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Affordable Housing (North-east Fife)

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 5:13 pm on 2nd June 2004.

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Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat 5:13 pm, 2nd June 2004

I thank the Parliamentary Bureau, and members who supported my motion, for giving me the opportunity to secure this debate on affordable housing in north-east Fife. I also thank the minister and members who have stayed to contribute to the debate.

The debate is intended not to be used to criticise those who are responsible for social housing provision in north-east Fife—whether it be Fife Council, Communities Scotland or the Scottish Executive—but to be an opportunity to highlight the significant housing problems that exist in rural communities such as north-east Fife.

Housing problems are often pigeonholed as urban issues and I do not underestimate the significant housing issues that affect many of our towns and cities. It is, perhaps, inevitable that housing policymakers have tended to focus on issues that affect cities such as Glasgow or Dundee, but we should not forget the problems that face many of our smaller communities. Solutions that may be right for Glasgow or Dundee might not work in Gauldry or Dunshalt.

The shortage of affordable housing is a very real problem in many rural communities. The factors behind the shortage are by no means unique to north-east Fife, but we are perhaps unique in having so many of them affect us at the same time. Those factors include the sale of council houses; the number of second and holiday homes; the fact that north-east Fife is a nice place to retire to; increased commuting; the growing student population; and the general increase in the number of households. All those factors contribute to the increased demand for housing and the shortage of affordable housing in north-east Fife.

Private developers have responded to that demand by providing new build for sale, but they are building primarily at the higher end of the market, where the profits are greatest. The result is that those at the lower end of the income scale are, increasingly, being squeezed out at both ends by the reduction in the available stock of social rented accommodation and by property prices that are outwith their affordable range, even if they wished to buy.

House prices in some parts of north-east Fife are comparable with some of the most expensive parts of Scotland. For many years, there has been very high demand for housing in the ancient city of St Andrews in particular, and the St Andrews effect is spreading to many other parts of north-east Fife. According to the Bank of Scotland house price index, house prices in Cupar, for example, rose by more than 50 per cent during the year ending in March 2004. The average price is now more than £130,000, which is 20 per cent above the Scottish average and 40 per cent above the average for Fife.

For many young couples and families who are looking for their first home in local communities, such prices are simply unaffordable. They are forced to look elsewhere and often have to move away from their families and communities simply to get a roof over their heads that they can afford. The alternative of renting is simply not available. Outwith St Andrews, to which I will return, there is no significant private rented sector. Council house sales have meant that, for most families, nor is there any realistic prospect of council or housing association rented accommodation.

Right to buy was imposed by the Conservatives not as a housing policy, but as a policy of social engineering. It was about imposing a Conservative ideology, not about ensuring that we had the right balance of housing by tenure and type. I am not ideologically opposed to the right to buy, but the way in which it was implemented by the Conservatives was a disaster. Implementation of the policy was indiscriminate and uncontrolled, and it led to the best houses in the best areas being sold first, often to be sold on as second homes or for student lets. Housing authorities were not given the powers to ensure that an appropriate balance of socially rented accommodation was retained in communities. The policy was underfunded, leaving tenants to meet unpaid debts and the costs of sorting out the poorer quality housing stock from the reduced rent base, and leaving councils unable to replace much-needed rented accommodation.

In north-east Fife, more than half of the council housing stock has been sold and that has led to pressure on the remaining stock, which cannot meet need. For example, in St Andrews there are only 957 council houses left out of 2,053. Already more than 50 per cent of the allocations in St Andrews are made to homeless applicants. It is virtually impossible for anyone who is on the general needs list—those without special needs—to get housing in St Andrews.

The problem in St Andrews is exacerbated by the purchase of properties for letting to students. I do not suggest that students do not have a legitimate housing need, but the increased student population has certainly added to the pressure on housing in the town. St Andrews is also a popular place for retirement, no doubt because of the excellent rates that residents get if they want to play golf on the St Andrews links.

Indeed, the whole east neuk of Fife is a popular place for retirement and holiday homes. More than 60 per cent of second homes in Fife are in the east neuk, and 98 per cent are in north-east Fife. The growth in the number of holiday homes has put many of our communities under strain. Holiday homes contribute to the upward pressure on house prices and they reduce the amount of accommodation that is available for permanent residents, which can put at risk many of the vital community services that are needed to sustain rural village life. If there are no homes available for young families, there are no children for our local schools. Post offices, village shops, pubs, bus services and community groups are all at risk when there is not a sustainable permanent population. In many communities in north-east Fife, such as Kingsbarns, Crail and Earlsferry, that is already a real concern. The indefensible discount on council tax for second homes must end so that second home owners make a fair contribution to sustaining local services. The money that would be raised could even be used to support essential new social rented housing in these communities.

Other parts of north-east Fife, such as Cupar and the Howe of Fife, have come within commuting distance, not just of Dundee and Glenrothes but of Edinburgh. That, too, has put pressure on house prices in north-east Fife.

Affordable housing has become a real problem in north-east Fife and I am pleased that the recently published local housing strategy for Fife has recognised that. North-east Fife has nearly 20 per cent of all housing in Fife, but it has less than 14 per cent of social rented housing. We also have the greatest requirement for affordable housing, with an estimated shortfall of more than 3,000 units compared with a net requirement for Fife as a whole of just 712. The present funding from Communities Scotland, averaging 270 units per annum across Fife, would barely scrape the surface even if all that investment were made in north-east Fife, which it is not.

The proposal to include in the Fife structure plan a requirement that 30 per cent of all housing in developments of more than 10 units will have to be affordable is to be welcomed, but it will have little impact until the later years of the structure plan. Further, what is meant by affordable? Is £100,000 affordable? That is what is being suggested for some developments in St Andrews. Will that proposal ensure that there will be an appropriate balance of tenure types, social rented homes, private rented homes, rent-to-buy properties and low-cost purchase properties and the right mix of house types and sizes? How will it deal with the problems in our smaller communities that might require only one or two social rented units?

The right-to-buy policy will continue to make it difficult for the Fife housing partnership fully to address those issues unless north-east Fife is recognised as a pressured area. I welcome the fact that north-east Fife has developed a case to apply for pressured-area status and I hope that the Scottish ministers will look favourably on that application if it is received. I also welcome the commitment in the housing local strategy to complete an updated housing needs and affordability assessment and to update and develop the rural housing plan.

Those actions are welcome, but they do not guarantee any additional affordable housing. What is needed is resources. North-east Fife needs investment in social housing if it is to start to address the shortfall of more than 3,000 affordable housing units. I urge the Scottish Executive, Communities Scotland, Fife Council and the Fife housing partnership to make a commitment to that investment.