial investment in housing until after the stock transfers have taken place. On an optimistic timetable, as the minister said in answer to a parliamentary question, that will not happen for another 24 months. If tenants reject the new landlord in the ballot, what then? On the promise of jam tomorrow, Scotland's public sector will have faced four years of new Labour neglect in addition to the 18 years of decline administered by the Tories.

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

Does Fiona Hyslop acknowledge that the new housing partnership programme has been under way for some time? We expect hundreds of homes to be started in Scotland this year. The difference between the SNP and the Executive is that we will leave it for authorities to decide whether to move to a new future for their housing stock. That will provide an opportunity for the debt problem to be dealt with, rather than the cherry-picked solutions that she appears to be suggesting.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Cherry-picking is different from the Labour Executive's one-size-fits-all policy. I think that the minister will acknowledge that we must have local solutions to local problems. We must make financial options available, but this Executive is not doing that.

To return to housing finance, I do not deny that, using the minister's figures, the Executive is investing more money in housing. However, the difficulty is that, in its first three years, the Labour Government carried out the cuts begun by the Tories and therefore started from a low base in the first place. That is why we have seen a 60 per cent cut in housing investment during the 1990s.

The status quo is unacceptable. I will move on to what the SNP would do, as I believe that we must have a constructive role to play. Today—not in two years or four years—we would ask Scotland's local authorities to propose revised business plans and to identify the capital resources required to bring their stock up to date. There would be no blank cheques or meaningless spending commitments. We would say to local authorities, "Make a case for investment, prove that you can bring your stock up to standard and you will be allowed to borrow the money you need, based on a sound business plan." The capacity exists within the system to allow an increase in borrowing.

New Labour may say, "But the Treasury won't let us." Let me quote from a speech made by the leader of the Labour party, Tony Blair, at the 1999 Labour party conference. There's a thing—Fiona Hyslop quoting Tony Blair.

"If there are Treasury rules or antiquated concepts of public borrowing that hold us back, change them. That is what intelligent Government is for."

Well, Tony, you were right on that point. That is what we would do in an independent Scotland—an independent, intelligent Government would change the rules to allow local authorities to borrow the resources that they need. We are confident that they would be able to do so.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

Given that we do not have an independent Scotland, how does the SNP propose to fund these proposals?

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

I thank Robert Brown for his intervention. He is on cue.

Without independence, without changing the public spending borrowing requirement rules—even under the present rules—Gordon Brown could allow councils to borrow what they require without breaching the Maastricht criteria. Has the minister asked him to consider borrowing consent for local authorities? I am not sure that she has.

What about the debt? We could use exactly the same mechanisms that the minister proposes to manage the worst cases of debt, except that we would not force stock transfer on the authorities concerned. For example, Glasgow spends almost the same amount in debt charges that the new landlord would have to spend on refurbishment. Take the debt away and allow the council to use its own resources, without extra borrowing, to solve its own problems.

To answer Robert Brown's point about devolution, what if the Treasury will not allow that? We could use the homes and communities public service trust to bring in private finance. We could consider the other options proposed by Scottish Homes.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

I want to get on with my speech.

Where would we get the money to help with the seed-corn finance? The SNP would commit an extra £175 million on top of the money being provided by the Executive to help to generate investment and to ensure that we could crank up the public service trust to get the £1 billion that is needed in housing, which could be achieved without wholesale stock transfer. Scotland is a rich nation and, under independence, we would have greater resources. Under devolution, the SNP has already said that it would reject the Chancellor's penny tax bribe.

Unlike new Labour, we do not promise jam tomorrow. However, we would like to act now to turn around the oil tanker of neglect. Unlike new Labour, we do not have a policy of one size fits all. We are a Scottish Parliament that should take into account all parts of this nation. When people such as the deputation last night come to us from the Highlands and Islands, we must be struck by what they say and take that into account. We want a Scottish national housing policy, not a housing policy just for Glasgow and just for the minister's career. We do not promise that everything can be done straight away; it will take time to repair the neglect. However, it would happen and it could start today. We have shown how we can take things forward.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

As a Glasgow MSP, I say that if we solve Glasgow's problems, we will solve a major problem for Scotland. It is about time that this Parliament took ownership of Glasgow's problems. Glasgow paid a heavy price on behalf of Scotland for generations, and if this Government does nothing else than address Glasgow's housing problems, that will be a major benefit for the whole of Scotland.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Is it not about time that the Labour party faced up to its responsibilities in Glasgow and acknowledged that it has failed and failed again?

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Sorry, I will not take an intervention from the person who was the biggest slum landlord in western Europe. [Interruption.]

Photo of Frank McAveety Frank McAveety Labour

Having understood Glasgow far more intimately than Fiona Hyslop ever could imagine or aspire to, I want to highlight two fundamental issues. First, if the local authority took the approach that the SNP is arguing for today, it would take 20-plus years to implement. The attraction of the option of stock transfer for people in Glasgow is that it can be implemented within a meaningful time scale. The people on the ground in Glasgow have made that decision. That is local accountability and it reflects local concern.

Secondly, today Fiona Hyslop has made great play at the dispatch box about policy. I quote from an SNP document produced for the election. It said:

"There are not funds in the Scottish Block for a proper solution."

Fiona Hyslop's whole argument this morning is that there are funds in the present Scottish block for a proper solution. The SNP was either wrong in May or wrong now.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

In May we said that a public service trust, invested with £175 million, could generate the same type of investments that Labour is proposing in Glasgow. It is absolutely true that we need to address the Glasgow housing situation, but let us not do that at the expense of other areas. Let us do it so that it happens now and let us ensure that the tenants are involved. That is why the Social Inclusion, Housing and Voluntary Sector Committee of this Parliament is considering the Glasgow stock transfer proposals and others.

We do not promise that the problems of housing in Scotland can be dealt with straight away—it will take some time to repair the neglect. However, the SNP could do it. This Executive could also do it, if it put its mind to it, and could start today. What we need is intelligent government, drive and political will. However, under new Labour we are stuck with reviews, feasibility studies and management consultants' dream city.

There are families living in cold, damp homes. There are homeless people desperate for a home of their own and looking for leadership and intelligent government. Everyone knows that Scotland's housing crisis has to be a main priority, but we are stuck with drift, dither and desperate measures. The Scottish people deserve and expect more from this Government when it comes to improving Scotland's housing. Unfortunately, they are unlikely to get it from the Executive's proposals.

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

For the record, I ask the member to move her amendment formally.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

I move amendment S1M-408.2, to leave out from "welcomes" to end and insert:

"notes the Executive's proposals to achieve this through a range of measures, including the introduction of a single social tenancy, the development of a single regulatory framework for social housing, the promotion of a stronger strategic role in housing for local authorities, and a new role and status for Scottish Homes, but believes that these measures alone will not improve the position of Scotland's 80000 homeless people and that the Executive must give greater priority to dealing with chronic under investment in Scotland's public and voluntary housing including the reversal of their policy of wholesale stock transfer."

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

I call Keith Harding to speak to and move amendment SM1-408.1. He has up to 18 minutes.

Photo of Keith Harding Keith Harding Conservative 10:23 am, 13th January 2000

I welcome the minister's statement and the opportunity to debate housing. I am particularly pleased that a housing bill is to be brought forward at a later date, as both we and the SNP criticised the Executive for the absence of such a proposal in its legislative programme. I hope that that is evidence of a listening Administration.

Much of what is proposed is inherited or extended Conservative policies. I do not think, therefore, that those policies were a total failure over the past 18 years, as Fiona Hyslop keeps suggesting. It is a pity that Labour in opposition was not as enlightened as Labour in government. If it had been, we would already be a long way down the road of stock transfers.

Under the Scottish Conservatives, home ownership in Scotland increased from 35 per cent in 1979 to more than 60 per cent now. We are committed to continuing the extension of home ownership, as there are still many people in Scotland who would like the opportunity to own their own home. That is a clear aspiration for the vast majority of Scots—83 per cent when the question was most recently surveyed.

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

Will Keith Harding comment on the fact that it was his colleague Lord James Douglas-Hamilton who removed the right to buy from housing association tenants in 1989? We are now seeking to restore that right. It is wrong to imply that anyone has a monopoly of wisdom in this area.

Photo of Keith Harding Keith Harding Conservative

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton will deal with that later himself. I do not think that his conversion was as great as that of Labour members, who were totally against the right to buy. It is a pity that the minister intervened when she did, because she would have been quite pleased with my next sentence.

Because so many Scots want to own their own home, we support the Executive's commitment to extend the right to buy to housing association tenants. However, we accept that the extension of home ownership is not the solution to all Scotland's housing problems. To improve the standard of housing for everyone in Scotland, control of housing should be devolved from councils to local housing associations, housing co-operatives or companies, or a range of other providers. The devolution of power to tenants would give them a far greater say in the management of their homes and would bring in private sector investment to assist in necessary repair and renovation projects. To achieve that, we would support a system of stock transfer running in tandem with debt reduction.

The real devolution of control over housing needs to be accompanied by further efforts to revitalise the private rented sector in Scotland. The standard and availability of private rented accommodation in Scotland needs to be improved, as the flexibility that it offers is necessary for many people, particularly for younger tenants. That is especially true in a modern economy in which young people move around to improve their employment prospects.

There are areas of housing policy that need specific attention. One of the biggest problems that is faced by council tenants is anti-social and disruptive tenants. Sadly, too many councils have abdicated their responsibility to their tenants in that area. Local housing providers would better reflect the wishes of their communities, and would control and, if necessary, evict anti-social tenants.

Greater attention should be given to housing for those with special needs. Local housing providers should be encouraged to adapt houses for elderly and disabled people. That could be done through grants and a requirement to provide a minimum percentage of sheltered houses in any new development. A proper mix within a neighbourhood is essential, and such a requirement would help to ensure that elderly and disabled people were included in mainstream housing.

As Fiona Hyslop said, we must address homelessness, which is at an all-time high. We look forward to reading and debating the report from the task force on homelessness at an early date.

Local authority expenditure for improving housing conditions in the private sector has suffered substantial cuts since 1995. Before 1995, funds that were allocated to councils by Government for housing were ring-fenced. As a result of the change, capital spending on private sector housing plummeted from £118 million in 1995-96 to only £45.3 million in 1998-99. Nearly £200 million that would previously have been spent on improving housing conditions for elderly and low-income home owners has been spent on other local government services. Both groups are growing, and their need for support increases year on year; therefore, I welcome the minister's statement. We ask the minister to consider the reintroduction of ring-fenced moneys for improving the housing conditions of those groups.

The principles of extending ownership of housing to individuals and communities and of devolving control to local communities offer the best hope of solving many of Scotland's housing problems. There is now enough common ground in this chamber on these issues to justify the hope that the new Parliament can improve the standard of housing for everyone in Scotland.

I have not taken up much time. I thought that I would have more interventions, as Fiona Hyslop had.

I move amendment S1M-408.1, to leave out from "welcomes" to end and insert:

"notes the Executive's proposals to achieve this and notes that the Executive will bring forward a Housing Bill; calls upon the Executive to include within this Bill measures to deal with the alarming problem of homelessness which has increased dramatically since May 1997; welcomes the Executive's commitment to extend the Right to Buy to Housing Association tenants, but emphasises that measures may be necessary to safeguard individual Associations where the take-up of this right could prejudice the operation, viability or success of these Associations."

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

I call Robert Brown for the Liberal Democrats. He has up to 18 minutes.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat 10:29 am, 13th January 2000

I must confess, Presiding Officer, that I was caught slightly short by the brevity of Mr Harding's contribution. Nevertheless, his comments are welcome in a number of respects.

Nothing is more significant to the quality of life of the individual and to the strength of local communities than the houses that people live in. Houses are not just buildings, they are homes, providing places for shelter, recreation and study, and for the shared life of families of all types. All too often, they are also the arena for domestic violence, financial pressures and inadequate heating.

Housing is a major economic sector, creating construction jobs and repair and maintenance jobs. It makes a major call on national public expenditure and contributes to individual wealth or poverty. It is probably true to say that housing policy in Scotland has been bedevilled by more failed political theories and more disastrous programmes that have not achieved their objectives, and has been the subject of more political bribes masquerading as policy strategies, than any other subject area.

It is therefore appropriate to begin with some humility and caution in making claims about housing. People are not interested in the most radical housing strategy ever, the biggest ever investment in housing or the world-shattering nature of Government pronouncements or of Opposition castigations. They have heard it all before. More important, they have lived through its failures before.

Nevertheless, there is much to be welcomed in the Scottish Executive's actions on housing. The commitment that no one should have to sleep rough by 2003 is important and challenging. It must be achieved if the blight of rooflessness that so often affects young people is to be removed from Scotland. Indeed, it is not too much to say that the reputation of the minister and of the Executive depends on it. The Executive is tackling the matter in a targeted way through the homelessness task force and with the involvement of the voluntary sector and other housing professionals. The detailed examination of the situation in Glasgow, where the biggest problems are, gives hope that workable, locally sensitive and accessible programmes will be put in place.

My second cautionary note is that legislation is not the be-all and end-all. Legislation can sometimes provide the framework and remove obstacles, but the success of the housing association movement shows that it is people and communities that win the battles and build success.

Perhaps because of the overemphasis on the right to buy, I consider the minister's statement on the proposed contents of the housing bill something of a mixed bag. There are good things about it, such as the reform of Scottish Homes, which was foreshadowed in the Liberal Democrat manifesto and in the partnership agreement. She is right to recognise the difference between the funding and strategic roles of Scottish Homes and its regulatory role. The fact that Scottish Homes will be no longer an unelected quango but a Scottish Executive agency that is accountable to the minister and to Parliament gives the Executive a strategic housing agency and reverses the peculiarly damaging Conservative obsession with removing democratic control from state policy.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Robert Brown makes some important points about housing legislation. Does he agree that it is disappointing that the Executive did not take the opportunity to introduce a housing bill in the first year of the Scottish Parliament? The minister's proposals may be a mixed bag, but Mr Brown outlined a number of points that were included in the SNP manifesto and that, although not included in the Labour manifesto, have belatedly become Executive policy. Does he agree that, because there is consensus on the legislative elements of the proposed bill, we could be moving much more quickly to create the right legislative framework?

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

I do not accept that. My view, as Fiona Hyslop is aware, is that a number of the points in my proposed member's bill could be legislated on now without too much difficulty. However, it is right that time be taken over the major issues that Wendy Alexander has put before the chamber today and over the policy papers. This matter involves complicated legislative and administrative issues, which we must get right, as anyone who has examined the existing legislation—the Housing (Scotland) Act 1987 and the Housing (Scotland) Act 1988—would immediately recognise.

We give a qualified welcome to the announcement that councils are to have a greater role in determining funding priorities for housing. Keith Harding referred to the way in which the abolition of the separate, non-housing revenue capital account has led to a diminution of resources being allocated specifically to that sector. The minister could consider whether there are ways in which the housing association part of investment funding can be safeguarded in the new strategic role that she is giving to councils.

The move towards councils is long overdue. It cannot be right that local representatives have only a partial role in this crucial area, but the qualification is that local representatives must be fairly and accountably elected. The Liberal Democrat insistence on proportional representation, particularly in local government, is not a quaint foible; it is a categoric demand, based on the unanswerable principle that people should get the councils that they vote for and that councils should have the democratic legitimacy that can come only from a proper electoral mandate.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

Not at the moment.

Let me say to those Labour MSPs who allegedly are preparing to go back on their party's commitment on PR that they undermine the future and credibility of local government by their support for a bad and undemocratic electoral system.

The other qualification that I have on these reforms is a plea that the proper role of different institutions be recognised. It is right that the Government enforces minimum standards, but it must allow a variety of patterns suitable to local needs. It is right that councils set local priorities, but they must let housing associations and co-operatives be sovereign in their particular spheres.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

No.

I touched on the Scottish Executive's proposals for a single social tenancy before because of the welter of different arrangements that apply to different regimes, which is the very negation of justice. Only about half a dozen people in Scotland understand the system properly, and they assuredly do not include most of the people affected by the 1987 and 1988 housing acts. The complicated legislation on the creation of tenancies, evictions, rates of repair and compensation and rights against anti-social tenants is long overdue for reform.

In principle, therefore, the single social tenancy is to be welcomed. It was a commitment of the Liberal Democrat manifesto and the partnership agreement, which we are extremely pleased to see being implemented. We await with interest the details, but I urge the minister to look carefully at the right to repair. The model secure tenancy agreement may be the basis for that right, but a clear statement of workable rights and remedies is needed, as is legislation.

I want to re-empower local councils, but I am aware that administrative talent is variable across councils and between different departments. I am also aware that political considerations and municipal empire building can sometimes override common sense and equity, and lead to exaggerated support for the structures of direct labour organisations and housing management departments.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

On municipal authorities, is the Liberal Democrats' position the same as that of the SNP, which is that we are concerned that in the Highlands and in rural Scotland the effect of the proposals will be to reduce an already inadequate stock of affordable housing? Is that the Liberal Democrats' position, or will they support the Labour proposals that will further diminish the stock of affordable rented rural housing?

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

I will deal with that matter in considerable detail shortly but, before doing so, I wish to say that the mechanism for a proper relationship between central Government and local government should be a reinvigorated housing plan, drawn up by councils under guidelines and subject to discussion and approval by the Scottish Executive.

It is too soon to assess the effects of the new measures on anti-social tenants introduced under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. However, the provision of effective noise insulation in houses, particularly in tenements, is likely to go a lot further towards cutting the number of anti-social complaints than is a raft of new laws. I am well aware that, if I lived in a council tenement, the noise from my teenage son's discordant compact discs and other sources of noise in my house would lead to a volume of neighbour complaints, which currently are prevented only by the thickness of the stone walls between my neighbour and me. I welcome the proposal to collect central statistics on eviction actions, because I was astonished to discover in an answer to a parliamentary question that I lodged that those statistics are not kept. It is a considerable move forward that they will now be kept.

The proposal to build on the success of such schemes as the Dundee families project is also important. However, we should keep a proper concept of individual rights in relation to anti-social neighbour situations. It would not be the first time that officialdom had got the wrong end of the stick and blamed the wrong tenant or family for problems. I hope that the statement on page 20 of the paper on housing and anti-social behaviour that the role of the courts in repossession cases is

"to be satisfied that suitable alternative accommodation is available" is a slip of the pen. The role of the courts is to be satisfied that justice is being done and that the anti-social behaviour exists. We would not welcome a return to the days when councils could legally evict tenants on 28 days' notice without cause.

I must say to the minister that the right to buy is not a housing strategy. There are a variety of reasons to support it, ranging from populism to fears of social engineering and dislike of socially rented housing. Right to buy involves a transfer of assets—provided by public investment—from the public to a smaller group of individuals at the expense of the community at large.

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

Will Robert Brown clarify the nature of the single social tenancy that he proposes? Will it have two rights on the right to buy or infinite rights on the right to buy, depending on a local decision by an unnamed person that would remove an existing right from 700,000 people? The Executive's position is one right, I think that the SNP's position is two rights and I think that the Liberal Democrats' position is infinite rights, but I look forward to clarification.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

Negotiation between Ms Alexander and me may produce the answer in the course of time.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

No. If Alex Neil listens to what I say, he will find out what the Liberal Democrat position is on this matter.

The case for the right to buy is that people who have been tenants in their house for a long time have a moral right to an equity stake in that property. That is the minister's view. She must concede that it is less compelling when the rent is being paid by housing benefit, it is less compelling again when the discount is artificially high and it is not compelling at all when the effect is to distort the availability of houses in rural areas or to damage the financial and planning viability of urban housing associations.

I welcome the establishment of sinking funds or factoring schemes to deal with contributions by purchasers to repairs and maintenance and I welcome the minister's announcement that that will be targeted. We must be cautious, however, as the worst feature of the right to buy is that it threatens to recreate in common ownership property, such as tenements, the inadequacy of investment that has bedevilled many older private tenements. We must ensure that the investment is adequate.

The Chartered Institute of Housing has stated:

"These reforms should be based on decisions made at local level in light of local housing needs and markets."

The unanimous view of the housing bodies—professionals in this field—is that the right to buy should not be further extended. Why does the minister, who is so commendably keen to take the advice of Shelter, the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations, the Scottish Council for Single Homeless and the Chartered Institute of Housing on other matters, feel able to disregard such unanimity of view on this matter? Even the Tories express some concern about the extent to which the right to buy should be extended.

The minister has stated that, in rural Scotland, there will be 100 to 120 additional sales a year, which will be offset by Scottish Homes building or improving about 1,300 houses each year. Rural areas apparently include Dumfries, Inverness and Kilmarnock as well as Shetland and Aberdeenshire, which somewhat erodes the persuasiveness of the case. Our primary concern must be the dozen or so social tenancy houses that may be sold off to be holiday homes in a small village or town where there is often a dearth of land to build replacement housing for local people. Building new houses in a bigger rural town 20 or 30 miles away does not help that situation.

I do not think that the minister's figures are backed by outside analysis. Mike Rumbles will deal with that in more detail. Like Fiona Hyslop and Peter Peacock, I went to last night's meeting with a deputation from Highland Council.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

No, I will continue. We heard from Lochaber Housing Association that 37 per cent of council housing in Lochaber had been sold off under the existing right to buy. Much of that housing is in remote rural areas. Very little of it was replaced; much of it ended up contributing to the problem of second or holiday homes in the area. We heard that the association's main lender was likely to reassess its position and apply an extra premium if the minister's proposals came into effect.

The rate of sale is based on average figures from historic trends and should be treated with caution. In Glasgow, sales are nominal in hard-to-let areas and high in good terraced or semi-detached areas such as Mosspark or Knightswood. The average level of house sales is useless as a prediction tool for the rate of sale of housing association stock in a localised area of the city. The notion that the city council will be reflecting the low availability of rented stock in the west end of Glasgow by making appropriate investment decisions is far from reality; I would have thought that the last thing that the heavily congested west end needs is more houses of any kind.

The right to buy produces a residualisation effect on council stock. The public sector is left with the worst properties in the most deprived areas—the houses that nobody wants to buy and that need the most investment. The right to buy does not create a modern rented sector but discredits the idea of rented stock as an option. That is in stark contrast to the situation in Europe, where good rented housing is a popular option. The right to buy distorts housing in many areas. There can be problems in meeting statutory housing duties and there is often a lack of houses of a certain type.

There is no evidence of a problem to be solved. The minister quoted a letter but I would be surprised if she has had scores of letters from housing association tenants—

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

The problem to be solved is this: four out of five Scots want to own their own homes. At the moment, two out of five Scots live in rented accommodation, yet Mr Brown is suggesting that the Parliament remove a statutory right to buy.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

I think that some account should be taken of the fact that I have taken many interventions.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

Not according to the clock.

Housing associations have successfully tapped voluntary effort in the community. People who believe in social housing have given their time and have been empowered. The statistics do not work out in the way that the minister suggests. We are not talking about taking away the right to buy; we are questioning whether it should be extended further.

We must deal with the complicated question of the viability and finances of particular housing associations. A survey done by the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations produced widespread concern. Partick Housing Association in Glasgow reports that it can accept only 10 per cent of applicants on to its list. There is a chronic shortage of large flats, but the housing association has sold off several much-needed three-bedroom flats and has no prospect of replacing them. Meadowside and Thornhill Housing Association says that it represents a small island of socially rented housing in a sea of owner-occupation. That will not be the case for much longer if the right to buy is extended.

Liberal Democrats do not take a dogmatic view on questions of the ownership of housing. We believe that no sort of tenure has an innate superiority over another. There is value in having mixed tenure and there is value in not having one- class estates. It is widely recognised that there is value in increasing housing ownership in Scotland. It makes no sense to restore strategic control of housing to local authorities while imposing on them a requirement to sell even if that does not suit local conditions. I urge the minister to consult fully with professionals, tenants and other parties and to respond to the advice that she is given.

I have not had time to touch on housing stock transfer. The Parliament and the Executive have the potential to do a good job for Scottish housing after years of neglect and misdirected strategies. We have an able and enthusiastic minister who is more than capable of delivering the goods. There are a few things to rethink but we should not distort housing policy by overemphasising the Tory shibboleth of the right to buy. We need to sort the policies out and move forward together on this exciting housing project. I support the motion but express the reservations that members of my party feel.

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

Speeches are now open to the floor and, to allow as many speakers as possible, should last no longer than four minutes.

Photo of Margaret Curran Margaret Curran Labour 10:50 am, 13th January 2000

I welcome the debate, because it concerns an appropriately vigorous area of Government intervention.

We have already seen many significant achievements in housing. The Social Inclusion, Housing and Voluntary Sector Committee, of which I am convener, intends to be closely engaged in that process. I am sure that we will scrutinise with vigour the Executive's work, as much from a shared commitment to developing housing policy as from anything else. The committee is undertaking an investigation into housing stock transfers and, while we are in the midst of that investigation, it would be wrong of me to pre-empt our findings, but I can make—as others have done—a few preliminary remarks.

The situation in Glasgow is very important. I appreciate that we must not let that situation be the entire focus of our discussions on housing and I understand the issues that affect rural areas, but as a Glasgow MSP I must acknowledge the Executive's commitment to tackling fundamentally the crippling debt problem that Glasgow faces and to creating real opportunities to get much-needed investment into housing in Glasgow. Anyone who has had any involvement in housing in Glasgow, as I have over many years, knows that the status quo is not an option. Tenants in Glasgow know that real and fundamental change is required. If we are to deliver new and transparent policies, we must be realistic about the options for the tenants in Glasgow.

In my constituency, I have seen the significant achievements of community-based housing associations. I have also seen real examples of collective organisation addressing housing need. I have never doubted the ability of ordinary people, with the proper support and resources, to develop services and provision that are appropriate to their needs.

However, we must be careful. The history of community organisation shows that it works best as a grass-roots movement, responding to local needs. Community ownership does not come cheaply, however; it needs to be supported and facilitated, resourced and encouraged.

The Social Inclusion, Housing and Voluntary Sector Committee is hearing some evidence that the tenants of Glasgow need to be more fully informed about the process that is taking place. We have still to hear evidence from Glasgow City Council, but we hope that the minister will give an assurance today that the tenants of Glasgow will be able to participate in a meaningful and constructive consultation process. I understand that proposals have to go to tenants through a ballot, and I support that, but we would argue for a fuller dialogue. That would deliver more effective community organisation in the long run, which is terribly important.

The right to buy, on which the committee will hear evidence, has become an issue of discussion this morning and it is important to focus on that. There are many perspectives on right to buy. Undoubtedly, there is widespread support for it—I do not question that. I understand the resentment of those who have invested much in their housing over the years but have little sense of ownership and control. It is not the job of the Parliament to frustrate the legitimate aspirations of those who wish to own their own homes; indeed, we must attempt to facilitate that wish effectively.

It has to be acknowledged, however—as it has been by the minister—that the socially rented sector can meet the needs of different parts of the population at different stages in their lives. I support the choice and quality that the private sector provides, but if we support choice and quality in that sector, we must also create the means to support choice and quality in the socially rented sector.

We must recognise that some housing organisations have flagged up difficulties. I have listened to the debate this morning around those difficulties, and I appreciate that some people are against the extension of the right to buy. Some people understand the Executive's points on the need to extend the right to buy, but are asking the Executive to consider the qualifications for that extension. I ask that we examine thoroughly the debate on the right to buy.

As Robert Brown said, the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations is against the extension and has raised some questions about the Executive's figures. The federation says that the current proposals to bring significant new investment into rented housing will increase the demand for purchase. It states that, over the past 20 years, there has been a 30 per cent reduction in rented stock and that, with the extension of right to buy and an improvement in the quality of the stock, a further 300,000 rented homes could be lost over the next 20 years.

Shelter has a slightly different position; it says that we need to deliver a truly strategic right to buy, which must have elements of local discretion to adapt to local markets and needs. The intention is not to give an overweening power to certain professionals over individual properties, but to reassure organisations such as Women's Aid that we can address appropriately the needs of women who are fleeing domestic violence.

It is important that we do not let the whole debate get lost in the right to buy, as there are many constructive elements to this subject. I argue that there has been a significant shift in the style and content of housing policy in Scotland. There have been radical commitments on homelessness that can genuinely create a seismic shift in the nature of that problem. We could be on the brink of delivering a package of measures for social progress, regeneration and the genuine empowerment of individuals and communities.

Let us be determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past. We must ensure that the socially rented sector does not become residual housing for a new underclass. New models are not a global panacea for all the housing issues—challenges that face all of us in the chamber. We must move from a culture in which we think that every solution that is presented becomes a new set of problems. We must move from a culture of opposition to one of partnership.

We have big issues to address about the housing of the black and ethnic minority communities. Women's organisations have substantial points to make about the nature of housing across the board—we must listen to what they have to say.

Housing has at last been given its proper place in the context of social policy, but unless we fundamentally address some of the issues relating to the socially rented sector, we will never deliver on our policies on social inclusion. I hope that the Executive can pay proper attention to some of the housing organisations.

Photo of Lloyd Quinan Lloyd Quinan Scottish National Party 10:56 am, 13th January 2000

Ten years ago, the country was shocked when homelessness reached 29,000 applications a year. Unfortunately, we have reached the record level of 45,000 applications a year. For those in the chamber who are unaware of this, another deeply depressing fact is that five rough sleepers died on the streets of Edinburgh during the Christmas and new year period, including Steven Mack, who was one of the authors of "A Charter for Rough Sleepers", which we all received from the Edinburgh Streetwork Project.

I would think on that: five people have died on the streets of Edinburgh, despite the fact that this country is richer now than it has ever been. As Gordon Brown keeps reminding us, the economy is stronger than ever. Unfortunately, neither the political will nor the political priority exist to eradicate the national disgrace that forces the young, the vulnerable and the victims of circumstance to a nomadic life on the pavements and in the doorways of not only our major cities, but towns from Lerwick to Langholm.

We are right to condemn that disgrace. It is welcome that new Labour at least acknowledge the national shame. The minister is to be commended for her commitment that by 2003 no one should have to sleep rough. The Executive has acknowledged that improvements must be seen, but there is a substantial difference between improvements being seen and improvements being made. Numerous press releases have told us of the Executive's commitment to the rough sleepers initiative, which, although welcome, must not be seen as a panacea for homelessness. As Shelter has pointed out, it is a first step. It may take people off the streets, but it does not provide permanent accommodation. I, for one, accept—and I am sure that many others in the chamber will agree—that a place in a hostel is not a home.

No amount of good news press releases can mask the fact that, after three years of new Labour in new Britain, homelessness in Scotland has increased by 11 per cent to a record level of 45,000 applications. Would it not have been better to prevent the homelessness occurring than to clear up the mess afterwards? The new thinking is exemplified by our colleagues in new Labour, and indeed, by Ms Wendy Alexander, the member for Paisley North, who repeats the mantra that homelessness

"is not a problem about bricks and mortar".

Unfortunately, homelessness is a direct consequence of the lack of availability of affordable housing.

Photo of Lloyd Quinan Lloyd Quinan Scottish National Party

No, Wendy.

No amount of RSI money will provide that housing, and as long as the RSI has to continue, we admit that, as a nation—

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

Does Mr Quinan agree that the problem is that the total number of applications from the homeless in Scotland who are assessed as priority need is less than the number of empty and void houses? The problem of homelessness is not just about housing. That list of 47,000 applications includes many people who have applied many times because of substance and alcohol abuse problems—many of those people have had a tenancy that has failed. We have more empty houses in Scotland than the number of people who apply with priority need. That is part of the complexity of the problem—Lloyd Quinan should not over-simplify it for cheap political point scoring.

Photo of Lloyd Quinan Lloyd Quinan Scottish National Party

I do not think that I need to reply to that speech.

We have spoken about the need to see improvements. The new shiny Labour council in West Dunbartonshire, where I live, has taken that to heart. In West Dunbartonshire, the number of people applying as homeless appears to have bucked the national trend—it has fallen by a third in the past three years, in contrast to the spiralling national figures. The Parliament may be tempted to congratulate West Dunbartonshire Council on its rather stunning success. Indeed, so impressed was the Deputy Minister for Communities that the chief executive of the authority was appointed to the rough sleepers initiative national advisory committee.

However, there is a difference between statistics and reality. The Dunbartonshire RSI action research project examined the reality behind the statistics. What innovations had been applied to achieve the dramatic change against the national trend? What radical solution had the council toiled to find? What had generated this great success that could surely be applied across the country? At last—a solution that does not involve bricks and mortar.

Photo of Lloyd Quinan Lloyd Quinan Scottish National Party

The reality is simple. The council did the minimum possible. It did not house the homeless and it did not count the homeless. The RSI project has come across evidence of people presenting themselves as homeless in West Dunbartonshire who have not had their homeless application filed.

Photo of Lloyd Quinan Lloyd Quinan Scottish National Party

No, I have been asked to wind up.

It is a statutory duty for all local authorities to complete an HL1 return no matter what—

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

Order. The member is not giving way.

Photo of Lloyd Quinan Lloyd Quinan Scottish National Party

If the HL1 form is not completed, homelessness is not recorded. The figures have fallen remarkably because snap judgments about priority status are being made at initial interviews. In West Dunbartonshire, people are being deemed non-priority or intentionally homeless and are being turned away without an HL1 having been completed, just as was reported in yesterday's Clydebank Post .

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

I call Tommy Sheridan, to be followed by Mike Watson. For the reasons given by Sir David at the beginning of the debate, I am calling Mr Sheridan early and will be a little relaxed about the amount of time that he has to speak.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP 11:02 am, 13th January 2000

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

Any commitment to the improvement of the quality and standard of housing across Scotland is mere rhetoric unless the funding that is required backs it up. The difficulty with Labour's record so far is that it is nothing short of a disgrace in relation to the lack of funding. Its record is also shocking in relation to the lack of urgency. The other day, James Douglas-Hamilton wrote that he was glad to see that Labour had adopted Tory housing policy. Sadly, James Douglas-Hamilton was correct.

I do not have time to develop all the points in the amendment that was not selected. Should the right to buy be extended? No, it should be abolished. That would allow us a single social tenancy. Let us introduce incentives to keep people in the rented sector. Let us introduce incentives that allow a 15-year continuous tenancy to be rewarded by a rent-free existence for the rest of that tenancy. On the one hand, that rewards tenants and, on the other, it retains stock in the public sector.

Let us relax home improvement rules. Let us ensure that we do not encourage greater housing ownership by selling off public stock. If we really want to encourage greater home ownership, why do we not introduce a national loan scheme, administered by the Parliament? Why do we not allow the transfer of public sector discounts to the private sector, under that national loan scheme? Why do we not introduce more reforms in relation to house-selling regulations, to protect house buyers? Do not sell off public assets to encourage greater housing ownership. Such measures must be discussed with tenants and housing workers.

Let us look at the reality of Labour in government. We have heard fine rhetoric from Wendy Alexander on expenditure, yet over the past three years, we have had a continuation of the fine Tory tradition of not only the reduction in support for housing expenditure, but the introduction of a damaging competitive process for the reduced funds available.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP

I will give the figures, then I will take an intervention.

Across all Scotland's councils, the housing revenue account investment for the previous financial year was £350.7 million; the housing revenue account investment for this financial year has been reduced to £313.2 million.

Glasgow—my dear city, the city of many of the Labour MSPs in this chamber, and the city that Labour promised would be a special case—has, of course, been neglected by Labour. Glasgow, the city that spent £108.7 million on housing investment in 1993-94, is now allowed to spend only £59 million in 1999-2000. New Labour is not only guilty of neglecting Glasgow; new Labour is guilty of theft—theft from the city of Glasgow.

In July 1997, the then Scottish housing minister announced that the debt on properties that were transferred to housing associations and demolished, or on properties that had been demolished by the council, could be transferred to the general account. Doing that would release £20 million extra for the city of Glasgow to spend on its neglected housing stock, a figure that was accounted for in our most recent housing revenue account budget. But what did the new Labour Government do? It announced that it was reducing our capital borrowing consent by an amount that was equivalent to the amount that was transferred in debt. It stole £20 million from the city of Glasgow.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP

Here is fact No 2 for Wendy. We talk about urgency. "Let's not wait," she tells us. Well, let us not wait for the change in the capital receipt set-aside rules. What are the facts? The facts are—all right, I will take an intervention.

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

The facts are that this Government was elected on a programme that would deal with the mismanaged economic situation that we inherited, to improve things as we could. The consequence of that improvement is that an extra £300 million is going into Scottish housing. That will make the net public spending on Scottish housing 40 per cent higher by the end of this session of the Parliament than the level that we inherited from Conservative plans. That is a track record of which we are proud.

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

You have just over a minute, Mr Sheridan.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP

Sadly, as in so many other cases, Wendy's rhetoric does not match the reality. In opposition, Labour had a commitment to change the capital receipt set-aside rules. If Labour had kept to that in government, this year Glasgow City Council would have had an extra £18 million to spend. Does she know what that means? It means that this year 8,000 families in Glasgow would have had full central heating installed in their houses. Her Government is refusing them access to that.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP

No, I am sorry, I have only a minute left. I did not get as much time as the minister.

Changing the capital receipt set-aside rules across Scotland would not require legislation—it would require only a letter from the minister. If she is so concerned about children living in cold, damp homes, she should send a letter to the local authorities in Scotland, changing the capital receipt set-aside rules. If she did that, she would release, this year, £138 million more for investment in council housing. That is the equivalent of 69,000 homes with full central heating. How many more children would then be warmer; how many more jobs would then be created; how many more construction workers would then have jobs; and how many more council workers would then have security?

The problem with what new Labour has done in office is that it has adopted Tory housing policies hook, line and sinker, and it has turned its back on the social housing rented sector. As for the stock transfer proposals for Glasgow, new Labour has neglected—

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP

I do not oppose community ownership.

Photo of Margaret Curran Margaret Curran Labour

He opposes it every single time that it is mentioned.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP

I took Margaret Curran's intervention and I am answering it honestly, which is something that we do not often get from the Labour benches.

I do not oppose community ownership if it is locally negotiated and agreed, but I oppose it if it is imposed from on high without any consultation with Glasgow tenants. Margaret herself has had to admit this morning that the only people who have not been involved in more than a year's discussions about Glasgow City Council housing stock are the tenants themselves.

The Presiding Officer has been very kind with the time limit, and I will finish on this point. The investment programme promised by the new housing trust is £1.2 billion over 10 years. I should tell Margaret Curran that if her party in office were to do what it demanded when in opposition and transferred the capital housing debt, the same investment programme could be carried out by Glasgow City Council with the retention of council jobs and the security of council tenure in 11 years instead of 10. That is the reality, and new Labour should be ashamed of its record to date.

Photo of Mike Watson Mike Watson Labour 11:11 am, 13th January 2000

I was not going to talk about the Glasgow housing stock transfer issue, as it is only a part of the whole programme, but I have to respond to a couple of Tommy Sheridan's comments. It is simply not true to say that Glasgow tenants will not be involved in discussions; they will have the final say. There will be full consultation and ballots; that has not happened yet, because we are only part of the way through the process. Like the other Labour MSPs who represent Glasgow, I am committed to making sure that Glasgow tenants have the final say in the proposals, and I am convinced that it is only a matter of time before that happens.

We have to focus more broadly on the issue. There is much to be welcomed in many of the initiatives that the minister outlined today. Of course, some issues have to be refined, and I would be entirely wrong—and it would not reflect my constituents' views—to say that I was 100 per cent in agreement with every proposal. However, we are still in the consultation process.

No one who has examined the present state of Scottish housing would deny that radical changes need to be made. Several initiatives that have been announced, such as the £300 million for housing and regeneration, will begin to turn round the massive ship that many of us would agree is seriously off course.

I challenge anyone to deny that today's commitment to build 18,000 new homes—7,000 in the first year alone—will have a real impact. We have to start somewhere. There are other welcome initiatives, such as the rough sleepers initiative and the reform of Scottish Homes. The warm deal, which has been much criticised by the Scottish National party and is still in its early stages, will prove a major success and make a major contribution. There is also the tenants' rights package, which is an important part of any housing strategy. Many problems concerning anti-social tenants, who can make people's lives a misery, have been raised with me.

Furthermore, the single social tenancy has been widely welcomed in principle, although not in detail, particularly on the right to buy, which is a controversial issue and should be the subject of consultation with tenants organisations and housing professionals. Giving people the right to buy must not happen at the expense of people who choose, for many legitimate reasons, to rent their homes. That choice must be protected and one way to do that is through the house-building programme. In areas where there are more than the estimated 850 sales of homes under the right to buy—and I accept that many housing associations and other organisations think that that figure is an underestimate—the house-building programme can be focused to make sure that the figure is made up. However, there are serious problems with the right to buy and the issue will be the subject of further debate.

In the short amount of time available today, I will deal with two issues that have been only briefly touched on and which follow on from Lloyd Quinan's points about record levels of homelessness. Although I do not suppose that homelessness will ever be completely eradicated, homeless figures need to be reduced and kept at the lowest possible level. That means that all kinds of landlords—housing associations, local authorities or private landlords—must have a statutory responsibility for providing accommodation for homeless families.

Within that, policies relating to homelessness must recognise the unique position of women and children who have experienced domestic abuse and must ensure that appropriate action is taken to help people in that position who present themselves to local authorities. Scottish Women's Aid pointed out in its response to the green paper that it regretted that domestic abuse, as a key safety issue in the home, was not mentioned. That issue must be addressed during the on-going consultation. Women who become homeless, for whatever reason, must be able to make choices for themselves and their families, which is not the case at the moment.

Photo of Sandra White Sandra White Scottish National Party

The member mentions homelessness and refers to the minister's remarks about the 18,000 homes that will be built over three years—6,000 homes a year. A report by the University of Paisley refers to the demolition of 17,000 homes in Glasgow. Where will all those people be put if only 6,000 houses a year are to be built? What is the answer to that?

Photo of Mike Watson Mike Watson Labour

There are already more homes that are unoccupied—for whatever reason—available throughout Scotland than there are homeless families. It is a question of improving stock. That will not be done overnight—no one is suggesting that it will. The answer is not just building houses, but improving stock that is unfit for habitation or in which people are not willing to live for other reasons.

My final point is on equality issues, which Margaret Curran mentioned briefly. That does not mean just women. I want to highlight ethnic minorities. Scotland's housing must serve the needs of our increasingly multiracial society. Policy makers and agencies, such as Scottish Homes, must ensure that, throughout their funding and monitoring functions, the social housing needs and concerns of black and ethnic minority communities are visible and are heard. The Glasgow organisation Positive Action in Housing has highlighted the fact that racial harassment remains a problem in many areas of Scotland's housing stock, which has resulted in visible minorities being deterred from taking up available housing that has been offered to them because they fear doing so.

The minister will need to take into account all the issues raised in the debate and the many other varied contributions to the proposals when she frames the housing bill.

I will finish where I started. Glasgow's problems are well known. I echo fully Johann Lamont's comments that Glasgow must be a priority. I make no apologies for saying that. Success in Glasgow will be the cornerstone of the success of the Executive's housing policy, which I believe will have begun to turn round the serious problems in Glasgow and will have provided a radical improvement in Scotland's housing and in the choices for Scotland's people by the end of this parliamentary session.

Photo of Linda Fabiani Linda Fabiani Scottish National Party 11:18 am, 13th January 2000

It is increasingly clear that the Executive has no coherent housing policy and is merely extending the Tories' policy further than even the Tories ever did or would have dared to do. The Executive's arrogance is evident, especially in the minister's reaction to critics of extending the right to buy. Far from being the listening minister, she is the lecturing, hectoring minister.

The list of those who, in the minister's opinion, have got it wrong goes on and on. She says that housing professionals are out of touch with their tenants, so their views are dismissed. She says that housing association committees are interested only in the survival of their organisations, so their views are dismissed. She says that the Council of Mortgage Lenders does not understand housing finance, so its views are dismissed. My working experience, however, tells me something different. On the issue of extending the right to buy, it is the minister who has got it wrong and whose views should be dismissed.

The minister uses as her excuse for that policy the adoption of a single social tenancy to equalise tenants' rights. Three parties in the chamber campaigned on such a policy. None of them included the right to purchase as a necessary part of such a tenancy, and certainly not at a discount.

Perhaps the Executive can expand on its commitment to the equalisation of rights. What about tenants in tied housing and tenants of private landlords? Do not they merit equal rights? What about the rights of those who aspire to be tenants of decent, affordable social housing? Were the homeless consulted about the extension of the right to buy? I think not.

The minister rejects the notion that the current right-to-buy arrangements have had an adverse effect on communities. We are told that only 2 per cent of the stock will be sold anyway and that the Executive will easily find the money to replace the lost stock. That is a thoroughly dishonest presentation of the situation, and it demonstrates how far the minister is from understanding Scotland's communities.

The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations has demonstrated that the rate of sale of housing association properties can vary a hundredfold, depending on the stock's location. There will be further sales in areas already dominated by owner-occupation, leaving other areas with enforced concentrations of people with no option but to rent. That is moving Scotland further towards American-style welfare housing.

It appears that the minister has now been forced to recognise the special difficulties that face some rural areas. Properties are seldom sold on in the local housing market, but are, in some cases, kept or sold as holiday homes. I encourage the minister to pursue the issues further and to recognise that there are also urban areas in which there is a desperate need to retain housing for rent.

In the 1980s, the new towns competed aggressively in the house sales stakes. The result is that East Kilbride now exports homeless people to Glasgow because it has so little social rented accommodation to offer. Properties in East Kilbride, bought over the years under the right to buy, now form the basis of a growing private rented sector. The rents in that sector are too high for the local authority to use the houses for homeless people, because housing benefit levels are lower than the rents.

People are making money out of the right to buy, and the minister is encouraging that further.

Photo of Margaret Curran Margaret Curran Labour

Is Linda Fabiani opposed to the principle of right to buy?

Photo of Linda Fabiani Linda Fabiani Scottish National Party

I am opposed to the principle of taking away tenants' rights. I understand that tenants with the right to buy have to retain it. What I am opposed to is the extension of the right to buy, which will erode further our rented stock, which is needed by the people of Scotland.

All the evidence shows that extending the right to buy is a recipe for social exclusion, and I urge all members to put pressure on the Executive to lecture less, listen more and act in the interest of Scotland's fragile communities.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative 11:22 am, 13th January 2000

It is a privilege to be allowed to take part in the debate, and I take this opportunity to welcome much of what the minister said. One of my duties as a rural affairs spokesman is to ensure that every policy discussed in the chamber has its rural affairs aspect addressed as much as possible.

It was a pleasure to hear the minister address some of the issues surrounding housing in rural Scotland. However, I point out to her that there are differences in housing in rural Scotland that require different methods of address. Housing is of course very important in rural Scotland, yet statistics show that certain differences require to be highlighted.

The proportion of housing considered to be substandard has risen to 7 per cent in rural Scotland, compared with 4 per cent, according to figures that we have been given. Because housing is poorer in quality, other requirements have to be taken into account. I particularly welcome the minister's statement that she will target improvement grants at owner-occupiers who are least able to pay. Given the statistics, that would indicate that a higher proportion of that money will find its way to rural Scotland. I should be interested to hear what resources are likely to be available for that over the course of this parliamentary session.

I was also impressed by the minister saying that no party has a monopoly on putting people first. I remind her that the Conservatives have a record worthy of defence. As Lord James Douglas-Hamilton pointed out in his article earlier this week—and he was supported by Tommy Sheridan today—the policy that the minister presented is very much a Conservative policy, redeveloped to suit the purposes of the Executive today.

The one aspect of rural housing that the minister has not addressed—and I suggest that she consider addressing it—is the private rented sector in rural Scotland. Robert Brown raised the question of what constitutes rural housing. There are a number of definitions and, as he said, the definition being used would include Dumfries and Inverness. Housing in the genuinely rural parts of Scotland must be considered.

Figures given in the briefing by the Scottish Landowners Federation suggest that for housing that it defines as truly rural—

"that is on farms and estates distant from concentrated centres of population"— as much of 57 per cent of rented housing stock is in the private sector. Given that much of that possible rented housing is empty, the Executive could make more investment available to develop that sector, to ensure that as many houses as possible are available for rent in rural Scotland. There are problems associated with competition in rents, which mean that many rural houses are unfit for human habitation because they would not realise a rent on the open market that would justify the investment to bring them up to the standard required. For that reason, housing in the genuinely rural parts of Scotland should be made available at a limited cost, with appropriate local support.

I feel a little guilty about reminding the Minister for Communities about rural housing in Scotland as she raised the issue herself, but I emphasise that aspects of rural housing need further consideration and could produce significant results from a relatively limited investment.

Photo of John McAllion John McAllion Labour 11:27 am, 13th January 2000

I very much welcome the debate. A four-hour debate on Scottish housing is a luxury that would not have been afforded at Westminster. That it is taking place at all is due to the existence of this Parliament, and that should be put on record.

How we debate the important issue of housing will reflect the value of the Parliament. If we all retreat behind our party political barriers and decry the other party's policies, claiming that only our policy meets the needs of the people, we could have had that debate at Westminster. Any housing debate there was like that. I hope that this Parliament will have an open, honest and constructive debate about Scottish housing, where members are allowed to say what they think and do not rule out ideas about housing that they did not start with. I hope that the Parliament shows that we can debate housing in a mature way, which was not possible at Westminster.

In that spirit, I agree with the Minister for Communities that we should put people first. I do not think that anyone would be here if they had said that they were opposed to putting people first—we all put people first. I remind the minister that housing professionals are people, too. Any suggestion that they are not of the people but paid bureaucrats, out of touch with tenants and only out for themselves, is a travesty of the truth. In my experience, housing professionals have made some of the best contributions to the housing debate in Scotland over the past 20 to 25 years.

People such as David Orr, David Alexander and Chris Cunningham at the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations pioneered community-based housing associations long before it became fashionable for any politician of any party to espouse that cause. Would anyone here deny the massive contribution that Shelter has made to putting homelessness on the political map? The Chartered Institute of Housing in Scotland is a dedicated group of housing workers who for two decades defended the idea of public sector housing against the madcap neo-liberal theories of Michael Forsyth and the No Turning Back group of Tory MPs who set out to destroy it.

I suggest that all those professionals should unite to tell the Executive that it might, at least in part, have got it wrong by extending the right to buy. Rather than turning the guns against them, it might be useful for us to listen to the constructive arguments that they are putting forward.

I do not believe that the right to buy is an absolute right that is available to all Scotland's 700,000 tenants. For example, it is not available to those who are on benefit, or those who are on low incomes and cannot access mortgages even for houses that are sold at a discount. It is not available to those who are trapped in damp tenements or multi-storey flats, who would not be in their right minds if they wanted to buy that kind of council or housing association accommodation. By definition, it is not available to the homeless or those who are on the waiting list. In fact, it could be argued that the right to buy acts against the interests of all those groups, by taking out of the social stock the very houses that they aspire to move into in the first place.

I welcome the idea of introducing new rights for tenants, but I believe passionately that those rights should include the right to rent. I ask the minister at least to consider the possibility that the right to rent could be compromised or threatened by an indiscriminate extension of the right to buy. The provision of high-quality rented accommodation in particular areas throughout Scotland requires a strategic approach. It is arguable that a strategic approach cannot be established when the matter is left at the mercy of the indiscriminate decisions of individuals who exercise the right to buy.

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

John McAllion will agree that a third of housing association tenants already have the right to buy, and that we are simply extending that right to a further third. The critical factor in preserving the right to rent is our proposal that no new public investment that is made in housing over the next 10 years should be affected by our proposals for extending the right to buy. That marks a clear departure from previous policies.

Photo of John McAllion John McAllion Labour

Time does not allow me to respond at length. However, I ask the minister to consider the detailed proposals that are put forward by all the housing professionals in response to her arguments. When the housing bill is under discussion in this Parliament, we should listen constructively to what those people are saying. If sensible proposals are made to amend the Government's plans to extend the right to buy, let us, in the spirit of a Scottish Parliament, listen to those proposals, vote for them and enact them. This is the beginning, not the end, of the housing debate that should dominate Scottish politics for the next two years.

I hope that I get a wee bit longer than four minutes, the next time that I am allowed to speak.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

You got slightly longer than four minutes, John, but we will pass over that.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat 11:32 am, 13th January 2000

I welcome most of the proposals that have been set out by the minister in today's debate. As the rural affairs spokesman for the Scottish Liberal Democrats, I want to focus on a specific element of her proposals as they affect rural Scotland.

The Minister for Communities will be aware of the issue that I am about to outline, as I have raised these concerns and reservations with her previously. The subject was also touched on earlier, by Robert Brown, and in Fergus Ewing's intervention. I refer to the proposal to provide a common right to buy for all tenants who are covered by the single social tenancy. That proposal will cause real difficulties in rural areas trying to achieve the aims that are set out in the motion—providing good-quality, accessible housing in strong and secure communities.

The minister said that Scottish Homes will be asked to increase the resources that are allocated for investment in rural areas, to address the lack of socially rented housing, and that building will be directed to ensure that no area is disadvantaged by the extension of the right to buy. That sounds good, but the minister stated that the estimated number of people in rural areas who will benefit from the right to buy will be—incredibly—just 100 to 120 throughout the country. She also stated that 6,000 homes—I thought the figure was 4,000—will be built or improved in rural Scotland over the next three years. I wonder how many of those 6,000 will be new homes.

I am alarmed by the minister's presentation of those figures. Is she aware that in its 1997 report "Scotland's Rural Housing", Shelter estimated that 35 per cent of rural council houses had been sold, compared with 25 per cent of urban council houses?

Shelter also estimated that, throughout rural Scotland, for every three housing association homes built for rental, 10 council homes have been sold. In other words, the amount of social housing available for rent in rural areas has diminished rapidly. Estimating that only 100 to 120 houses will be lost in rural Scotland as a result of the right-to-buy proposal is simply ignoring history. I know that Conservative members are often content to ignore history, but let us not import that trait to Liberal Democrat and Labour members.

The Tories' ideological commitment to thoughtless extension of the right to buy throughout our rural areas is one reason why they were so comprehensively rejected by every rural constituency in Scotland. I heard Alex Johnstone's contribution to the debate; I could not believe it—it contained nothing of substance and he did not stand up for rural communities. The Liberal Democrats' policies focus on the interests of rural Scotland.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

Is Mr Rumbles advising the chamber that the policy of the Liberal Democrat party is to withdraw the right to buy where it exists in rural Scotland?

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Absolutely not. If Mr Tosh listens to my speech, I will make our policy perfectly clear in a few moments.

I return to the point that the minister made—that, apparently, no area will be disadvantaged by extension of the right to buy. I would like to give the chamber an example from my constituency to illustrate how impractical that claim is. Royal Deeside comprises one third of my constituency. It is easy to foresee many of the current housing association homes there being snapped up. That in itself is not a problem, but can members really see planning permission—that is the important thing—being granted for replacement homes on Deeside? I think not.

Where is the commitment to provide good- quality and accessible housing in strong and secure communities that the motion before us suggests? It is all very well to say that we could build more houses in rural areas but, as my example illustrates, they will not be built where they are needed, such as Deeside. The Liberal Democrat group wishes to highlight the practical difficulties that we see in the extension of the right to buy. The minister must address those difficulties.

I do not want only to be negative, however. I would like to bring to the minister's attention an option that has been highlighted by the Hjaltland Housing Association in Shetland. It has suggested a portable discount scheme, in which tenants are given a sum of money—£10,000, perhaps—to help them to buy another house and give up their rented house. The association is conducting a survey of tenants to ascertain their views on that idea; the Executive also should examine it.

In closing, I will confirm that the Liberal Democrats are happy with the motion. I hope that I have highlighted the concerns and reservations of the Liberal Democrat group about the effects on rural Scotland of the proposals for a common right to buy for all tenants who are covered by the proposed single social tenancy. Our aim—within the partnership—of providing good-quality and accessible housing in strong and secure communities will be put at serious risk if the proposals are accepted as they stand. I urge the Executive to re-examine this issue for our rural communities.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party 11:39 am, 13th January 2000

I want to deal with two or three specific points because it is difficult to do otherwise in four minutes.

I will deal first with what is for many people the immediate issue of the warm deal. For punters and professionals alike, the warm deal has already become an ordeal and it has become an ordeal for three reasons. First, the implementation arrangements have been utterly shambolic. I call on the minister to do something about that and to do it urgently. Secondly, it is linked to another failed programme—the new deal. As Frank McAveety admitted on "Newsnight Scotland" last night, the new deal has failed to achieve its objectives in Scotland.

Photo of Frank McAveety Frank McAveety Labour

If Alex has the time and energy to watch a video tape of that interview, it will be revealed to him that that was an accusation that was put by the questioner, but which I did not accept.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

I watched the programme and I think that Frank McAveety did accept that point.

Photo of Frank McAveety Frank McAveety Labour

I invite Alex Neil to watch the video with me.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

I have only four minutes and will move on to the third reason why the warm deal is a failure: it is the poor cousin of the home energy efficiency scheme, which is a similar programme down south. Instead of a maximum grant of £700, people are entitled to up to £2,000, including provision for assistance with the installation of central heating. Given the different weather conditions in Scotland, something more akin to that scheme would be more appropriate than the ordeal of the warm deal.

Housing benefit reform, which has not been mentioned at all during this debate, is the second major issue that I wish to highlight, although I cannot go into it in detail in four minutes. Unfortunately, it is a reserved matter. I would like it to be transferred to the Scottish Parliament as part of our responsibility for housing. I do not see how it is possible to have a comprehensive and effective national housing strategy without also having control over the housing benefit regime and the budget that goes with it.

Housing benefit accounts for two thirds of all public spending on housing in Scotland and some of the reforms that are being proposed will do much to undermine the initiatives on homelessness, stock transfer and other aspects of the housing policy announced this morning.

For example, in 1996, the Tory Government introduced new rules for under-25s living in single rooms, the effect of which was to force young people under 25 on to the streets of our towns and cities. As part of the homelessness initiative, I would like a reversal of that amendment to the housing benefit regime, as it would go a long way towards dealing with the problem of homelessness among certain categories of under-25s. Similarly, it is proposed that less than 100 per cent of rental costs will be met from housing benefit, which will have the effect of throwing more people on to the streets. The taper on housing benefit is a marginal tax rate of up to 65 per cent on the poorer sections of our community.

Three or four months ago, when the Minister for Communities appeared before the Social Inclusion, Housing and Voluntary Sector Committee, she said that she had no policy on housing benefit reform and would not submit representations on behalf of the Executive or the Parliament to the Secretary of State for Social Security. If the minister really wants to tackle homelessness seriously and to achieve the policy objectives she announced in her statement this morning, she must submit a major piece of evidence to the secretary of state to ensure that housing benefit reform complements those objectives, rather than undermines them, and that this Parliament is given control over housing benefit budgets and legislation.

Photo of Karen Whitefield Karen Whitefield Labour 11:43 am, 13th January 2000

As a member of the Social Inclusion, Housing and Voluntary Sector Committee, I am particularly pleased to speak today.

The housing measures proposed by the Scottish Executive are comprehensive and co-ordinated. The Executive is committed to dealing with social problems in a strategic and meaningful way, delivering measures that will address the problems of homelessness and the issues of housing regeneration and community development.

I wish to examine the problem of anti-social behaviour—an issue that is of concern to the people of Scotland. It is certainly of great concern to many of my constituents. Indeed, according to a recent Scottish Office study, one in five public sector tenants had experienced such problems in the previous year, which means that many of us in the chamber and in the public gallery will have experienced some of the despair of living next to an anti-social neighbour. Anyone who has attended a community conference will know that the problem of anti-social neighbours is high on the list of local concerns.

Many of my constituents—local authority tenants and owner-occupiers alike—are sick and tired of their lives being made a misery by a small number of people who have little or no regard for the feelings of anyone other than themselves. The worst of those nasty neighbours can cause misery to an entire neighbourhood. I am pleased that the Executive's proposals will begin to address that problem seriously.

Of course, the term anti-social behaviour can cover a wide range of activity, from nuisance behaviour, through neighbourhood disputes, to deliberate intimidation and incidents of violence. Less serious problems can often be dealt with through mediation, and I am pleased that Safeguarding Communities Reducing Offending has received funding of more than £186,000 to develop community mediation throughout Scotland.

The Scottish Executive recognises the need to expedite the most serious cases and has proposed a number of measures to ensure that that happens. The evaluation of fast-tracking partnership arrangements between Glasgow City Council, the police and the procurator fiscal in Barmulloch and West Drumoyne may indicate that similar arrangements would be beneficial throughout Scotland. The loophole that allowed those facing eviction to stall proceedings by taking advantage of the right to buy will be closed.

Moving anti-social tenants is not a long-term solution, and I believe that the use of probationary tenancies, along with innovative projects such as the Dundee families project, will provide the way forward. Unlike those in England and Wales, Scottish probationary tenancies will apply only to people who were previously subject to conviction proceedings for anti-social behaviour, not to all new tenants.

Closed-circuit television can also play a role in monitoring the activities of tenants who are suspected of anti-social behaviour. The evidence provided by neighbourhood cameras was instrumental in securing the eviction of thugs who were recently found guilty of a brutal assault in my constituency.

The single social tenancy will ensure that all tenants have the high level of rights and security of tenure currently enjoyed by council tenants. It will also clarify the responsibility of the tenant in relation to reasonable behaviour.

Anti-social and disruptive neighbours are the cause of much misery in neighbourhoods throughout Scotland. My constituents in Craigneuk, Whinhall, Shotts and Newmains will welcome the Scottish Executive's commitment to dealing with this problem. They will wonder in bemusement at the nationalists' obsession with denying them the chance to buy their own homes, rather than with improving their rights, building new homes and protecting their communities. Those are real issues, faced by real people.

Once again, unfortunately, the nationalists' fixation with political point scoring, rather than any real concern with building a better Scotland, is driving their agenda. I urge Parliament to support the Executive's motion.

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party 11:48 am, 13th January 2000

I say to Karen Whitefield that our concern is to protect the rights of tenants in Scotland.

I sometimes have to pinch myself when I hear speeches in this chamber. Are these the same people who threw up their hands in horror when the Tories slashed housing support grant? Are they the same people who threw up their hands in horror when the Tories introduced clawback at 25 per cent and became full of rage when that was increased to 75 per cent? Are they the same people who threw up their hands in horror and fired salvo after salvo at the Tories for slashing borrowing consents? As we see today, the same people will throw up their hands in adulation, or be required to grit their teeth and follow the new Labour line.

It is almost impossible to believe that in Scotland today housing conditions in many areas are not merely poor, but a national disgrace. There are areas where tenants' homes are in such poor condition that up to 30 per cent of their income goes on trying to keep their houses warm; where damp mould grows on walls, even in the summer months; where wind and rain drive through rotten windows that badly need replaced. Time after time, those windows are patched up with a blob of silicone, as a temporary repair. The conditions that I have described endure because of a lack of investment—a lack of investment that was well recognised by Executive members and members of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties when they were in opposition. However, since they have become a partnership Administration, they have chosen to wear the Tory clothes.

Do not take my word for that. Lord James Douglas-Hamilton recently congratulated the Minister for Communities, saying:

"Wendy Alexander is to be congratulated for adopting Scottish Conservative and Unionist policies on housing".

Strange bedfellows indeed.

In 1979, housing support grant was £564 million at today's prices. This year the grant level has been slashed to only £11 million. Again, members should not take my word for it. The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities estimates that, because of reductions in housing support grant since 1979, housing departments have lost £2.4 billion in revenue.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the Tories masked the growing crisis by allowing local authorities to recycle 100 per cent of the capital receipts from right-to-buy sales. The severity of the crisis became visible only when the Tories decided to use the receipts to meet the cost of the capital debt. Under that policy, which has been endorsed by new Labour and now the Executive, right-to-buy receipts are clawed back and do no go into the vital modernisation and upgrading of tenants' homes.

Again, members should not take my word for it. COSLA estimates that the clawback has meant that 30,000 tenants' homes have not been modernised; that 5,500 window replacements have been cancelled; and that almost 10,000 heating systems have not been installed. The irony is that the people who are paying for this folly are those who can least afford it.

Furthermore, borrowing consents to local authorities have been decimated. The value of consents fell from £620 million in 1979 to £225 million in 1990, and has nose-dived to only £155 million in this financial year. The reduction in housing support grant and borrowing consents, as well as the 75 per cent clawback rule, has hit council tenants, who are some of Scotland's poorest people, with a triple whammy.

The Tories started the war to kill off local authority housing in Scotland but, worse, new Labour and its Lib Dem partners in the Executive are attempting to outdo the Tories by finishing off the job through death by a thousand cuts. We have heard members from all parts of the chamber express concern about that. I hope that people will have the guts to stand up to the Executive and support some of Scotland's poorest people.

Photo of Paul Martin Paul Martin Labour 11:52 am, 13th January 2000

I welcome the statement by the Minister for Communities. It is important to acknowledge that if we do not deliver on housing we will have great difficulty delivering our programme in areas such as health, education and social inclusion.

This Parliament should put on record the value and commitment of the tenants movement until now and in the future. The unpaid local heroes in the housing association and tenants association movements should be recognised. Many tenants' representatives spend at least 30 or 40 hours a week, unpaid, helping to manage local housing stock.

A great deal is expected of the tenants movement. For example, in Glasgow, there are letting initiatives and estate action groups, in which local people have an input into managing local stock. I sometimes wonder whether the members of quangos who are paid large sums of money for attending eight to 10 meetings a year have the same commitment as many tenants' representatives have towards their local communities.

We have to reward the tenants movement for its commitment. It is screaming out for investment proposals. That is why I support the proposal for the new housing partnership in Glasgow. I stress the word "proposal" because the local people in Glasgow will have the final say.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP

Paul Martin laid great and welcome stress on the contribution of tenants, who are volunteers. Can he tell me what tenants groups have been involved in working up the proposal?

Photo of Paul Martin Paul Martin Labour

I have been involved in many of the neighbourhood forum meetings in my constituency, and will be happy to provide Tommy Sheridan with a record of those meetings.

Representation on Glasgow City Council housing department's citywide forum has been identified as an important issue. It is quite clear that the new housing partnership proposal for Glasgow will not be a success unless local people are involved, and I hope that the minister

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP

They are not involved yet.

Photo of Paul Martin Paul Martin Labour

Tommy Sheridan takes that point out of context. It is important to emphasise the fact that local people have been involved in the proposal until now and will continue to be involved.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Glasgow tenants are concerned by the news freeze on what is happening with the proposal and by the fact that there is no tenant representative on the steering group. There is not even a tenant representative on the national steering group for the new housing partnership. We have all said that community ownership is a good thing because it involves people, but if there is no tenant involvement now, how do we know that there will be tenant involvement when the stock transfer proposal has been implemented?

Photo of Paul Martin Paul Martin Labour

Fiona Hyslop is being somewhat premature. She must accept that independent advisers have still to be appointed in Glasgow. That process will take more than a year's consultation. After that, local people will have the opportunity to scrutinise the proposal through the independent advisers. Fiona Hyslop must consider whether she opposes the new housing partnership in Glasgow. In his closing remarks, perhaps Kenny Gibson can pick up on that point.

Photo of Brian Adam Brian Adam Scottish National Party

It might be of interest to look beyond Glasgow. There is a tenants forum in Aberdeen, and its members have been participating in the feasibility study. According to the forum's minutes,

"the Forum after due consideration were of the view that the favoured option for the Council's housing stock is for the tenants to remain with the Council but with an enhanced standard of service".

Since that statement was made a little under a year ago, Aberdeen City Council has continued to pursue the feasibility study, but it does not appear that tenants' views are being taken into account, despite their having been given the opportunity to participate.

Photo of Paul Martin Paul Martin Labour

I am sure that Mr Adam's views on the situation in Aberdeen are noted. Perhaps Frank McAveety will mention that point in closing. Tenants have been involved in the Glasgow proposal and will continue to be involved in a more prominent role.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

I must ask the member to close now.

Photo of Paul Martin Paul Martin Labour

I shall close by saying that Cathy Jamieson made an excellent point yesterday. She said that it is not good enough to set aside housing for young people without providing proper support mechanisms. That is lacking in the present proposals. Young people must have the support they need when they take on tenancies, and the Hamish Allan model provides an excellent example of how that can be achieved.

I support the minister's proposals.

Photo of Lord James Selkirk Lord James Selkirk Conservative 11:58 am, 13th January 2000

Paul Martin referred to the importance of delivering in housing. I whole-heartedly agree with him. Good housing is vital for the health and well-being of the nation. He also mentioned the unpaid local heroes in the housing association movement.

There are two great success stories in Scottish housing, one of which is the housing association movement. When I became involved with housing as a minister in 1987, I learned that half of all housing association expenditure had been in the inner city of Glasgow. Although I had no objection to that, I felt that it was essential that the movement's spending should be allocated not for historical reasons but based on need throughout Scotland, in peripheral housing schemes and in rural areas. I am pleased that the policy to increase priority spending in rural areas is gathering momentum; that is a good sign.

The second great housing success story was, I believe, the right to buy. When the Tenants' Rights etc (Scotland) Act 1980 was introduced—in the face of opposition—right to buy started more slowly in Scotland than it did south of the border. Over the years, however, it gathered momentum. By the mid-1990s, Scotland had overtaken England in the percentage of public sector stock sold to sitting tenants. This morning, Wendy Alexander said that 80 per cent of households in Scotland aspire to own their own homes and that the right to buy should be reformed to make it right for the next century. The Conservatives have no difficulty supporting that policy, but I would like to say one or two quick words about it.

This morning, the Minister for Communities asked me why a restriction was placed on the right of housing association tenants to buy. The restriction was placed on new housing associations and new housing association tenants. At the time, we would not have got the housing investment from the private sector that we believed was necessary to make public sector funds go further. That is why the right to buy was restricted.

John McAllion, who followed housing matters with great enthusiasm and was critical of many of its aspects, did not criticise that restriction at the time. I mention that because we regarded him as a leading light on housing matters, and he was extremely conscientious in appearing on every occasion that I did.

The test of a good housing policy is whether the Administration is seeking to match supply to demand in accordance with the aspirations of the Scottish people. There will be a need for more housing for the disabled, sheltered housing, housing for rent and low-cost home ownership. I say to the Deputy Minister for Local Government that we support right to buy if the figures stack up. He will be aware of the criticisms that have been made.

In his winding-up speech, Mr Bill Aitken will state the various ways in which the right to buy can be advanced without damaging the interests of housing associations. I will merely mention that if the Administration wishes to go ahead with its policy, a scheme should be put in place that compensates housing associations should they be left with outstanding debt following right-to-buy sales.

I recall a particular difficulty that I experienced as a minister when I wished to progress a rent-to-mortgage scheme. I was opposed not so much by politicians as by the Whitehall Treasury. Its view was that receipts were used to enhance local authority spending. Local authorities kept housing receipts and the Treasury believed that receipts from rent to mortgage would be less than from right to buy, prejudicing expenditure on public sector stock.

As it turned out, the Treasury's fears were misplaced and rent to mortgage resulted in a boost to right to buy, which tenants saw as a better deal, and receipts increased. At that time, I had to prove to the Treasury that the figures stacked up. While ministers are now free of Treasury control, they will need to convince housing associations that the aspirations for home ownership can and will be reconciled with the needs of housing associations.

The increase in homelessness applications has reached worrying proportions. The time scale of 2003 is far too leisurely. There is a need for more medium-term supported accommodation to end the vicious cycle of homelessness. We need local solutions for local problems, accompanied by a comprehensive national strategy. The priority that is placed on that subject must be increased in view of the growing severity of the problem. Only then will we have a modern housing policy that will stand the test of time and be worthy of Scotland.

Photo of Malcolm Chisholm Malcolm Chisholm Labour 12:03 pm, 13th January 2000

As one former housing minister following another former housing minister, I congratulate the present housing minister on raising the profile of Scottish housing as a key policy priority, and also on the many initiatives that she has started with her deputy, Jackie Baillie.

We are concentrating on the controversial areas of stock transfers and right to buy, but we should acknowledge the many housing policies that command widespread support across this chamber and across Scotland. First are the initiatives concerning anti-social behaviour by tenants. Everyone welcomes the new developments that have taken place on that issue. Secondly, with regard to the warm deal—notwithstanding some of the issues that were raised last night which I have not studied—we all acknowledge that the Executive is placing a new priority on dealing with the scourge of dampness, which was referred to in the opening speech. Thirdly, there is widespread support for the new money that was put into the rough sleepers initiative, which we had a debate about in November.

I think that we all agree that those initiatives address the key policies and priorities in Scottish housing, which are to increase the quality and the quantity of affordable rented housing and to support people, as was recently flagged up in the evaluation of the rough sleepers initiative. The two controversial issues should be dealt with in relation to those priorities. The key question is, do those controversial initiatives make the achievement of our objectives more likely? We should consider stock transfers and right to buy in that context.

I am not instinctively in favour of large-scale stock transfers, although I have for a long time supported smaller stock transfers. However, we must examine all the stock transfers, including the Glasgow ones, in terms of whether they will help to improve the quality of housing and eliminate cold, damp housing. The financial facts suggest that that is the case. There is no time to go into those in detail, but we must consider the borrowing consent and the fact that the amount of money that Glasgow was able to spend, on average, over the past two or three years was £30 million. Under the new arrangements, it will be £130 million a year, which is balanced out just by the public expenditure on the breakage costs of the debt and servicing the debt. There will be a lot more investment for the same amount of public money. We must face that fact. Members have made points about Treasury rules, but we have no control over those in this chamber.

We must remember that there is a right to buy, but there is also a right to rent. There are rights for individuals, but there are also rights for communities. The housing green paper made that point. It stated:

"The aim would be to strike a better balance between the aspirations of those tenants who would like to buy and the need to protect the interests of the community as a whole."

At the very least, we should consider the issue of local flexibility, so that local communities can make decisions about what is the correct balance.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Malcolm Chisholm is right to identify that a key issue is whether right to buy and stock transfer will address homelessness and the need for housing provision. Does he agree that a problem is that the proposals on extending the right to buy in the context of stock transfer will mean that lenders face larger risk because of the right to buy, so they will increase rents and that will put the stock transfer proposals in jeopardy? Right to buy and stock transfer must be considered together.

Photo of Malcolm Chisholm Malcolm Chisholm Labour

There is a lot of controversy about what the consequences of this will be. Many members have seen the paper from the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations. It makes similar points to those made by Fiona Hyslop and questions the Executive's estimate of the present net value. There is a massive gap between their estimate and that of the Executive. This Parliament should not jump to conclusions on those issues and should take evidence to consider the conflicting arguments. The Social Inclusion, Housing and Voluntary Sector Committee is doing that at the moment in relation to stock transfer. I hope that that committee, and other members, will do so in relation to right to buy as well.

I will repeat the point that I made in the equalities debate on 2 December, which is that one of the issues that last year's housing green paper failed to address was race equality and housing. It was widely said to be colour-blind. I hope that the Executive will address that issue. There is more harassment, more overcrowding and more homelessness among the black and ethnic minority community. I hope that the Executive will restore ring-fenced funding for those groups through Scottish Homes, will instruct Scottish Homes to set up the first black and ethnic minority-led housing association in Scotland and will put a representative from Positive Action in Housing on the new housing advisory forum.

Photo of John Farquhar Munro John Farquhar Munro Liberal Democrat 12:08 pm, 13th January 2000

This debate rightly puts housing at the top of the political agenda. It was mentioned earlier that we are giving this issue a high profile as this debate is one of the longest that we have had.

Much in this document merits the support of the chamber. I welcome the proposal to improve our housing stock. That is a laudable aim that most members will support. We should provide warm, comfortable, damp-free housing and make it available to all who wish to avail themselves of socially rented housing. However, like other members, I have reservations. The extension of the right to buy must be carefully considered and we must have a wider debate with housing associations, community trusts and local authorities. Those organisations have serious concerns over the blanket extension of the right to buy.

I have a document from the Chartered Institute of Housing. It suggests that it is important that the right to buy is reformed to achieve a better balance between renters and owners in different communities and a better balance between those who aspire to home ownership and the needs of communities to provide affordable rented housing to people who have no home. It says that the reforms should be based on decisions made at a local level, in the light of local housing needs and markets, and that local authorities should be able to exclude certain areas, particularly small rural communities that have no or very little rented housing available for the community.

The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities has also expressed concerns. It says:

"It is vital that councils' responsibility to provide housing for those in greatest need is not threatened by the Right to Buy. That is why we have consistently argued for changes in the right to buy to protect housing in the areas where it is in short supply. That concern has been reinforced by the findings of a report by Shelter Scotland which suggests that the number of homeless is now at an all time high."

Photo of Dr Winnie Ewing Dr Winnie Ewing Scottish National Party

Does the member hold out any hope that a fair share of the 6,000 houses will come to the Highlands and Islands, given the difficulty of acquiring land for the purpose?

Photo of John Farquhar Munro John Farquhar Munro Liberal Democrat

I have no great hope that that will happen, although I would dearly love it if it did. That is a debate for another occasion.

The Scottish Council for Single Homeless says:

"The most recent survey of homeless applications in Scotland shows homelessness at record levels and still growing at a time when the supply of rented housing is shrinking. For the Executive to seek to extend the right to buy at this time is short sighted and likely to lead to increased homelessness."

My area is part of rural Scotland and there is a quite a distinction between urban and rural Scotland. Even in rural Scotland, circumstances and needs can be diverse. The motivation behind the voluntary housing movement in the Highlands was to create community assets that can benefit and sustain the community in perpetuity. The proposal to extend the right to buy to housing associations completely undermines that aim.

Since 1980, 10,071 council properties have been sold under right to buy in the Highland Council area. The market is shrinking all the time. Yesterday, a delegation from Highland Council addressed an all-party group in Parliament. The members of the delegation, some of whom are with us today, made a very good case. They were not dismissive of the policies of the Executive, but wanted assurances that the unique problems of the Highlands would be fully taken into account during the legislative process.

Highland Council is committed to working with the Executive and the Parliament. Like the delegates, I am aware that policies that are good for the central belt are not necessarily good for the rural communities. The need for good rental housing to be available to all communities in the Highlands is clear. The bill that the Executive will bring forward to help to ensure that will be supported.

I support Highland Council in what it is trying to achieve and seek an early meeting between it and the Executive. I ask the Executive for complete assurance that rural communities will be given the opportunity to debate the legislation as it passes through Parliament. If we are extending the right to buy, we should also afford the opportunity and the choice of a right to rent.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party 12:15 pm, 13th January 2000

It is a great pity that the minister is not here to hear constructive speeches such as those of John Farquhar Munro and others—including, I hope, my own.

I will address homelessness in older people, because I think that we are tending towards stereotypes, albeit quite valid ones, of young rough sleepers, and the women and young families, referred to by Mike Watson, who are often homeless as a consequence of matrimonial breakdown.

I will focus on the difficulties of obtaining data on older people who are homeless, an issue that has been raised by Age Concern. The points that I will raise form a call to the Executive to which I would like a response, in writing or otherwise.

First, we need a national definition of an older person. We do not have such a definition and we could do with one; a person on the streets may often be extremely old, physically, at 50. We need proactive research, to include those in hospitals and homes and those who are sharing with relatives and friends. They are, in reality, homeless, although they may not be designated as such. We should distinguish between single people and couples who are homeless. We should examine the causes of homelessness in older people, which are disparate—just as they are for any other part of society—but which additionally include dementia and mental illness. That is call No 1. Will the Executive undertake such research so that remedies can be put in place for the elderly homeless?

Secondly, I have some data from Age Concern that is relevant to my next point. Thirty-two per cent of households in Scotland are headed by someone over 60, 11 per cent by someone over 75 and 5 per cent by someone over 80. As we know, all those figures are rising. The figures are split, almost equally, between home owners and people in public rented accommodation. Thirty-nine per cent of those homes have at least one problem that requires urgent repair. That is the background to two causes of homelessness among the elderly that are caused by either the inactivity or activity of the state.

On the first of those causes, inactivity, there is a failure to provide the elderly with the information, and sometimes the means, to adapt their homes so that with the passage of years, they can remain in their home and their community as the vast majority want to do. Simple changes, such as kitchen cupboards that people can reach, downstairs WCs, accessible sit-down showers and accessible entrances to homes, with ramps when steps become a barrier, could prevent accidents that lead to a spiral of decline.

The elderly lack accessible information about grants; there is no proactive campaign. There is also a great mixture of routes to information. I refer Ms Baillie—if she would listen for a moment—to the report of the Royal Commission on Long Term Care for the Elderly, chaired by Sir Stewart Sutherland. It is a wonderful tome that has almost become my bedtime reading. The report, on page 70, talks about aids and adaptations; it also provides an appendix that lists various items that could be charged to the state or to other charging structures. That is call No 2. Has the Executive taken any steps to implement the recommendations of Sir Stewart Sutherland for aids and adaptations, as referred to in appendix 1 of the Sutherland report?

I also want to refer to the unjust and oppressive clawback from the elderly for their care costs, both general and nursing, by the sale of their homes. Often elderly people take avoidance by transferring title to the names of family and friends. That is not always successful, as clawback can go back for many years, but when it is successful, it makes older people vulnerable to the vagaries of their alleged friends and families and they can be on the edge of being evicted at any stage. Again, I refer the minister to the excellent Sutherland report, which proposes remedies for this on page 56. One simple first step, which I have asked for over and over again, would be to detach the nursing costs from other care costs for the elderly when they are in homes and allocate the nursing costs to the national health service budget. That is call No 3.

Will the minister, in writing or otherwise, respond to the three calls I have made today? They are honest, constructive contributions to the debate on homelessness, in particular with regard to the elderly.

Photo of Elaine Murray Elaine Murray Labour 12:20 pm, 13th January 2000

Before I start, I apologise for having forgotten my jacket. My attire is not intended as a mark of disrespect to my colleagues.

I do not intend to talk about the right to buy in particular, although I have received a couple of representations from local housing associations and councillors. As the strength of the Parliament lies in its committee system, I believe that the concerns that are being expressed will be examined in detail by the relevant committee and that the Executive will listen to what is said at that committee. I hope that that assures people who raise concerns with us.

I wish to concentrate on the measures proposed on anti-social behaviour by tenants, which have been discussed in part by my colleagues Karen Whitefield and Paul Martin. As I have said in the chamber on previous occasions, it is a problem that is frequently presented at my constituency surgeries, and I am sure that that is replicated in the surgeries of colleagues and councillors throughout Scotland.

Friction between people or families living in close proximity is often a source of irritation and annoyance. That does not just apply on council estates; it is true of owner-occupiers and people who exercise the right to buy. In the past, it has often been much more difficult to take action against owner-occupiers. That has been rectified in recent legislation.

It is important that we do not just apply the stick of punishment in dealing with neighbour problems, although that sanction does need to be there and to be visible. One of the common complaints that I have heard from victims of anti-social neighbours is that the perpetrator believes that nobody is going to do anything about it.

The residents who suffer from anti-social neighbours usually just want the problem solved. Often, they see the solution as moving the offender out of the area. That has to be the ultimate option, the force of which the Executive's proposals recognise and strengthen. However, as far as the wider community is concerned, it does not solve the problem, but merely moves it on. It can create new problems, especially where children are involved. Unfortunately, it is quite often the behaviour of children and young people that is the source of complaint.

There is a need for mediation and for helping anti-social neighbours to reform their behaviour, as well as for letting them know what could happen to them if they persist in their behaviour. Although not all nuisance behaviour is a cold-blooded and calculated campaign to upset and anger neighbours, I am sorry to say that some is. At other times, such behaviour results from a variety of problems: alcohol, substance and drug abuse, psychological problems or a general inability to cope. Those people need help rather than punishment, and I am pleased that the Executive's proposals include looking at and learning from mediation projects. A number of agencies need to be involved in dealing with those problems. They are not simply housing problems, but areas in which we need an holistic approach.

We must also recognise that some tenants are extremely vulnerable. As Paul Martin said, some young people are not yet able to sustain a tenancy, to live alone, to look after themselves and, in some cases, to look after young children at the same time. I have anecdotal knowledge from my constituency of how such vulnerable young people are targeted in their communities by criminals and drug dealers. Those young people also need help.

I hope that the Executive will consider how it can assist and expand supported tenancies, considering, for example, the experience of the various foyer projects that have been undertaken in some local authority areas. For all concerned, prevention is always better than cure, and I ask for the minister's views on how that area of social tenancy can be promoted.

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

That leaves us time to squeeze in Mr Brian Adam before lunch.

Photo of Brian Adam Brian Adam Scottish National Party 12:24 pm, 13th January 2000

Thank you. I was most appreciative of comments made by Malcolm Chisholm and John McAllion who, as much as is possible in such situations, tried to inject at least a measure of consensus into the debate. However, from time to time, I become concerned about the use of language in politics. Much of the terminology that is used in connection with the housing debate devalues the language. In terms of the housing stock transfer and the new housing partnership arrangements, to suggest that that is large-scale voluntary transfer is stretching one's understanding of the meaning of voluntary. There is very little voluntary about it at all. It is a way of offering a choice to councils, and ultimately to tenants as a group, to transfer housing stock away from local authorities—or else there will be no investment. That is not voluntary; that is blackmail.

Some of the other language that is currently being used in politics also devalues words such as "modernise". I suggest that the £26 million that has been associated with expenditure on stock transfer feasibility studies has not produced any new houses. It has not put in new windows and it has not provided any of the much-needed central heating systems—it has not modernised any houses. Those are the real meanings of the word "modernise", which has been regularly misused by the Labour party.

I am extremely concerned about the large-scale voluntary transfers. This morning we have heard much about the lack of tenant involvement in the Glasgow proposals. In Aberdeen there is an attempt to involve tenants in discussions. The city council set up a city housing options working group. At an early stage the council invited representatives of tenants associations to join them; the tenants set up their own forum. At a meeting of the city housing options working group on February 12—as I said when I intervened on Mr Martin—it was quite clear what the tenants representatives wanted: they wanted to stay with the council. They wanted what every tenant wants—a good and improved service. However, because of the way in which the financing of local authority has deliberately been constructed, they will not get an improved service unless they go along with the transfer. The tenants have expressed their view. I do not see this as voluntary; it is blackmail.

Where there is a tenant-led movement, a change of tenure is not a problem. If they think that they can manage the stock better in the community, that is fine. That is another example of the misuse of language. The Labour party has tried to re-label Tory proposals by adding the word "community", as in community transfer or community stocks. The communities have not asked for these transfers and there is no evidence to suggest that they have. It is only after the proposals have been finalised that the tenants will be asked what they think about them. Take it or leave it is the option that they will be given. Dressing up a Tory policy to make it appear to have a basis in community and tenant interests is unacceptable. We should not be going in that direction. We should not be trying to force people down a route in order to arrive at the position that the Labour party wants.

Buried somewhere amongst the plethora of recent proposals is the suggestion that councils will be re-empowered in terms of housing. They will be involved strategically. That is only after they have got rid of all service provision—there will be no council houses. Now the Government will allow councils to be involved in housing. What a compliment. In reality, this is the Tory idea of enabling councils. There is no service provision, but the council will be allowed to determine the strategic policy. Large-scale voluntary transfers are bad. They should be carried out only under the direction of tenant-led initiatives. Unless the tenants lead this action, we will not be responsive to community needs and wishes.

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

That brings the first section of the debate to a close. The second section will begin at approximately 3.30 pm, after First Minister's questions. The names of members who have been patiently waiting to be called throughout the morning have been noted. They will be called in the second section.