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My only connection with St Andrews is that, as a teenager, I used to go to the caravan park on holiday. I therefore come to this debate as an outsider—I represent North East Scotland—but I very much welcome the fact that Iain Smith's motion gives us all an opportunity to talk about the rural housing crisis.
There is a crisis in the lack of affordable housing. One of the biggest disappointments in the Executive's track record over the past five years is that we had a rural housing crisis back in 1999 and here we are in 2004 and the rural housing crisis has not improved, but has got much worse. We have not had any political leadership on this issue. It is about time that the Government got the bit between its teeth and came up with some radical proposals.
The Parliament must also do more. My understanding is that no in-depth committee inquiry has been carried out into rural housing or affordable housing. Our committees should look into that. Far too many communities in rural Scotland spend years and years trying to get round the convoluted obstacles that prevent the building of more housing in those communities. We must get round these obstacles or demolish them—that is what political leadership is all about, but it has not been delivered during the past five years.
I was a member of the Rural Development Committee for the four years of the first session of the Parliament. We undertook many inquiries into the obstacles to rural development and we visited communities and spoke to young people in Lochaber, in Galloway and upper Nithsdale and in Huntly in Aberdeenshire, which I represent. The young people would say, "The difficulty in this community is that local people like me cannot get a house. We have nowhere to live, so we will have to leave and find a job elsewhere, unless we want to sleep on a relative's floor or settee." That scandalous situation continues and we must do something about it. I am so frustrated when I speak to young people in our communities who cannot afford to live and work in their own communities, where they want to live and work. The age profile in Aberdeenshire, for example, is zooming upwards because people retire to Aberdeenshire and young people cannot afford to live there. Deeside has many problems that are
Land reform legislation did not go nearly far enough in relation to access to land. We have to consider how people can get land. The situation could be resolved if more homes were built—it is as simple as that—but we need land on which to build them. Why is it that local authorities hardly ever use compulsory purchase orders? We should investigate that and make it easier to secure such orders. We should give communities the power to buy land on which to build housing for rent or ownership. We must remember that the debate is about owning accommodation as well as renting it; people should have the right to buy a house in their local communities and not just an opportunity to rent affordable housing, however important that is.
Infrastructure has not been mentioned to any great extent, but it is crucially important. There is a chronic lack of infrastructure, which relates to the underfunding of Scottish Water, not just over the past few years but over decades, if not the past century or so. That must also be addressed. I received a letter from Scottish Water in March in response to a letter in which I asked the company why it is not doing more to put in place the infrastructure for affordable rural housing. Scottish Water told me that changes that the Executive made to the funding mechanism in the year 2001-02 took away the company's ability to put aside money for infrastructure for building houses in rural communities. Once again, the buck stops with the Executive, which made the situation worse in relation to the expansion of infrastructure for rural housing. Apparently that situation will not be addressed until after 2006.
There is to be a review of planning, which is crucially important, but we must not forget design. Currently, strapped authorities such as Aberdeenshire Council are planning to bulk buy houses. If they get their hands on land, they will build as many houses as they can as close to each other as possible and as cheaply and quickly as possible. That makes the planning situation worse, because people object to the building of more ugly houses in the countryside. It is a chicken-and-egg situation; if we do not build nice quality housing people will object to plans to build more houses.
We need political leadership from the Executive. We have waited five years for that.