Housing (Local Authorities)

Finance and Public Services and Communities – in the Scottish Parliament at 2:00 pm on 2nd December 2004.

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Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party 2:00 pm, 2nd December 2004

To ask the Scottish Executive whether it is a good use of public resources for local authorities to compete in the private housing market for homes rather than build new local authority-owned properties to meet their obligations under homelessness legislation. (S2O-4305)

Photo of Malcolm Chisholm Malcolm Chisholm Labour

As a general rule, Scottish Executive funding goes to programmes that increase the supply of housing. However, there may be circumstances in which the purchase of properties is justified to meet particular housing objectives quickly. That is a matter for local authorities to consider in the light of their housing needs assessments and local circumstances.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

All members support the recent homelessness legislation that will ensure that homeless people have access to temporary accommodation. However, the public in Aberdeenshire have raised concerns because the council there has just spent £0.5 million on buying six houses in the private market, competing against local people. Does the minister accept that that shows that there is a council housing crisis? Surely it would be cheaper, more sensible and a better use of public funds for councils to build council housing to help people who need a roof over their head than to compete in a market in which housing is already in short supply.

Photo of Malcolm Chisholm Malcolm Chisholm Labour

As I said, the fundamental policy is to increase the supply of affordable housing. In the next three years, £1.2 billion will be targeted at that. Aberdeenshire Council has benefited greatly from the increased expenditure on housing—it received a big increase in its funding for housing in the past year. However, as I stated, those measures may need to be supplemented in some circumstances. We have increased the rights of homeless people and the number of people who have those rights, which obviously means that short-term as well as longer-term action needs to be taken. The fundamental policy is to increase the supply of homes, but the private sector should be used where necessary. I emphasise that because, as a result of the Homeless Persons (Unsuitable Accommodation) (Scotland) Order 2004—which will ensure that families are not in bed-and-breakfast accommodation for longer than 14 days—some councils may have to use the private sector.

Photo of Mary Mulligan Mary Mulligan Labour

The minister is aware that local authorities play a key role in housing, not just as landlords, but in leading strategic discussions and decision making about housing provision, particularly in relation to homelessness. Will he reassure me that he will continue to work with local authorities to address the needs of homeless people in their areas?

Photo of Malcolm Chisholm Malcolm Chisholm Labour

I strongly agree with Mary Mulligan on that point. On Tuesday, I was pleased to convene one of a series of regular meetings between the Executive and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities on housing, homelessness and regeneration, at which I made clear my total commitment to working in partnership with COSLA on the challenges of homelessness and of housing and regeneration more generally. I repeated that commitment at yesterday's Communities Committee meeting, in which there was some disagreement with COSLA. I do not want to go into the details, although some of this morning's reporting of the disagreement was one sided. We engaged with COSLA as much as we could in the past year on the order that I mentioned, but it did not respond to the consultation on the matter. However, that is water under the bridge and I am determined to ensure that we work in partnership with COSLA on all the challenging housing matters.

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson Labour

The trouble is that the water is not entirely under the bridge, I am afraid. Is the minister aware that the order has made it necessary for East Lothian Council to try to purchase former council houses to meet the growing needs of homeless people? Does it make sense for the Executive to compel local authorities to sell houses at discounted prices as low as £20,000 and then compel them to buy back the same houses at the market price of around £100,000? How does the minister reconcile that with the theme of efficient government that the Minister for Finance and Public Service Reform will talk about this afternoon?

Photo of Malcolm Chisholm Malcolm Chisholm Labour

That is not the main thing that is happening in housing in East Lothian. One of the most important developments for East Lothian Council—over and above the £1.2 billion that will benefit everywhere in Scotland—is the Executive's decision to allow councils to use a prudential borrowing regime. I know that East Lothian Council is keen to benefit from that regime, which will do a great deal for council housing in the area.

John Home Robertson sounds as if he is attacking the right-to-buy policy in its totality—that, of course, is his right—but the Parliament took a view on the matter in 2001. We are committed to reviewing the policy in 2006, at which time he and everyone else can give their views. What he described concerns the purchase of a small number of private sector houses. As I said in my last answer, those purchases will be necessary for some authorities that have to take very quick action in order to meet the terms of the order. I think that East Lothian Council might be looking at its allocations policy to see what the proportion of lets that go to homeless families is. As John Home Robertson knows, Communities Scotland heavily criticised the council in its report on the subject.