Housing

– in the Scottish Parliament at 9:15 am on 1st May 2008.

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Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party 9:15 am, 1st May 2008

Good morning. The first item of business is a Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party debate on motion S3M-1812, in the name of David McLetchie, on housing.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

In the Parliament, the Scottish National Party loves to tell us how hard done by we are and to criticise the alleged parsimony of our Treasury paymasters in Westminster. One example was the budget settlement, which was referred to constantly as a tight financial settlement, notwithstanding that, in real terms, the Government has more money at its disposal to spend on devolved services than any previous Government in the history of Scotland, before or after the establishment of the Parliament. More recently, we were told that only Westminster stands in the way of the Government's plans for a so-called local—but in truth Scottish national—income tax, because Westminster will not give us the equivalent of the £400 million that is presently paid out in council tax benefit. Only this week, the report of Lord Sutherland's review committee reignited the debate about the relationship between free personal care and attendance allowance, in which the amount in dispute is about £30 million.

On housing, however, Her Majesty's Treasury has on the table a total in excess of £2 billion that is available to wipe out the accumulated housing debt of the 26 councils in Scotland that have so far failed to transfer their housing stock to housing associations. That money would transform social housing in many parts of Scotland, but the Government is doing absolutely nothing to pick it up and apply it to good account, which is little short of a perverse disgrace. At April of last year, the relevant debt figures for the councils that have tried and failed to secure positive votes in tenant ballots were £278 million for the City of Edinburgh Council, £153 million for Highland Council and £144 million for Renfrewshire Council, not forgetting £19 million for Stirling Council.

What was common to those ballots? In each and every case, the SNP campaigned, hand in hand with Tommy Sheridan and his former friends in the Scottish Socialist Party, for a no vote, spouting nonsense about the privatisation of council housing when no such proposal was ever on the table. Now that the SNP is in government, the official position is that those matters are local decisions and the SNP Government is neutral on the issue. How can the Government be neutral about gaining £2 billion to improve the standard of housing in Scotland? How can a Government that likes to boast about its historic concordat with local authorities and which will demand all manner of outcomes in agreements with them not insist, as a condition of Government funding support, that councils put in place new stock transfer measures, which would wipe out all the debts and give social housing a fresh start in most of our country?

Let us put the numbers into perspective. At the recent SNP conference, Nicola Sturgeon was quick to boast that the Government will allocate £25 million in the next three years to councils to help finance a new council house building programme. By comparison with the moneys that are on offer from stock transfer, that is peanuts. As I pointed out in an earlier housing debate, the summit of the SNP ambition is to build half the number of council houses in the next 10 years that the Conservatives built in our last 10 years in government.

Nothing gives me greater pleasure than highlighting such delicious ironies, but the more substantial point is that the new council house building programme runs entirely contrary to the direction of policy that has been pursued by successive Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat Governments in Scotland in the past 30 years. The consistent policy has been to encourage home ownership, in line with the aspirations of the vast majority of our people; to use the sale proceeds from the right to buy to improve the homes of those who wish to remain tenants and to build new social housing; and to use locally based housing associations as the owners and managers of homes to rent.

Overall, there is no doubt that the policy has been a great success. We have 480,000 new home owners who have improved their homes at their expense, rather than the expense of the taxpayer and tenants.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

Excuse me.

For those who have remained as tenants, all the indications are that they receive a far better service from housing associations as managers than they did from their council landlords. The proof of that particular pudding is to be found in the conclusions of an Audit Scotland report that was published in 2006 that examined the experience of tenants who had been the subject of stock transfer. The conclusion was that

"tenants are finding the service provided after transfer is better, new landlords are investing in the housing stock and keeping rent increases within agreed limits and transfers have promoted greater control for tenants."

The record of Conservative Governments demonstrates clearly that there is no incompatibility between giving tenants a right to buy and building new affordable homes for rent, whether the builders are councils or housing associations. That incompatibility is a myth perpetrated by those who are instinctively hostile to the policy. The policy does not stop people finding affordable housing, because it matters not whether a house is occupied by a tenant or an owner; the relevant factor is that it is occupied and, accordingly, not available for occupation by anybody else.

The fundamental issue is stock transfer, which can unlock investment in affordable housing far in excess of that which the Scottish Government proposes. Some will say that the Treasury should pay off the accumulated housing debt, transfer or no transfer, with arm's-length management organisations often touted as an alternative to stock transfer to housing associations. However, railing against the present rules is, frankly, of little use, because they are not going to change.

In the meantime, more than 450 homes in north Sighthill in my constituency are scheduled for demolition in a programme that is now under way, while the Liberal Democrat and SNP-run council has not a clue as to how those houses will be replaced in that community, in contrast to the situation that applied under the original transfer proposals.

The situation is not good enough. The Government should work with the Treasury and our councils to release the funding, rather than stand and girn on the sidelines. In the last analysis, the motion, which I will have much pleasure in moving, calls on the Government to get a move on, which it should do as a matter of priority.

I move,

That the Parliament regrets the failure of the Scottish Government to actively pursue and promote housing stock transfer by local authorities to community-based housing associations and thereby obtain a debt write-off from HM Treasury of over £2 billion; believes that the role of social landlords is best undertaken by housing associations and other not-for-profit, co-operative bodies, and deplores the introduction of any further restrictions on the right to buy.

Photo of Stewart Maxwell Stewart Maxwell Scottish National Party 9:22 am, 1st May 2008

As our amendment to David McLetchie's motion makes clear, the Government believes that local democracy extends to local authority tenants deciding whether their homes should be transferred out of local authority ownership. That means respecting tenants' right to retain their local authority landlord where they vote to do so and supporting transfers where they enjoy local support. That is why, in December 2007, I was happy to approve the transfer of Inverclyde Council's stock to River Clyde Homes.

Under current Treasury rules on debt write-off, deciding against a transfer has serious implications for future investment in stock. We believe that the rules are unfair and penalise tenants who choose to remain with their local authority landlords, which is why we asked the Treasury to consider write-off where transfers do not take place. I regret that the Treasury was not prepared to contemplate flexibility in the interests of supporting tenants and respecting their right to choose. As matters stand, we must live with the Treasury's intransigence—we do not have the powers or resources to do otherwise. Perhaps other members should support the transfer of the powers, rather than moan about the fact that the Treasury will not agree.

Local authority tenants suffer the consequences of reduced investment in their homes. That is unsatisfactory. We made it clear in "Firm Foundations: The Future of Housing in Scotland" that we would consider proposals for full or partial transfers, particularly where they qualify for debt write-off. However, we will not press tenants—some might say bribe or blackmail them—into voting for a course that they do not believe is in their best interests. At root, the Tories are dogmatically opposed to local authorities being landlords, and that antipathy lies behind their motion. We do not share their antipathy—quite the opposite; we acknowledge that local authorities continue to play a large role in providing social housing, and we want to support them in that role.

Two weeks ago, Nicola Sturgeon announced £25 million for the next three years to kick-start a new generation of council house building, and we will soon announce the housing association grant allocations for 2008-09. Our proposal has been widely welcomed, with the huge majority of respondents to "Firm Foundations" expressing clear support for it. It is easy to see why. There is an acute shortage of affordable housing to rent. The policies of previous Administrations have not been a huge success, as David McLetchie claimed. Our support for local authority house building will help to address that shortage by encouraging councils to start building again. We will discuss with our partners in the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities how the money can be used to best effect by encouraging local authorities to augment, as cost effectively as possible, the supply of new social housing in areas of need.

It is worth stressing the point about augmenting new supply. The Tory motion implies that we undervalue or are somehow trying to undermine housing associations and other not-for-profit and co-operative housing bodies, but that is quite simply not the case. We acknowledge that the not-for-profit sector has made a huge contribution to the provision of high-quality, affordable homes across the country and to the regeneration of communities and neighbourhoods.

We were clear in "Firm Foundations" that we expect the not-for-profit sector to continue to supply the great majority of new social housing. We need the sector to thrive and grow as a key player in a housing system that is much more responsive to demand for affordable housing across all tenures. Unlike the Tories and the Labour Party, we have no difficulty in contemplating a world where the not-for-profit sector and local authorities both help to create a system that better meets Scotland's housing needs. I am encouraged to note that the not-for-profit sector appears to share that view.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

Will the minister give us a rough, ball-park figure for how many houses the Government expects to get out of its £25 million? Will he confirm that the announcement of 240 council houses for West Lothian is a direct result of the previous Executive's decision to change the rules on prudential borrowing?

Photo of Stewart Maxwell Stewart Maxwell Scottish National Party

I will give Johann Lamont an exact figure for the number of houses: it will be exactly a hell of a lot more than six.

Photo of Stewart Maxwell Stewart Maxwell Scottish National Party

Johann Lamont has had her intervention. The fact remains that Labour failed utterly to build any council houses over the past four years. I have to point out that the six council houses that were built were built in Shetland, so they were not exactly available to people in West Lothian, Glasgow or anywhere else in the country.

Photo of Stewart Maxwell Stewart Maxwell Scottish National Party

No.

In the coming weeks, we will make a statement to Parliament setting out the broad direction of our housing policies in light of the responses to "Firm Foundations", which will include our plans for ensuring that the not-for-profit sector can deliver the maximum possible number of sustainable, good-quality homes for the available level of public expenditure, and our plans for support for first-time buyers.

I want to make one point absolutely clear: nothing in the proposals in "Firm Foundations" for reforming how we distribute subsidies for new social housing is intended to undermine the diversity of the not-for-profit sector or its ability to respond sensitively to local housing needs.

The Government knows that the right to buy has had a profound effect on our housing system, and that in many, but by no means all, cases it has been positive, not least in providing great diversity of choice for households throughout the country. However, policy should not stand still, as the Tories appear to want, but evolve to address emerging challenges. That is what we intend to do with our proposal to end the right to buy new social housing, which will effectively safeguard for future generations our planned investment in new supply. That proposal attracted near universal support among respondents to "Firm Foundations"—94 per cent of respondents supported it. That does not suggest that many will join the Tories in deploring our willingness to propose a major change in policy that will serve the interests of those who are seeking affordable housing. Similarly, few will follow the Tories in ruling out any attempt to review how the policy applies to existing stock, such as exploring ways of achieving greater flexibility for the modernised right to buy in light of evidence on how it has operated.

I move amendment S3M-1812.2, to leave out from "regrets" to end and insert:

"respects the democratic right of tenants to determine the ownership of their homes; regrets that HM Treasury will only write off local authority housing debt where local authority housing stock is transferred; believes that housing associations and other not-for-profit, co-operative bodies continue to have the lead role in providing new social housing but welcomes the Scottish Government's encouragement of local authorities to augment the supply of new social housing as part of their role as landlords, and endorses the Scottish Government's plans to end the right to buy on new social housing and to review how right to buy applies to the existing stock of social housing."

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour 9:28 am, 1st May 2008

I welcome this important debate. The intention of my amendment is to get the Government to focus on taking responsibility for its actions and delivering a housing strategy worthy of the name. It is most unfortunate that the Government makes assertions with no evidence whatsoever. We should be focusing and developing policy on a huge range of housing issues, such as affordability, homelessness and the needs of disabled people, but we are stuck with a Government that is more interested in spinning headlines than taking action.

Over the past eight years, we built a real consensus around the key issues and built 36,000 houses for social rent, but we now have a minister who will not even tell us what his target is, and who claims that his £25 million will go some way to addressing need.

It is depressing that with this Administration we get assertion rather than action and headlines rather than creative solutions. Despite being instructed to do so, it cannot even say whether the £2,000 first-time buyers grant is in or out—it cannot say yes or no to that. Perhaps the minister will address that in his summing up.

What is the Government's strategy? Despite the spin, Nicola Sturgeon acknowledged the role of housing associations in providing affordable houses, which will remain central. I am therefore at a loss to understand the distinction that the Government makes between council housing and housing that is built by housing associations and co-operatives. It is meaningless to say that we built only six council houses, given that we built 36,000 houses of a high standard for social rent.

Despite what the Government says about supporting housing associations, the evidence is that there are going to be significant cuts to HAG. There is uncertainty in the sector because the minister will not even tell us what the allocations are. Housing associations are fearful of the consequences. They will have to borrow more at a time of volatility in the private markets, they will have to put up rents, they are unable to plan and they fear that development programmes will be halted. At the same time, the key strategy of the Government's "Firm Foundations" document, which has been widely criticised, is to drive efficiencies into housing associations—with no evidence about where the inefficiencies are—with a single developer model, which I am sure the minister will acknowledge has been criticised by the people who responded to the consultation.

The minister has managed to create the impression that the sector that has been most successful in terms of housing strategy for the past 30 years has been living off the fat of the land. The Government is attacking the key element of the housing association movement, which is community ownership.

I understand that the Government needs to address the discomfort of its own back benchers, given that £260 million is going unconditionally to businesses and that the Government is going to drive efficiencies into the housing association sector. We hear all the nonsense about the £25 million. In the last year of the previous Executive, £501 million was spent on addressing affordable housing issues. The £25 million is a nonsense. It cannot go to the local authorities that the SNP urged to vote against stock transfer, because of housing debt. The money is going to be top-sliced off HAG and redistributed to areas that do not have the greatest housing need.

The reality is that the Government is committed to not addressing the key issues of affordable housing and to keeping its own back benchers sweet. A moment's scrutiny shows that it is not doing what it is claiming to do on the right to buy. At the same time, it is flat-lining budgets for community regeneration and wider action. The Government is paralysed when it comes to making the hard decisions and addressing the real problems. It is settling for easy headlines that a moment's scrutiny shows to be nonsense.

I move amendment S3M-1812.3, to leave out from "the failure" to end and insert:

"that, following the parliamentary debate on 20 March 2008, ministers have not yet reported to the Parliament on the future of the £2,000 first-time buyers grant, despite the Parliament agreeing that they should, regrets that ministers have not yet reported to the Parliament on how the Scottish Government plans to respond to the consultation on Firm Foundations which identified serious criticisms of the Scottish Government's approach to housing; notes the critical role of housing associations and housing co-operatives in delivering affordable homes for rent; condemns the Minister for Communities and Sport for not yet announcing the allocation of Housing Association Grant, and reaffirms its view that the Scottish Government has no coherent housing strategy."

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat 9:33 am, 1st May 2008

I am grateful to the Conservatives for using their time to debate the vital issue of housing. David McLetchie's central point about the opportunities that debt write-off offers is entirely valid. The loss of a potential £2 billion in housing spend is a mistake of significant proportions by the SNP Government. I have to ask the minister, as the SNP often asked us when we were in Government, what is plan B? We have heard clearly that there is no plan B; there is no alternative and the Government's approach is all hot air.

Apart from the fact that the Government in London was never going to write off the debt without conditions, I am not sure that unconditional write-off is the correct approach in principle. The dynamic link between debt write-off and community empowerment was what made the policy fly.

I say to the minister with respect that the SNP Government's housing strategy is one of its weakest points. "Firm Foundations" is a poor document. The fatal flaw at its core is the idea—which, as Johann Lamont said, is not backed up by evidence—that centralised procurement has the potential to save money and be more efficient. In reality, such procurement jeopardises the future of the unique Scottish system of community-based housing associations. It will cost more and it will be hugely bureaucratic. That is the reality, despite the minister's weasel words on the matter.

In contrast, Liberal Democrats believe that communities should be the source of power. In housing, a dynamic partnership between councils as the strategic elected body and housing associations and co-operatives, which deliver local participation, is often a strong tenant empowerment mechanism. The SNP makes great play of the historic concordat, but it has shown most clearly in its housing policy that it does not trust local people, as its strategy tends to strip local councils and housing associations of power.

Even more central is the challenge of providing enough affordable rented housing—whether it is socially rented housing or council housing is substantially incidental—yet the SNP is lamentably and demonstrably failing to rise to that challenge. There is total confusion and uncertainty about the Scottish Government's programme. It should be a simple task to answer the question—which has been put to the minister—of how many houses for rent in the public sector the SNP Government plans to build or how many houses the £25 million that has been reallocated to council housing will produce.

The Government pulls all the relevant levers, particularly through the funding from central sources to councils and housing associations, but despite pressure from housing organisations such as Shelter, the SNP continues to duck and weave. As with many other issues, it seems determined to brazen it out with a smoke and mirrors act rather than come clean. The reality is obvious—fewer houses than ever before will be built in the public sector under the SNP, and housing has a distinctly lower priority under the SNP than it had when Liberal Democrats were in government.

It is time for the SNP to come clean. The minister can end all uncertainty by telling us the investment that the SNP will make in housing over the spending review period, how many affordable houses for rent it is able and proposes to build over that period, and the breakdown between providers. The SNP has made much play of the fact that it is allowing councils to build houses, but there is nothing terribly new in that, and the numbers involved are tokenistic, as has been said. In its briefing, Shelter suggests that fewer than 20,000 rented houses will be built from 2008 to 2011, and that the small number of extra council houses will be funded from a reduced allocation to housing associations.

The SNP Government must learn that it cannot govern by press release, that the art of government imposes constraints on ludicrously extravagant promises, and that the ultimate test is delivery.

I move amendment S3M-1812.1, to leave out from "believes that" to end and insert:

"recognises that local councils are best placed to assess and meet varied local housing needs and to determine their local housing strategies; believes that the role of community-based housing associations and housing co-operatives is vital to such diverse local strategies which should also include the ability to mould right-to-buy policy to fit local needs, and calls on the Scottish Government to produce clear figures on its housing plans including the number of affordable rented houses to be built from 2008 to 2011."

Photo of Stuart McMillan Stuart McMillan Scottish National Party 9:37 am, 1st May 2008

I have no doubt that every member has at some time campaigned or spoken on housing. Scotland faces a housing shortage in the public sector. East Dunbartonshire faces a social housing crisis, which is due in no small part to the voting down by Conservative councillors there of a target for a minimum percentage of social housing for rent. When the opportunity arose in January to provide for a substantial percentage of social housing for rent, the Tories, along with Labour and the Liberals, did not take it. The SNP group even offered to lower its 15 per cent target to 10 per cent, which the ruling Labour-Tory administration preferred, but that figure was still rejected.

East Dunbartonshire Council has a waiting list with which the current council housing stock cannot cope. When the right to buy was introduced, the area had more than 10,000 council houses. That figure was reduced to just over 3,600 by 2006-07, whereas the number of people on the waiting list is about 4,500. The council also has a backlog of homelessness applications. As a result of all that, local people cannot stay in the area. Where will they go? Perhaps they will move to another local authority area and add to its overstretched waiting list. Our local authorities face such problems, but effective social housing can help to alleviate them.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

Your regional responsibilities include Inverclyde. Do you welcome the decision of people in Inverclyde to support stock transfer? Do you regret the campaign against it in other areas, where people will not receive the benefits?

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

I remind members not to use the second person unless addressing the chair.

Photo of Stuart McMillan Stuart McMillan Scottish National Party

I will talk about the Inverclyde situation later.

The actions—or lack of them—of the previous Scottish Executive have left Scotland facing a housing shortage. The SNP Government has been clear in its aim—which has received overwhelming support—to build 35,000 new homes in the next decade.

Right to buy has been a bone of contention, but I make no bones about saying that the Tory position, which dates back 30 years, shows clearly that the Tories are behind the times. The proposal not to remove but to restrict the right to buy for new social housing was supported by 94 per cent of respondents to the Scottish Government's recent consultation. If that measure is not taken, research shows that 90,000 socially rented homes will be sold in the next 10 years. As I have shown, we do not have enough social housing to allow that to happen.

Moreover, it is no secret that the Labour Party, along with its Tory pals, took to encouraging tenants to vote for housing stock transfer. In Inverclyde, tenants voted overwhelmingly to transfer to a large housing association—that was up to them; it was their choice. However, since then, some constituents have asked me why they were forced down that road. Some have even mentioned the word "bribery", because if they had rejected the offer the housing debt would not have been written off. Those tenants were given no option, because if they had exercised their democratic right to vote against transfer, they would, in effect, have been punished.

A year into the SNP Government, we have had a commitment to create a fairer Scotland and to clear up Labour's mess again. The investment of more than £1.6 billion over three years in housing and regeneration from the tight budget settlement is just one example of action.

I hope that, in summing up, the Tories—and perhaps even the Labour Party—will explain why the United Kingdom Treasury will write off housing debt only if housing stock transfer takes place. Surely if the Treasury can provide £50 billion to the UK financial sector because of the credit crunch and can pour a similar amount into Northern Rock, paying £2 billion to wipe out the housing debt is a mere drop in the ocean. I urge members to back the Government amendment.

Photo of David Whitton David Whitton Labour 9:41 am, 1st May 2008

I welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate, which is on an important topic. I will support the amendment in the name of my colleague Johann Lamont.

I do not often have the chance to thank the Tories for anything, but I thank them today, as they have at least brought the subject of housing to the chamber, unlike the SNP Government, which does not want to talk about devolved issues such as housing—at least not here.

It is gratifying to hear Mr McMillan taking such an interest in my constituency. I welcome the debate, as it gives me the opportunity to mention an event that I will attend this afternoon in Kirkintilloch, where the leader of East Dunbartonshire Council's Labour-Conservative coalition—members will not hear that phrase often—will officially open a new development of affordable homes.

The completion of those 40 new properties is a major boost for the town's Harestanes area. They comprise 28 homes for rent and 12 shared-equity properties that have been built under the first low-cost initiative for first-time buyers—LIFT—project in East Dunbartonshire. The development involves a partnership between Castle Rock Edinvar Housing Association, Lothian Homes, Cruden Estates, Communities Scotland and the council. Such is the demand for affordable housing in my constituency—I thank Mr McMillan for the update on the figures—that more than 200 applications were made for the 12 homestake properties. However, the good news is that there are plans to build more such properties in Bearsden, Bishopbriggs and Milton of Campsie.

As I have said, that is the good news. Elsewhere, the situation is not as rosy. In the Hillhead area of Kirkintilloch, which is an area of multiple deprivation, Hillhead Housing Association is still waiting to find out whether Communities Scotland will reinstate an offer—which had been deferred—of £4 million that it requires to proceed with phase 2 of redevelopment in the area. HHA has been told that officers from the Government's housing and regeneration directorate, which was Communities Scotland, want to wait for more up-to-date costs, because the directorate's investment team apparently wants to appraise the scheme's costs against the new housing association grant assumptions. Under those arrangements, which Mr Maxwell introduced, an association could be forced to use reserves to back its bid—although HHA has none—or to think about increasing rents, but Hillhead is an area of deprivation, so that is not an option, either. The intention is to allow HAG to be spread more thinly. That seems to be the SNP's idea of how to make housing associations more efficient. The result is that tenants must pay more.

HHA will be able to increase its borrowing only if lenders view the business plan as viable. The scheme will cost £7 million, and even with £4 million from HAG the association will still have a shortfall of £3 million, at a time when the cost of borrowing new money is more expensive than ever. All that happens against the background of some lenders pulling out of the social rented sector. The irony is that East Dunbartonshire Council's area has been identified as facing a severe homelessness crisis, so the council wants to maximise the number of new units that are approved this financial year.

Scotland needs more homes to be built, and several applications to build are outstanding in my constituency. The question is how many of those new homes will be in the affordable or social rented category. The SNP's "Firm Foundations"—if ever a document had a dodgy title, that is it—refers to building 35,000 houses a year by 2015, but offers no commitment on the number that will be in the social rented sector. Robert Brown asked about that, and I repeat his question. I had hoped that the minister would tell us his target today. Shelter believes that fewer than 20,000 affordable homes will be built in the next three years. Is that right, or will the minister care to give us another number—in fact, any number?

I would like the minister to tell East Dunbartonshire Council what its housing grant allocation will be. He said that it would be announced soon; today's ceremony would have been an ideal opportunity to release that information. Phase 2 of Hillhead Housing Association's plans, involving 142 units, is waiting to go.

A large number of people in my area are living in overcrowded or unsuitable accommodation. The people of Scotland deserve better than they are getting from the Government.

Photo of Mary Scanlon Mary Scanlon Conservative 9:45 am, 1st May 2008

As members have said, housing is one of the most important issues that Scotland faces. We support speeding up the planning system for housing, the shared ownership scheme and having more rural homes for rent. It is also right that the Government works with the Scottish Rural Property and Business Association and community groups to utilise potential homes more fully by bringing properties up to standard. However, there is no doubt at all that stock transfer has the potential to transform social housing in Scotland. To be honest, stock transfer is the only game in town. It is unfortunate for tenants in Scotland that the Government does not support it.

We must not only consider the costs of building new homes; we must also increase our focus on energy efficiency to ensure that homes are cheaper to live in. It is all very well for people to get affordable homes, but if they cannot afford to live in them there is little point in having them. As Shelter has said, 6,000 families are evicted from their homes every year. We can be sure that a percentage of those families were unable to pay utility bills and other bills. Better insulation and energy efficiency could address that problem.

Many families are evicted as a result of the lack of support to get people back into training and employment. In fact, when many people get a house, they lose contact with support systems and fall back into old ways. In the past 10 years, the number of people in temporary accommodation has doubled, and the number of households living in bed and breakfast accommodation has more than quadrupled. The current economic conditions are leading to even greater difficulties for first-time buyers. In Scotland, the average age of first-time buyers is 37.

As David McLetchie said, the stock transfer policy is a means of addressing the housing shortage in Scotland. It is a means of not only writing off debt but refurbishing existing homes and building new ones. I remind the minister that, thanks to the Conservatives' policy, which Labour supported, more than 300,000 families in Scotland exercised their democratic right to buy the home in which they lived.

In 2006, tenants in the Highlands voted on housing stock transfer. Not only would transfer have wiped out the £153 million council housing debt, there would have been money for new homes. One of the major incentives to vote for the housing stock transfer was that 41p in every pound of rent that was paid to the council went towards paying off the debt. That situation is unsustainable in the current economic conditions, because less money is available to invest in properties. We can look towards a deteriorating housing stock in future.

There were additional benefits. The housing stock transfer would have guaranteed rent rises of no more than the rate of inflation for five years, and in the following five years rents would have risen by only 0.5 per cent above inflation, and probably by less than that. There would have been even more tenant control and improved repairs and services. Tenants would undoubtedly have been far better off.

I support the motion in the name of David McLetchie. My experiences are from the Highlands, but it is no surprise to me that a motion has been lodged that states:

"That the Parliament regrets the failure of the Scottish Government to actively pursue and promote housing stock transfer by local authorities".

Highland Council has one of the largest housing debts in Scotland. Things could have been different if the party in government, supported by the Scottish socialists, had not carried out their concerted campaign.

Quick action needs to be taken to address housing problems. I urge the Government to have a rethink, and to work with the stock transfer moneys and housing associations to benefit tenants in Scotland.

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party 9:49 am, 1st May 2008

I am grateful to the Conservatives for securing this debate on housing, although having said that, there is little in the motion with which I agree.

The first proposition in the motion pertains to promotion of housing stock transfer by local authorities. I am proud to be a member of a party that does not try to coerce council tenants by way of the bribe that capital debt write-off, in tandem only with stock transfer, represents. If the Treasury is capable of servicing council house debt, why will it do so only under the conditions of stock transfer? Mary Scanlon said that

"stock transfer is the only game in town", and David McLetchie said that the present rules are the rules. I say that the rules of the game are wrong.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

Is Jamie Hepburn, as a member of the SNP, proud to have urged people in Edinburgh to vote against stock transfer and now to have a Government minister who has said when there have been problems that rents should be put up, land should be sold, or jobs should be got rid of? Is the member proud of the response to those who voted no to stock transfer?

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

I wonder whether Johann Lamont is proud to be a member of the party that tries to bribe council house tenants. If the Treasury is able to service the housing debt, it should do so.

It is clear that housing stock transfer is little more than an attempt to hammer nails into the coffin of council housing in Scotland. Council tenants in various local authority areas have stood up against such moves—that is to be applauded. They have doubtless been partly inspired to do so as a result of having witnessed the shambolic handling of the housing stock transfer in Glasgow under the previous Administration.

The second proposition in the Tory motion is

"that the role of social landlords is best undertaken by housing associations and other not-for-profit, co-operative bodies".

That is a seemingly innocuous proposition, but it masks what the Tories really mean, which is that there should be no role for local authorities. If stock transfer was meant to be a nail in the coffin of council housing, the Tory-inspired right to buy was designed to be the first blow struck against it.

I will qualify what I have said. I accept that many families have benefited by buying their council homes—indeed, many people in my family have done so. Equally, however, others—such as my step-father's father—have on principle refused to buy their council homes because they recognise the value of local authority housing remaining available for future generations. Individuals have benefited from the right to buy, but we must also recognise the gross failures of the policy. Many children and grandchildren of people who have bought their council homes are now struggling to secure their own roofs over their heads. That is why Wendy Alexander's talk of families aspiring to own a second home is misplaced. Thousands of people still aspire merely to renting their first home, never mind to owning a place in the sun. In 2006-07, there were almost 60,000 homelessness applications in Scotland. Those are the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

To respond to the demand for homes, we need a mix of housing tenure, but above all we need a new generation of council housing. The policy that the Government is pursuing of restricting the right to buy in respect of new council homes is a huge incentive for local authorities to build such homes. We are already seeing plans to construct more council homes than have been built for many years. That is another sign of progress in Scotland under an SNP Government.

Photo of Cathie Craigie Cathie Craigie Labour 9:53 am, 1st May 2008

I thank the Conservatives for bringing a housing debate to Parliament.

Sheep seem to be following the minister, which is strange.

Since 1999, members have worked hard to put housing, which is important to us all, high on the political agenda. However, it is essential that the Opposition parties continue to raise housing issues in Parliament because it is clear to us that the SNP Administration will not bring housing policies to it for parliamentary debate and scrutiny.

In a debate in March on a Labour Party motion, Stewart Maxwell complained that only a few minutes were available to him to speak. It is disappointing that he has been unable to persuade his ministerial colleagues to allow him time to lead a housing debate in the chamber, and to give him an opportunity to outline the SNP's plans. Could it be that the SNP does not have any plans, or could it be that its policy is in tatters as a result of the amount of spinning that the Administration has done in order to convince itself and SNP back benchers that it is doing something that takes housing seriously and deals with the housing needs of the people of Scotland?

How many affordable rented homes will be built between now and 2011? That question has been put here today. The minister was happy to shout from a sedentary position earlier, but he would not answer members' questions about the numbers, nor has he answered the same questions when they have been asked by people in all sections of housing. There has been no answer from the SNP.

The ending of the right to buy was announced by the Administration in a flurry of press releases as a means to appease its back benchers as they were being guided through their masters' right-wing budget plans. Who are they kidding? The SNP has not abolished the right to buy, as we will realise as we go forward. Shelter points out correctly that the right to buy was conceived in a very different landscape back in the 1970s. It seems to have passed the current Administration by that the previous Administration modernised the right to buy to take account—[Interruption.] Presiding Officer, would the minister like to intervene?

Photo of Stewart Maxwell Stewart Maxwell Scottish National Party

All right. The right-to-buy policy originated in the 1970s, as Cathie Craigie suggested, but why is her party still defending one of the arch Thatcherite policies from the 1970s, which is now utterly unsuitable for the 21 st century when we have a housing crisis and supply that is nowhere near enough to meet demand?

Photo of Cathie Craigie Cathie Craigie Labour

I am surprised that the minister got to his feet to embarrass himself by not even understanding the changes that were made to the right to buy during the previous Administration—supported by the majority in Parliament. When is the minister going to give us information on how that policy is working?

We have to continue to meet housing demands and our priority must be to increase availability of high-quality affordable housing. Housing impacts on so many aspects of our lives, as we know.

Photo of Cathie Craigie Cathie Craigie Labour

I am in my last minute. People need to work in partnership with councils and housing associations, as happens in my constituency, where people have moved into their new housing association houses in the past month and owners are working with local authorities and housing associations to improve their housing. It is not either/or; it is a partnership that can suit everybody's needs.

Photo of Sandra White Sandra White Scottish National Party 9:57 am, 1st May 2008

As one of people who has been referred to not by name but just as a bank bencher, I am very proud to be a member of this party of Government. Collectively, the unionist parties have an absolute cheek to lecture anyone on housing. Let us look at their record.

Photo of Sandra White Sandra White Scottish National Party

I am sorry; I have just started. With the introduction of the right to buy, the Tories single-handedly scheduled the social housing market and completely skewed the situation, making it very difficult for social rented accommodation to be made available to people who could not afford the right to buy. It is a disgrace that the Tories want to further that right: I will not take a lecture on that from Mary Scanlon or anybody else, particularly when her party is backed up by the Labour Party, as she mentioned.

Let us have a wee look at Labour and the Lib Dems. What can I say about them? The Liberals propped up the Labour Party on the housing stock transfer to the Glasgow Housing Association—an absolute monster about which the previous Labour-Liberal Executive did nothing.

Photo of Sandra White Sandra White Scottish National Party

I am sorry, Margaret; I have only four minutes.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

The member should use full names when referring to other members in the chamber.

Photo of Sandra White Sandra White Scottish National Party

I apologise, Presiding—Deputy Presiding Officer. [ Laughter. ]

Only now that the Liberals and Labour are in opposition do they complain about the GHA: they bleat about second-stage transfer and Robert Brown bleats about wanting an Audit Scotland investigation. What did you do when we were propping up the Labour Party to make that second-stage transfer? Absolutely nothing happened and yet you have a cheek—sorry, Presiding Officer. The Liberals and the Labour Party have a cheek to try to lecture us. Where were their members when the housing associations, owner-occupiers and tenants held meetings and went to constituencies and offices to complain and talk about their concerns about the situation with the GHA? No one from the Liberal and Labour Parties turned up. It was left to the SNP Opposition of the time to take up those people's concerns. I am pleased that the minister listened to us about those concerns. I ask Robert Brown: please do not pretend to be on the side of the owner-occupiers and tenants of Glasgow because it is the SNP that is on their side. It was the SNP that brought concerns about the GHA to the chamber, while the Liberal-Labour Executive did nothing about them.

We are now celebrating one year of an SNP Government, which is absolutely fantastic. Let us look at what has happened—much more than the other parties ever achieved—since the SNP took control. The GHA has been taken to task, 16 local housing associations have been given approval to move to second-stage transfer and there are another 17 in the pipeline. After just one year, that is worthy of congratulations. Liberal and Labour members who were in Government for years did nothing to help the people of Glasgow, apart from introduce the monolithic GHA. We are now ending the right to buy—the proposal to do that received the support of 94 per cent of respondents to the Scottish Government consultation on housing.

I say to David McLetchie and the Tories that even one of their councillors, Jim Millar, has said that his party's defence of the right to buy is simplistic. If the Tories want more information about that, they can look at his blog, which contains lots of other bits and pieces.

The SNP Government has also increased investment in housing and regeneration and has set a target for increased building. There is also the recent announcement that Scottish local authorities will be given £25 million to build new council houses, which is a step towards the future. I congratulate the SNP Government on what it is doing.

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat 10:02 am, 1st May 2008

The minister's amendment begins with the words:

"respects the democratic right of tenants to determine the ownership of their homes".

The minister stated in a recent intervention that he condemns the "arch Thatcherite" policy of the right to buy as being totally unsuitable in today's housing crisis. However, the Government will not even move towards abolishing that policy. Sandra White castigated stock transfer, but today the minister said that he welcomes new stock transfers. That goes to the heart of the difficulty of SNP housing policy. Its "Firm Foundations" document is built on sand.

In my constituency, council housing stock was transferred in 2002 from the Scottish Borders Council to the Scottish Borders Housing Association. It was the next stock transfer after Berwickshire stock was transferred. The move was opposed tooth and nail by the SNP, which did not just voice opposition, but campaigned consistently against it and continued to oppose the Scottish Borders Housing Association. That was the case until May 2007 when the minister took office—if he is listening. The SNP then said that it fully supports housing associations and new stock transfers; indeed, the minister said in his speech today that he was very happy to see them.

The minister's contribution to the debate this morning was extremely complacent and disingenuous. Again he attacked the previous Government for building only six council houses, which gives the impression that only six affordable homes were built under the previous Administration. Up until 31 March this year, the previous Lib Dem-Labour Government provided an outturn budget of £8.631 million with 76 units approved in the Borders alone. In 2006-07, the outturn budget was just over £7 million and last year's figures equate to a 200 per cent increase from the year in which I was elected.

I joined the minister when he took delight in opening new social rented homes in Galashiels in my constituency last year. The challenge to his Government today is absolutely clear: it must ensure that the Borders continues to be recognised as an area of particular pressure, as it was when Margaret Curran was Minister for Communities and working with Eildon Housing Association, with me and others to stress the particular pressure that the Borders faces. Eildon Housing Association was provided with additional funds by the previous Government to take an innovative land-banking approach, delivering more homes for the same funding. Those were real results from real investment; now there are questions about the future. "Firm Foundations" proposes a regionally centralised lead developer that may not be in the Borders, and which would focus on an Edinburgh and Lothians approach away from the Borders.

The Government has revised its rental assumptions—assuming higher rental income from tenants—and it is top-slicing that from HAG, which will mean that fewer homes will be built. The revised guidance for local housing strategies has been horrendously delayed and there is huge concern locally that resource allocation for housing grant will not take into consideration population growth and rurality in the Borders.

We need less complacency and more action from the minister. He has on his desk the allocation drafts for 2008-09—housing associations and councils need to know that information. The minister refuses to give a figure for how many houses he expects to be built, but he knows exactly what the figure is. He should tell Parliament the figure—he should not be as disingenuous as we have heard him being this morning.

Photo of Margaret Curran Margaret Curran Labour 10:06 am, 1st May 2008

I have been an MSP for quite a number of years, but I have rarely heard a debate in which the speeches of SNP back benchers lacked evidence and argument as much as they have in this debate. The minister finds himself not so much on "Firm Foundations" as on shaky foundations, because the housing sector today faces serious challenges.

This welcome Conservative debate on housing follows quickly an earlier Labour housing debate, a number of questions from which remain outstanding. Certain requirements go with holding ministerial office: you have an absolute requirement to answer questions from the Parliament; it is a principle of democracy that you answer Parliament's questions. I hope that you will do that in your summation.

As Jeremy Purvis pointed out, there are a number of issues around your lack of decision making. You will know that the housing sector is deeply concerned about it. When will housing association grants actually be allocated? You said in your speech that Nicola Sturgeon would announce them very soon. Can we be told what "very soon" actually means in SNP-land? You know that some people are worried about real cuts, and you need to address that immediately.

There is, too, the issue of the lack of accountability. On 20 March, Parliament agreed a motion that said that required you to come back to Parliament and answer on where the first-time buyers grant—

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

I ask the member to become a bit more non-you.

Photo of Margaret Curran Margaret Curran Labour

I apologise. I will repeat what I said. The minister was required to come back to Parliament and tell members what was happening with the first-time buyers grant. Where is that statement, minister? You should do that straightaway.

There is also a lack of transparency. Where is the first-time buyers grant? It is reasonable, particularly in the current housing market, that first-time buyers, who I presume voted SNP because of that wonderful offer, should be told what is happening to that grant. If it was such a central part of your policy for the election, where is it now? If you cannot tell us, it is reasonable to conclude that it was just an election con. You still refuse to answer those questions.

Over the weekend and today, we heard the great announcement of £25 million, as if it were somehow the answer to Scotland's housing problems. We have learned quite a bit about the SNP today. When we asked for a precise figure on how many houses that sum will translate into, the answer was

"a hell of a lot".

It is no wonder that some of the Government's figures go awry, if that is its idea of precision.

We have tried to model how many houses would result from £25 million. If the minister wishes to challenge this model and contradict me, he can do so. We estimate that about 100 new houses would result from £25 million. We have SNP back benchers telling us that the right to buy is at an end, and about the terrible onslaught on housing and the crisis that the right to buy has created. The sum total of the great masterstroke from the SNP is that the £25 million will result in 100 new houses. To the SNP, those 100 houses represent a fantastic policy, but the SNP denies recognition of the 36,000 houses that were built by the previous Labour-Lib Dem Administration. In addition, it is an insult to the housing association sector not to acknowledge its contribution. You can give warm words in your speech, minister, but if you deny recognition of that sector's record and deny it the means to continue that record—the housing associations think that is what you are doing—it will take that insult seriously.

We have had no answer on the first-time buyers grant—we have a lack of decision making from the minister. We have had no plan of investment for those who are in greatest housing need, and no answer on stock transfer. One year on, it is a grim record: no vision and no grasp of the strategic issues that the housing sector faces. Robert Brown was right to say that housing is one of your weakest areas, minister. Your complacency is deeply shocking. I tell you: you have got serious answers to face.

Photo of Stewart Maxwell Stewart Maxwell Scottish National Party 10:10 am, 1st May 2008

I tell you this, boy—sorry, Presiding Officer.

It is particularly ironic, I feel, that we are having this interesting debate today of all days. Today, of course, is 1 May, which is May day—and international workers day. The Labour Party in Scotland has decided to recognise the day by fighting tooth and nail in defence of the arch-Thatcherite policy of selling off council houses. Generations of comrades must be proud as they watch Wendy Alexander's new socialist party stand shoulder to shoulder with the Tory party in defence of Thatcherism. However, before Labour decided to come to the aid of the Tories in opposing the end of the right to buy for new-build social housing, perhaps it should have checked who it was up against.

On one side of the argument are those who oppose abolition of the right to buy for new-build social housing, such as the Labour Party, the Tory party and—actually, that is about it. That is the complete list of those who oppose the policy. However, in favour of our policy to abolish the right to buy for new-build social housing, we have local authorities, big and small housing associations, housing lobby groups such as Shelter and housing commentators. In fact, the whole housing sector approves our policy. It even won support from a certain Wendy Alexander. The Herald of 22 October 2007 stated:

"The abolition of the right to buy council houses came a step closer yesterday after ... Wendy Alexander indicated that her party would look favourably on proposals by the government."

I do not know whether the Labour party is coming or going on this issue. Unfortunately, neither does it.

Robert Brown asked how much will be spent on housing over the spending review period. Robert, perhaps you should have checked—I am sorry. Perhaps the member should have checked the budget. Over £1.5 billion will be spent over the spending review period, which is an increase of £131 million on the previous Executive's plans. That is a 19 per cent increase over the next spending review period versus the 2005-08 plans. It is clear that much more money is going into housing over the next three years.

I thought the speeches of Stuart McMillan and Jamie Hepburn were good. They clearly expressed the supply problems that we face. David McLetchie and others said that the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Tory policies on housing are a huge success, but still talked about the crisis that housing faces, particularly the social rented housing sector. Their policies cannot have been a huge success, given the housing crisis that we face today. It is clearly the case that this is a huge inherited problem, which we now have to face up to.

David Whitton talked about the homelessness crisis in his area—what a success his party's policies have been over the past few years. He talked about "dodgy" documents. I will take no lessons from the Labour Party on dodgy documents. We know fine well about dodgy documents from the Labour Party; it has had far too many over the past few years.

Margaret Curran talked about the fact that there has been no statement to Parliament. As I said, there will be a statement to Parliament in the coming weeks. We have said that that will happen, and we will ensure that it will happen. On the discussion about the £25 million for new council houses, that is but one policy on housing—it is not the only policy on housing—and it has been widely welcomed. We are in negotiation with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities as to exactly how that policy will be implemented.

Both Johann Lamont and David Whitton talked about the dire, desperate, doom-and-gloom housing situation and the collapse of the housing association movement—I think that that sums up their views on our proposals. However, just this week, the Scottish Housing Regulator's financial digest published the fact that housing associations have cash deposits in excess of £300 million, and a gross surplus of £113 million. There is clearly not a crisis in, or a collapse of, the housing association sector.

Jeremy Purvis said that our proposal will cause rents to rise. It will not, because the changes that we are making reflect exactly the performance that housing associations have reported to the Government. Therefore, our proposals are exactly in line with those of the housing associations.

Cathie Craigie welcomed the fact that the Conservative party had chosen to use its debating time to discuss housing and claimed that the Government had not had any housing debates. I gently point out to her that we had a housing debate in the Parliament in the first month of our Government, in June 2007. Our second housing debate took place in October 2007. We will have another debate or statement very soon. We will have had three housing debates in our first year in Government, whereas Labour failed to have a housing debate in the Parliament in its first year in Government either in 1999 or 2003.

I ask members to support the amendment in my name. Clearly, we need to tackle the problem that we inherited from the frankly disgraceful Labour-Liberal Democrat Executive.

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative 10:15 am, 1st May 2008

During the first parliamentary session, the SNP's Christine Grahame and I were taken on a tour of Glasgow's worst housing areas by the Evening Times . The vast difference between the desperately deprived council areas and the improved areas that had been taken over by housing associations was glaringly obvious to both of us. Why, in that case, is the SNP returning to the failed policies of the past in encouraging councils to build? Councils have proved themselves to be poor landlords. We would prefer housing associations to be given the funding to build new social housing for rent in Scotland. Furthermore, we maintain that the SNP must recommence housing stock transfer in Scotland so that councils can take advantage of Treasury money to eliminate Scotland's £2.2 billion housing debt. What is the point of £25 million over three years compared to that?

As my colleagues David McLetchie and Mary Scanlon said, the Scottish Conservatives have real concerns about SNP ministers' rhetoric on council house building. Where is the proof that local authorities are best placed to build houses for rent at the most competitive prices and in successful mixed communities? Do ministers not realise that housing associations the length and breadth of Scotland have expertise and experience and are ready and willing to deliver effectively affordable housing in diverse communities? Should not the priority be to support our housing associations? Having spoken to many people at the National Landlords Association reception in Parliament last night, I know that the desire of the private sector to help with affordable housing is plain to see. Why does the Government not engage more with the private sector to come up with a solution?

On the right to buy, the Scottish Conservatives will always be proud that our policy transformed the lives of tens of thousands of ordinary people in Scotland, providing them with the best advance ever in their lifetimes. The SNP's proposal to curtail the right to buy is a clear indication of its dogmatic anti-aspirational agenda. We will resist that wherever we can. Why should a new generation of social tenants be denied the right that is enjoyed by current tenants?

In a recent written answer, the Minister for Communities and Sport revealed to me that Scotland has more than 100,000 properties that are classified as vacant dwellings or second homes. Of those, housing experts suggest that 87,000 could be empty properties, which equates to 3.8 per cent of our housing stock and is a higher rate than the UK average. Many of those empty properties are in rural areas. All members would surely agree that bringing back into use even a small percentage of those redundant or dilapidated houses would, at the very least, ease the affordable housing crisis that many of our communities face.

The Government has said that the rural empty properties grant scheme is one way of tackling the number of empty properties, yet another recent answer from the Minister for Communities and Sport confirmed that only 101 properties in the whole of Scotland have benefited from the grant since 1998-99. That is a drop in the ocean. The Scottish Conservatives are positive about the rural empty properties grant scheme, but the scheme obviously needs to be improved if it is to have a better impact.

Along with the Scottish Rural Property and Business Association, we are also positive about the rural homes for rent grant scheme, which recognises—as we have long argued—that the private sector is well-placed to provide affordable rented housing. However, the scheme is small in scale and will provide only 100 properties for rent by 2011. Again, on behalf of our hard-pressed rural communities, we look for more from this new Government.

As I have, members will have received a useful briefing today from Leonard Cheshire Disability. One in four households includes a person with a disability, and there are real concerns about the availability of social housing for young disabled people. Can the minister say what his Government will do to involve disabled people in the planning, design and management of homes in the future?

The Scottish Conservatives will continue to press the Government to take fundamental action to ease Scotland's affordable housing crisis. That means providing effective reform of the planning system, addressing development constraints, working with housing associations, utilising effective shared-equity schemes and—crucially—working closely with the private sector to create a dynamic rented sector.

I agree with Robert Brown that "Firm Foundations" contains serious flaws. As David McLetchie rightly said, £25 million over three years is peanuts. What could housing associations do with £2 billion, though? We continue to support wholeheartedly the transfer of local government housing to communities. Such housing should be run by locally accountable housing associations, co-operatives and companies—a process that was started by our party. We believe that that makes housing officials more accountable to tenants and provides more local management. The SNP seems to have a policy-free zone on stock transfer. Perhaps the minister can enlighten us on what its policies actually are.

While he is at it, perhaps the minister can confirm that the first-time buyer's grant that the SNP pledged while in election mode—and which most people in the housing sector believe would be an inflationary measure—will be scrapped, if it has not been scrapped already. Will he also consider scrapping the single seller survey, which is set to become another unnecessary hurdle for the housing sector despite the disastrous pilot scheme? The single seller survey will be costly and will lead to multiple surveys, so it will not even achieve its intended result. That is not just my opinion but the opinion of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, whose representatives I met only the day before yesterday.