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Affordable Housing (North-east Fife)

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 5:21 pm on 2nd June 2004.

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Photo of Ted Brocklebank Ted Brocklebank Conservative 5:21 pm, 2nd June 2004

There are housing shortages in north-east Fife, as there are in many parts of Scotland, including the capital city of Edinburgh. The problem in the case of St Andrews is exacerbated by the growing number of students, but it is not as straightforward as Mr Smith's motion suggests. While it is true that many town-centre properties are now occupied by students, several university residences have spare capacity; indeed, some of the older residences have been sold off to the private sector because many students no longer wish to live in dormitory-type accommodation.

However, just as there are many parts of Scotland that have problems with affordable housing, there are parts—including some in central Fife—in which there is spare housing capacity. Statistically, some of the most affordable housing in Scotland is in the Leven area, only a few miles from north-east Fife.

On a recent visit to Mountfleurie Primary School, I was interested to learn that the Edinburgh overspill is now spreading to places such as Leven and Buckhaven. The standards of local education are excellent and, with attractive coastal villages such as Lundin Links and Lower Largo nearby, the quality of life for young professionals who are choosing to commute to Edinburgh is obvious.

The same pattern is true elsewhere in the UK. While some areas are overheated and have a shortage of affordable housing, there are other, less-desirable, areas in which that is not the case. While John Prescott claims that Britain needs 2 million new homes, at least 800,000 homes—a quarter of which are owned by the public sector—are lying empty. The Government argues that population growth has caused greater need for more houses, but Scotland appears to be haemorrhaging people. Our problem is not that we need more houses, but that we need different kinds of houses, perhaps in different places.

I have some problems with Mr Smith's contention that many people cannot obtain affordable accommodation in their own communities. I am not sure how we would define what would constitute people's own community. I believe that St Andrews is my community, since I was born, brought up and educated there, but why should that guarantee me affordable accommodation in the town? It seems to me that, if I cannot afford to make my home there, I should live elsewhere. That is exactly what I did until I was able to afford to come back and live in St Andrews.

I remain unconvinced that Fife Council's latest major vision to help alleviate Fife's affordable housing crisis will do anything of the kind. Building affordable housing is a laudable ambition but it is fraught with difficulties, especially in places such as St Andrews, where the pressures of the marketplace quickly turn affordable houses into houses that people simply cannot afford.

The right approach is to help people to afford to buy the houses that are available, and that means shared equity. People who are determined to live in the area of their choice might not be able to afford 100 per cent of a house, but they might be able to afford, say, half or two thirds of the price. By working with the lending industry, builders and local authorities, an equity revolution could allow millions of people to get on to the property ladder. At a time of their choosing, those people might or might not decide to buy over the whole equity. To improve the standard of housing for everyone in Scotland, it is necessary to devolve control of housing from councils to local housing associations, housing co-operatives and a range of other providers. That would give tenants a real choice of landlord and a real say in the management of their homes. The right to buy should be extended to the housing associations, creating a more fluid housing sector.

The end of council housing should be welcomed, as such provision has been characterised by unsympathetic and unresponsive bureaucracy and financial waste on a massive scale. We need management that will face up to its responsibilities to control and, if need be, evict antisocial and disruptive tenants.

The land that we need to free up for any necessary housing developments should, in the first instance, be brownfield land. In that connection, I see real potential in the Guardbridge area, which is only three miles from St Andrews. That could provide both major housing and light industrial development, if required. Building on greenfield sites has doubled under Labour. As a member of the local greenbelt forum, I am dedicated to preserving the natural setting and environment of St Andrews. That does not mean that there should never be further development in the town, but we have a responsibility to ensure that we do not destroy the very qualities that make places such as St Andrews attractive to home owners and visitors alike.

We must recognise that in St Andrews we have Scotland's most intact medieval city and its original ecclesiastical capital. We have a national responsibility to protect and preserve that for future generations. For that reason, I am opposed to the application of any short-term measures to solve a perceived housing problem that may just be a problem of people failing to go to other places to find houses. If they wish eventually to return to St Andrews, why should they not do so, as I did?