Housing Strategy

– in the Scottish Parliament at 9:15 am on 16th September 2010.

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Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour 9:15 am, 16th September 2010

Good morning. The first item of business this morning is a debate on housing strategy.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

As this is an open-ended debate, I thought that I would take the opportunity to update the chamber on where we are with discussions on our document "Housing: Fresh Thinking, New Ideas".

It is important that we take a longer-term perspective on housing policy, which means looking not at next year and the year after but at the next 10 years. As we have never totally broken the back of the housing shortage that Scotland has had almost since the 19th century, we should see whether in the next 10 years—and, I should add, against the very difficult background of public sector squeeze—we can do much more than has been achieved in past generations.

We face 10 major challenges in housing, the first and most obvious of which is the budget. As the Scottish Government's chief economic adviser, Andrew Goudie, has indicated, the Government will over the next 16 years lose about £42 billion in real terms from what it would have had if its budget had remained the same as this year's. That is by any stretch of the imagination a very substantial amount of money and the cuts will inevitably affect key services that the Scottish Government delivers.

The next challenges facing housing over the next decade are what I call the population challenges. Scotland's population is going to rise—indeed, the registrar general has estimated that between now and 2033 our population will increase by around 375,000—and although that is very good news for the country it means that over the next 20 years or so an additional 375,000 people are going to require a roof over their heads.

Secondly, household formation in Scotland is currently running at a net rate of 19,000 new households a year. That is not only because of the rising population but because of the long-term trend towards more people living on their own; in any case, the demand created by that 19,000 increase in new households each year must also be met.

The third major population challenge is the ageing population. The registrar general has estimated that in Scotland over the next 20 years or so there will be an 81 per cent increase in those over 75, which requires a special response not just from housing but from the allied services that our older generation requires. It is clear that those three major population developments require significant additions to the housing stock.

The next four challenges are the four targets that the chamber has set over a number of years and on which, I think, we are all agreed. First, there is the homelessness target, under which, by 2012, everyone who is classified as genuinely homeless must be offered secure and permanent housing. Secondly, there is the 2015 Scottish housing quality standard. Nearly 40 per cent of Scotland's social housing is already up to that standard, but that leaves about 60 per cent that still has to be brought up to the same standard, which will require investment of about £2 billion a year over the next five years or so.

Thirdly, there is the target to eliminate fuel poverty in Scotland by 2016. As we know, fuel poverty is determined by three major factors: income; the price of fuel and energy; and housing conditions. Of course, the Scottish Government has most direct influence over housing conditions and by 2016 we have to ensure not only that no one is living in fuel poverty but that no one is in such poverty because of the state of their house, a lack of insulation or warm central heating and so on.

Fourthly, there is the target to reduce carbon emissions in Scotland by 42 per cent from the 1990 figure by 2020. Housing accounts for about 30 per cent of energy consumption and carbon emissions, ergo the housing sector will have to make a very significant contribution if we are to achieve the overall target. Indeed, as our energy efficiency action plan states, work carried out by the University of Cambridge for the Scottish Government estimates that £16 billion will be required to be spent on housing stock to achieve our share of that 42 per cent reduction over the next 10 years. The 2012 target, the 2015 target, the 2016 target and the 2020 target are all huge targets to meet.

Photo of Mary Mulligan Mary Mulligan Labour

Given the carbon reduction challenge that we face, is the minister able to reassure the chamber that the Government is still treating the Sullivan report as a road map to zero carbon and that it will consult on standards to deliver the 2016 zero carbon target for new build?

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

We have already outlined that in our energy efficiency action plan. Moreover, building regulations will be further improved by new regulations that will come in in October. I should also point out that the 2016 target will be largely driven by European directives and that, as a result, we will be obliged to improve building standards further at that time.

Aside from the budget challenge, the three population challenges and the four targets that we have set ourselves, the two other housing challenges that we face can be jointly described as the waiting list challenge. In Scotland's 32 local authority areas, about 200,000 people are currently on the waiting list for a social rented house. We believe that, once duplication, overlap and the transfer element are stripped out, the real figure is that somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 new houses are required.

However, the waiting list is going to come under enormous additional pressure not just because of the population challenges that I mentioned but because of the 10th challenge, which I have termed the affordability challenge. Before the recession and the credit crunch, first-time buyers in Scotland required an average 11 per cent deposit to get a mortgage; the average is now around 25 per cent. Indeed, in London the regulators, the Bank of England and the Financial Services Authority, are seriously discussing the introduction of loan-to-value rules that would not allow financial institutions to lend on a mortgage without a very substantial—possibly a minimum 20 per cent—deposit.

Such a move will have two consequences. First, those who previously would have been first-time buyers will no longer be able to buy because they will be unable to raise the deposit. Many of them will go on the waiting list for a rented house, at least until they can save up the money. In other words, the pressure on first-time buyers will make the waiting list longer.

The second consequence, which we have seen in the past two years, is that the lack of demand from first-time buyers as their number in the marketplace declines causes the rate of new-build construction in the private sector to reduce significantly.

Before the recession hit and before the credit crunch, we relied for about 12.5 per cent of the funding and support for our social housing programme on section 75 agreements with the private sector. That support has pretty well dried up in the past couple of years and is unlikely to return en masse on a reasonable scale for a significant number of years.

While we have large waiting lists, additional pressures will be applied, because of the new affordability rules and the market situation for first-time buyers.

As we all know—Mr McLetchie might dispute it—primarily as a result of the impact of the right to buy, the stock of rented housing in Scotland is at its lowest level since 1959, although we have the biggest building programme for the past 10 years.

We face 10 major challenges. It is clear that, no matter who wins the election next year, we must come together as a Parliament to face up to those challenges and do what we can.

I will outline activities that we are proactively pursuing. In the overall strategy, our number 1 priority is new build in the private and rented sectors. The private rented sector has a bigger contribution to make. I hope that my colleagues to the right—both Mr Finnie and Mr Johnstone—will join me in trying to persuade the current United Kingdom Government to do what the previous Government refused to do, which is to extend to the housing sector the tax incentives in the real estate investment trust regime and the venture capital regime that are available to commercial property developers. That could bring significant additional investment into the rented housing sector in Scotland.

We are considering other possibilities. We must do two fundamental things.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

The paper, "Housing: Fresh Thinking, New Ideas", says:

"expenditure on support for home ownership remains relatively small, the tax advantages enjoyed by home owners continue to be substantial and act as a brake on the growth of the private rented sector."

If the minister had the powers of a proper Parliament that he likes to talk about, what steps would he take to eradicate

"the tax advantages enjoyed by home owners" and level the playing field?

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

The new UK Government has already started to do that by increasing capital gains tax to 28 per cent, which has a direct impact on private sector housing investment throughout the UK. It is obvious that Mr McLetchie must support—

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

I am sorry—I am running out of time; I have only 10 seconds left.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

Our strategy must be to make the maximum use of the money that will be available to us, to make it go further. We must also consider bringing other sources of capital into all aspects of housing. Last year, eight housing associations received a major injection of low-cost loan capital from the European Investment Bank that totalled £70 million. This year, next year and the year after, we will go back to that bank for such relatively cheap loan capital with good conditions.

We are also talking to pension funds, because my strong view is that we all contribute to pension funds. Strathclyde pension fund is one of the biggest pension funds in the country. If we persuade the pension funds to provide the capital that we need to build social housing, we will be able both to build such housing without charging excessive rents and to give the funds a reasonable return over a long period. That would bring significant new sources of capital into the system.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

We are taking a range of other measures to make the existing money go further and to bring in new sources of capital. I will be happy to elaborate on that in the debate.

Photo of Mary Mulligan Mary Mulligan Labour 9:29 am, 16th September 2010

As always, I warmly welcome the opportunity to debate housing. However, I had a couple of concerns about the debate. The first was that the visit that is taking place in the city might overshadow our debate. Those of us who are complete housing bores might think that the debate might not attract the interest that it deserves. The second was that the minister might use his time to read out a travel diary of his trips around Scotland in the summer months.

To be serious, I recognise that the minister took considerable time in the summer to visit housing projects and developments. I know that he can always talk, but I hope that he took the opportunity to listen on those visits, too. Many of us used the recess to listen to people throughout the country talking about the housing challenges, some of which the minister outlined.

I acknowledge that a number of new houses have been built under the affordable housing investment programme in the past 12 months. The minister referred to supply challenges. I welcome those new houses, as I am sure do the people who live in them. However, I would have been surprised if the number of new properties had not increased, given that my colleague Alistair Darling, the former chancellor, allowed the Scottish Government to bring forward an additional £120 million of funding. I am only sorry that the Scottish Government could not show the same commitment by filling the gap that that left. When the budget this year has £140 million less, that will not mean record numbers of new houses, although we still need them. The number of new starts is already beginning to fall.

I move on to finance issues. Providing funds to support a housing strategy is crucial, but there are other issues, which I hope to have time to discuss. I welcome the Scottish Government's consideration of alternative sources of funding—the minister referred to some at the end of his speech. They include the European Investment Bank, bond funding, institutional investment and a housing investment bank. I firmly believe that we should always explore new funding mechanisms, and doing so is essential when public funding is tight.

My only word of caution is that the Scottish Government should ensure that it explores fully the long-term consequences of new funding mechanisms. That warning is justified because the Scottish Government is not taking sufficient care over the funding of the new council house building programme, for example.

I welcome the new council housing that is being built; I do not have the political opposition to it that some in the Parliament might have. However, I am conscious that the new council house building programme is being funded not by us but by tenants. My concern is that rents should not increase to such an extent that tenants are trapped in unemployment. The minister spoke about affordability. It is unfortunate that he has occasionally been blasé about rent increases. The Scottish Government needs to reflect on that further.

I have concerns about the debt that local authorities are building up. In 2007, local authority debt was about £1 billion. Today, it is close to £2 billion. Okay—we can manage that while interest rates are low, but what happens when they start to rise? Voluntary stock transfer has ceased in the three and a half years of this Scottish Government, so the debt figure will continue to grow. We do not know whether the Treasury's offer to write off debt following stock transfer is still available—perhaps Mr Johnstone will tell us about that when he gets to his feet. The Scottish Government needs to take care over debt.

The Scottish Government's treatment of housing associations has been shameful. In the past three years, the Scottish National Party Government has reduced housing association grant, partially reinstated it and reduced it again. How can housing associations produce serious development plans on that basis? While the minister was happy to have his photo taken at housing developments that housing associations had successfully built, some of his SNP colleagues were sniping from the sidelines. They said that housing associations had too much money in their reserves and that HAG was too high, and they tried to drive a wedge between housing associations and local authorities.

Photo of John Wilson John Wilson Scottish National Party

Does Ms Mulligan accept that, in its inquiry, the Local Government and Communities Committee found that an estimated £300 million is held by housing associations throughout Scotland and that, given the financial constraints that we face, that money could be used to help develop more houses?

Photo of Mary Mulligan Mary Mulligan Labour

John Wilson knows that, when the committee conducted that inquiry, the housing associations' answer to that point was that much of the money was committed, either to further development or to upgrading stock to the standards that the minister referred to in his speech. It is not as simple as saying that housing associations have lots of money swishing around that they are doing nothing with. That is the kind of comment to which I was referring.

I congratulate housing associations on the work that they have done to meet housing needs, particularly in rural areas and for older people, and on their innovative work on shared equity, shared ownership and mid-market rent. However, questions are still to be answered about mid-market rent. Perhaps the minister will say a little bit more about that subject. I am not opposed to it, but it is not the answer for everyone, so we need to look at other options.

Perhaps the minister will also explain how the Scottish Government got into the situation in which housing associations are front funding new-build projects. A number of housing associations have raised that issue with me recently, but even I was surprised to read in the briefing for the debate from the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations that front funding could be as much as £90 million. Why has the Scottish Government allowed the practice to develop? When can housing associations expect that money to be repaid?

After three and a half years, I am pleased that the SNP Government is thinking about having a housing strategy. To the interested observer, it must appear that the Scottish Government has merely reacted to events rather than guided them. When the financial recession hit and many families across Scotland faced the threat of mortgage arrears and repossessions, the Scottish Government appeared at best uncertain about what to do. It took my colleague Cathy Jamieson and others across the Parliament, including Mr Finnie, to convince it that it needed to legislate to protect homeowners.

The same is true in relation to other pieces of legislation. On property factors, the Scottish Government wants a voluntary accreditation scheme, which we know the bad guys will not join, so Patricia Ferguson had to help out. On tenancy deposits, despite pressure from Claire Baker, only now is the Scottish Government coming forward with the necessary Scottish statutory instrument. On party flats, an issue that Sarah Boyack continually raised, the Scottish Government said that it could do nothing, but Ms Boyack showed it how, by working with local authority colleagues, we can attempt to do something. Even the Minister for Housing and Communities has acknowledged that whoever is in power after May 2011 will need to introduce a housing bill to tidy everything up.

However, a housing strategy is about more than finance and legislation. It is about many of the things that the minister mentioned. It is about housing for older people, and housing for younger people seeking their first homes. It is about services for tenants, whether those involve the modernisation of their accommodation or the provision of support within it. It is about the private rented sector and how we ensure that people are not ripped off and are given a proper home at an affordable rent. It is also about housing for owner-occupation and the problems that exist in that sector. This morning, the National House-Building Council announced a figure for new-build homes of just over 600 last month. If we compare that with the boom years, we know that there is a problem. There are also huge challenges around environmental issues and energy efficiency.

My Labour colleagues will explore many of those themes during the debate, and I look forward to hearing other colleagues across the chamber refer to them. I hope to have the opportunity to respond to those points at the end of the debate. We all have a responsibility to contribute to the housing debate, which the minister introduced very well this morning. There are huge issues for us to address and I look forward to the rest of the debate.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative 9:40 am, 16th September 2010

The Scottish Conservatives always welcome the opportunity to debate housing. After all, housing—either its supply or, just as important, the quality of life enjoyed by the occupants—affects everybody who lives in Scotland, so it is only right that Parliament devotes time to these issues. I welcome the opportunity that the debate offers us today.

In preparing for the debate, I tried to imagine what the minister would say. Although he threw me in one or two areas, by and large he covered the areas in the way that I expected and did what I expected him to do. Predictability is not a fault in itself, but perhaps what the minister did not say is just as interesting.

With the inevitability of night following day, the minister continues to demonise the right to buy and, by implication, the ordinary families who took advantage of the opportunity to buy their own home and claim a stake in the future of their communities. Of course, the uncomfortable reality for opponents of the right to buy is that on 31 March this year almost five times as many social homes were lying empty as had been sold under the right to buy in the whole of the proceeding year.

On new build, I welcome the fact that just over 8,000 affordable homes have been built under the affordable housing investment programme, but let us not forget that it was also this Government that slashed the affordable homes budget by an eye-watering 45 per cent, which, in Grampian, for example—this is my press release—meant a reduction from £34 million to £21 million. Councils throughout the country were left to go into debt and to fork out £300 million to build new homes just to help the minister's much-loved press coverage.

It is about not only building homes but building cohesive, sustainable communities that people want to live in and which they feel a sense of ownership for. However, people in communities tell me that a sizeable minority of people are treating their neighbours and their neighbourhoods with contempt. A typical example is that of a 16-year-old girl in Angus who was evicted for antisocial behaviour and then rehoused in a flat where the neighbours were all elderly. The block of flats quickly descended into chaos as the girl held parties all night and all day, terrifying the other residents. Not only did the police raid the property looking for drugs, but the girl's associates trashed it, looking for the same thing. Eventually, having caused thousands of pounds-worth of damage, the girl was evicted for her behaviour, only to present herself as homeless once again and for the whole sorry cycle to start over.

Similar cases can be found throughout Scotland and the law-abiding majority have had enough. The pendulum has swung too far. I believe that it is time to replace the absolute duty of care, which requires councils to rehouse time and again people who choose to make everyone else's life a misery. We must take a new approach whereby persistently disruptive tenants are made to address their behaviour as a condition of being rehoused.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

I agree with the need to tackle antisocial behaviour, but can I get rid of the myth that councils have to rehouse people who have been evicted because of antisocial behaviour? If the council deems that someone has intentionally made themselves homeless through antisocial behaviour, there is no requirement under the homelessness legislation to rehouse them.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

That is an interesting interpretation, but one that I suggest does not reflect the action that has been taken by local authorities.

Returning to my argument, I believe that the statistics bear out my point. Last year under this Government, we saw an increase in the number of people who failed to maintain their tenancies because of criminal or antisocial behaviour. That is another thing that the minister did not mention in his speech. Of course we must offer help to those who require it. Last year alone, under this Government, we saw a 5 per cent increase in the number of those at risk of homelessness who have support needs and lack basic housing management or independent living skills. That is a damning indictment of a failing wider social and education policy.

I suggest that the Government's housing agenda is driven not by common sense but often by political dogma. As it desperately tries to make a success of the Scottish Futures Trust, we are presented with the unedifying spectacle of Alex Neil rushing through plans for the national housing trust. We are told that it will provide 1,000 new homes, but in reality just 13 local authorities have expressed an interest in it and, with the deadline for signing up fast approaching, councils are desperately seeking legal advice and questioning whether the guarantees that have been promised are worth the paper they are written on. Meanwhile, private sector developers are concerned that the whole scheme simply does not add up and are backing away. Time will tell if the policy, which seems to have been concocted on the back of fag packet, will deliver anything like the number of homes that have been promised.

In housing, we have seen from the Scottish Government a relentless procession of glossy publications and consultations—in my hand is exhibit A: "Housing: Fresh Thinking, New Ideas".

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

Last week, the First Minister made it clear to us that it is not time for Scottish independence, so what is it time for? I suggest that it is time that the Government started to think differently. It is not time for an independence referendum, but perhaps it is time to stop the consultations and to start taking some serious action and making the difficult decisions. In reality we have a Scottish National Party Government that has run out of money, steam and ideas, and which, of course, is running out of time.

Out on the streets of Scotland, in our communities up and down the country, a heavy price is being paid for the Government's inability to achieve anything other than looking pleased with itself. I think that we need new ideas and fresh thinking, and they are not all in this glossy publication.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat 9:47 am, 16th September 2010

That must be one of the longest press releases ever delivered to the chamber.

This is not the first time that we have had a discussion on the general needs of housing and, although I recognise why we have a debate without a motion today, I think that that is unfortunate. I understand why we have had a general discussion about Scotland's housing, but there is a need for us to move quickly and not just to discuss the 10 challenges that were well articulated by the minister or his document "Housing: Fresh Thinking, New Ideas", which also sets out the problem.

From a Scottish Liberal Democrat point of view, one disappointment relates to the serious matters that attacked the whole of the housing sector, in both the private and public sectors, during the development of the economic crisis which, if it did nothing else, demonstrated that the particular housing model that we were pursuing—not just in Scotland but we are talking about Scotland—was not sustainable. It was a model in which the public and the providers seemed oblivious to the fact that ever-increasing house prices could not be sustained. Although the impact of that was calculated and reported in the private sector, it had serious ramifications for the public sector, too. The disappointment is that we appear not to have reached any agreement on the structure of the housing sector that we need.

I can demonstrate that. All of us who are interested in housing have no doubt listened in the past 10 days to reports on the most recent statistics on house prices and the general supply. Many of those listening will have been like me—astonished that there had been no change. There was anxiety that house price inflation was not rising quickly enough and that house prices were not showing the growth that we need. For goodness' sake, do those in the private sector not understand that it is such house price inflation that brought the whole system to its knees? We need to think in terms of a sustainable model that can go forward.

If the financial sector has woken up to the fact that one reason why we get into the appalling position of seeing repossessions is that we allow people to undertake debt that they cannot sustain, we have to adjust our thinking on how we fund housing and enable a different market.

The Liberal Democrats have said for some time—I repeat this again this morning—that there is a serious and urgent need in both the private and public sectors to decide how to generate a much healthier private rented sector. That is not easy, but we need to get some consensus between the Government and the private sector. That is one comment that I make to the minister: there is a need to recognise the mix of economy in housing and the fact that the private sector can, must and will play a vital role in meeting housing need.

Photo of Sandra White Sandra White Scottish National Party

Does the member agree that the changes in housing benefit that are coming from Westminster will have a skewed effect on the private rental sector, perhaps creating a situation in which people can afford to live in one area but not another?

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

The point that I am trying to make is more fundamental—that we need a complete rethink.

The minister raised a number of interesting questions in his 10 points. He talked about the increase in demand and stated that it will place heavy burdens on both local authorities and the public sector in general, but that is not necessarily true. If the rented sector were dramatically changed, we could look to share the burden between the private and public sectors. That is the challenge. The dates that he mentioned are all vital targets, but in meeting them there are not four different solutions to meet four different targets. Many of the issues that have to be addressed are ones that we should be looking at anyway.

On the question of housing need, it is certainly a Liberal Democrat wish in this chamber that the one thing that should not be damaged by any recession is our obligation to meet the homelessness target. It is a mark of a civilised society, something that we should try to hold on to from a strategic point of view and something to which we should continue to aspire no matter what financial pressure we find ourselves under. Action that the Government has now taken on repossessions has been welcome although, as Mary Mulligan pointed out, it required some pressure from the Opposition parties to effect a more rational stance.

We agree with much of what the minister said on increasing supply, but let us not repeat dogma and try to create a false dichotomy between local authorities and the housing associations. I know that the Scottish National Party was absolutely opposed to stock transfer at the time, and its members were entitled to that view—although I am bound to say that, like Mary Mulligan, I found it ever so slightly quaint to see the housing minister turning up smiling and cheering at the opening of successful housing associations.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

No, I regret that I am running out of time.

I must say to the Conservative party that I know that it wants to tell us about the change to the right to buy—no doubt David McLetchie will repeat the statistics to us.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

Let us be clear. The changes that the right to buy effected mean that we are in a different position. To continue to say that the preservation of the right to buy is the most critical aspect of Scottish housing policy is to ignore the statistics on the problems that currently face us and the remedies that need to be applied. We must recognise that.

On the condition of stock, I agree with the minister that the 70,000 empty homes are the more critical aspect. Liberal Democrats have raised the matter, which we must consider. Underlying the problem is the unfortunate mismatch between the condition of the empty stock and the accommodation that it offers, and current requirements, which in many cases cannot be met. Areas can be blighted when housing deteriorates because it is void or vacant stock. It is sad that the issue particularly affects deprived areas. All that needs to be addressed.

The Liberal Democrats support much that the minister set out and much that is in the document, but the sooner we reach a point at which we must take decisions, the better—I share Alex Johnstone's view on that. We can continue to discuss our general concerns, but we need a much-changed housing structure, which reflects what happened in the recession and enables our housing policy to be sustainable into the future.

Photo of Linda Fabiani Linda Fabiani Scottish National Party 9:56 am, 16th September 2010

I will focus mainly on an issue that has been overlooked for far too long by UK Governments and previous Administrations in Scotland: housing co-operatives.

However, first I will briefly talk about land. Some time ago, it was part of my work to identify sites for new housing in Argyll and Bute. It never ceased to amaze me how difficult it was to get approval for housing developments in communities that had high housing need, even when land was apparently in abundance. The Government has taken action to speed up the planning process, which will help, but we should go further and review the fiscal and legal penalties for landowners who hold developable land off the market, disregarding the wider interests of the community.

I was pleased to read the discussion pieces that the Chartered Institute of Housing published. I declare an interest: I am a fellow of the institute. In its discussion pieces, the CIH explored difficulties to do with housing finance in the United Kingdom, which Ross Finnie mentioned. Its points about resource availability are important in the context of the massive cuts in budget that the Scottish Parliament faces, which will reduce our ability to deliver for our communities, including on the provision of much-needed new housing.

The cuts flow directly from UK Government action to reduce the public sector deficit, and the CIH discussion pieces remind us that, despite Labour's 13 years in power, the UK still uses a definition of public expenditure that counts more housing expenditure in public sector net borrowing than is the case in most of the European countries with whose deficits the UK's is being compared. The CIH has campaigned on the issue for years. The previous UK Government understood the issue at an intellectual level but chose to do nothing about it, which has a bearing on the impending cuts. Perhaps the minister will raise the issue with the current UK Government, to ascertain whether there can be movement on it.

I move on to the role of co-operative and mutual models in delivering good-quality housing. After a discussion in the Scottish Parliament cross-party group on co-operatives, the minister and I visited a housing co-op in Easterhouse to meet representatives of the sector. It is clear that a great deal can be done in Scotland and in Westminster to strengthen the role of housing co-ops. It is worth recalling that the Monks co-operative commission, which Tony Blair established and which reported in 2001, said:

"There is currently no legal framework in UK housing law in which rights of occupancy of residential property can arise from membership of a democratic mutual provider."

The absence of a legal framework for co-operative housing is part of a wider neglect of the mutual sector in the UK. Since the Monks commission reported, some of the most significant developments in the legal framework have been taken through Westminster through private members' bills. How can we expect wider society to take co-operative and mutual models seriously, when Governments seem so uninterested in their operation? Mary Mulligan had a go at the minister about housing associations; I find puzzling and shameful Labour Governments' neglect of the mutual sector and, in particular, co-operative housing.

The sector has suffered from a serious lack of backing from Government and it has faced a number of obstacles—intended or unintended—to its growth. There is the unhelpful division between fully mutual and so-called non-mutual co-operatives, which appears to be driven by the tax regime but feeds through to all aspects of regulation. Government-supported mechanisms for rented housing and owner occupation have historically inhibited the development of mixed-tenure co-operatives, and differing treatment of housing providers has disadvantaged co-operatives that deal with people in housing need compared with providers that are registered as charities. As the minister knows, an advance since devolution has been the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator's decision to allow housing co-operatives to register as charities. He will also be aware, as many members are, that the approach is threatened by the Calman proposals. I would welcome his comments on the matter.

A recurring theme in the many debates that there have been on housing policy has been the need for communities to be empowered to make choices about how they want their housing to be provided and run. People who have wanted to choose the co-operative model have found that the obstacles are far too difficult to overcome, so their choice has been limited. In my experience, few communities are more empowered than communities that have a well-functioning housing co-operative. It is a pity that, after so many years of Labour administration in Scotland and in Westminster, we do not have more housing co-operatives in Scotland.

The minister has acknowledged the need. For the first time in the Scottish Parliament, housing co-operatives have been mentioned as a viable proposition in discussion papers on housing. I remember a time far back when I was a member of a parliamentary committee with responsibility for housing and I tried to get co-operatives recognised in legislation, only to be voted down by Labour members.

Photo of Linda Fabiani Linda Fabiani Scottish National Party

And Liberals, of course. I almost forgot about them. I thank Mrs Marwick.

I ask the minister to consider what can be done to include a real co-operative option in Scotland's housing future.

Photo of Malcolm Chisholm Malcolm Chisholm Labour 10:02 am, 16th September 2010

One of the most worrying housing statistics that I have seen recently is that the number of people in temporary accommodation has risen to almost 11,000, which is an 8 per cent increase on last year.

As 2012 approaches, I have a great concern that more and more people might be spending longer and longer in temporary accommodation. It says in the "Code of Guidance on Homelessness" that

"Homeless people should not be placed in temporary accommodation unnecessarily, and their time there should be as short as possible", but there is nothing in our historic homelessness legislation that says that an offer of permanent accommodation must be made within a specified period.

Our 2012 homelessness objective has been internationally acclaimed and we must not make a mockery of it by letting temporary accommodation take the strain. It should be a matter of national pride to deliver on the 2012 objective that everyone who is unintentionally homeless should be made an offer of permanent accommodation.

I urge the minister to use the imminence of that historic target to argue the case and fight for housing in the coming weeks. That means that we have to make hard choices, because we all know that budget cuts are on the way. In the debate on the independent budget review last week, I said that housing must be our number 1 priority for capital expenditure. It is obvious that that means that other things have to be regulated, so I say quite openly that, yes, housing has to have precedence over transport and other capital budgets in the next year or two.

Other sources of funding must be explored, of course, and I welcome what the minister said, particularly in relation to pension funds. The approach is certainly worth exploring, but it will not deliver in the short term.

I caution the minister against reducing HAG further. I had a conversation recently with representatives of Port of Leith Housing Association, who pointed out that if they have to borrow more and more to make up for HAG reductions, it means that the other work that they want to do, for example on mid-market rent, which is crucial in Edinburgh, will simply not be possible.

That reference takes me to Leith and Edinburgh, where every Saturday morning, at my surgeries, I hear one or more people complaining about their difficulty in obtaining a social rented house. In Edinburgh, 150 people or more apply for every house that becomes available, yet the number of new builds, which was 460 last year, is down to 300 this year, at a time when we need 800 a year. Distribution is especially crucial as we approach 2012. I urge the minister to direct whatever resources he can obtain, particularly over the next two years, towards councils with the greatest supply shortages.

It is not just supply that is important as we approach 2012. The homelessness task force emphasised the prevention of homelessness. A great deal of work from 2003 onwards was carried out on prevention. Councils tend to think, in the first instance, of crisis-driven reactive work, but it is also important to engage in longer-term proactive work. I discussed that recently with representatives of Move On, an organisation that is based in my constituency but which also operates in Glasgow and elsewhere. It has become increasingly aware of the importance of proactive work and is doing excellent work in that field, such as a housing education project in schools, visitor support services and homelessness and employability activity.

Over the years, supporting people money has also been important for prevention work. I have expressed concerns previously about the ending of the ring fencing of that money. Over and above that, the Government has failed to put in place a means of recording how housing support is being implemented across Scotland. It was recommended in the 2007 evaluation of homelessness prevention activity in Scotland that there should be more recording of prevention work by councils throughout Scotland. I would welcome any information that the minister has about how those recommendations have been implemented since then.

The minister referred to another statutory housing obligation, the fuel poverty target, which is the abolition of fuel poverty by 2016. I accept it when the minister says that he does not possess all the levers to deliver that objective, but I point out that slashing the energy assistance package budget by 10 per cent last year took us in absolutely the wrong direction. I hope that the minister will use the fuel poverty target in his arguments with the finance secretary over the coming weeks. In fact, as I listened to the minister's speech, I thought that it was, to some extent, addressed to the finance secretary. I am therefore confident that the minister will fight for housing. I urge him again to use all our statutory targets relating to housing to argue the case for housing over the next few weeks.

Action on housing supply and fuel poverty would show a willingness to protect the vulnerable at this time of cuts. We must follow that underlying principle as we make difficult spending decisions over the next few months. If we act to protect the vulnerable, we will be acting in exactly the opposite way from the UK Government. It is something that we should be determined to do.

I do not have time to refer to the housing benefit cuts—

Photo of Malcolm Chisholm Malcolm Chisholm Labour

I could speak at great length about the fact that the UK Government is cutting too far and too fast, but I will stick to housing benefit because that will have implications for the subject that we are discussing today. Like our Westminster colleagues, we must take up those arguments. The many different effects of those cuts have not really sunk in. However, one that was mentioned to me by an official in Edinburgh this week is that, although most of what is available for single people in Edinburgh is two-bedroom accommodation, under the new housing benefit rules rent for a single person will be paid only for one-bedroom accommodation. That is one of many changes that will have a devastating effect on the supply of housing. We need to fight on housing, and against the scale of the cuts, at the Westminster front. In Scotland, however, I urge the minister once again to fight for housing and argue that housing should be the number 1 priority for capital expenditure.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party 10:10 am, 16th September 2010

Ross Finnie said in his speech that the Scottish National Party had been completely opposed to stock transfer. It is worth while putting on record that that was never the SNP position, and it was never the position that was argued in Parliament. The SNP was in favour of tenants' choice, and we believed that, however the tenants voted, that should be respected.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

In a minute.

What we objected to strongly was the bribing and blackmailing of tenants, on the basis that if they did not vote for stock transfer, housing debt would not be written off. It was the SNP Government that ensured that the promises that were made to the people of Glasgow when they voted for stock transfer were kept, and that they did not sit only in the Glasgow Housing Association. It was the SNP Government that ensured that the second-stage stock transfer took place, after the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition had singularly failed to progress it.

The Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition deserves some praise for introducing far-reaching housing legislation. The work of the previous Executive put Scotland at the forefront of homelessness legislation. My criticism at the time, and my criticism now, is that the money that was needed to support that legislation to ensure that the targets were reached was never put in place by the previous Government. As evidence of that, it is worth recalling that, during the years of the coalition, the Government built fewer council houses than the Tories did in 1995. It is also worth saying that the SNP Government has built more social housing than has been built at any time since 1982. That is to the credit of the SNP Government.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

Will the member follow through on that by reminding us who was in government in 1982?

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

What I said was that the SNP Government has built more houses than have been built at any time since 1982. I am happy to acknowledge that the Conservative Government built more houses in 1995 than Labour did in its term of office in the Scottish Parliament. The SNP Government has kick-started council house building, introduced the home owners support fund and invested in shared equity schemes.

Housing has changed completely since the 1970s. In the 1970s, the vast majority of people lived in rented council homes. Very few people in Scotland owned their homes. By the 1990s, the percentage of people living in council houses had declined rapidly, partly as a result of right to buy, but also because of the drive of the banks and building societies to increase the number of mortgages for first-time house buyers.

I welcome the work that the Government is doing because it is important that we have a fundamental think about housing for the future. We also need to have a fundamental agreement about what a house is for. Other members have referred to that. Is a house somewhere in which we live, and perhaps bring up a family, or is a house more than that? Is a house a way of making profit once it is sold? Should the economy continue to be driven by house prices? As we have seen, when the housing bubble burst, housing prices fell, and they do not look like recovering any time soon. The economy cannot be driven by ever-rising house prices.

Why do we measure prosperity by the price of a home? We need to ask why an extremely successful country such as Switzerland has one of the highest rates of rented housing and one of the lowest rates of house ownership anywhere in the world. If rented housing is okay for the likes of Switzerland, why is it not okay for the likes of Scotland? I have never been fixated by housing tenure. Regardless of whether we are talking about community housing, housing in the private rented sector or housing that people own, what is important is that the house that people live in is affordable, safe and warm. It is our responsibility as members of the Parliament to ensure that we keep that in mind as we go forward.

As the minister said, new households are being formed at an increasing rate because of the growing number of single people and family break- ups. Recently, I was reminiscing with someone about 1975, when my husband and I got married. We got a house from Glenrothes Development Corporation four weeks before we got married and, after we had got married, we had to produce our wedding certificate so that the corporation could ensure that we were genuinely married—there was no living in sin in Glenrothes in 1975. That is the not the situation now. We have far better legislation, which ensures that people can make their own choices about whether to get married. People's choice of lifestyle does not militate against their getting rented accommodation.

Factors such as family break-ups and people's aspiration to have their own home mean that the number of households that are being formed is increasing, and we need to ensure that we address that as we go forward. There is a great need for us all to work together to ensure that we provide the right kind of housing—which must be safe and affordable—in the right places, where people want it. We must put party politics aside and work together to ensure that that happens.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour 10:17 am, 16th September 2010

Like other members, I welcome the opportunity to debate housing in the chamber, although it seems to be slightly odd—as others have said—to be doing so at a point when the only thing that is clear about the Government's strategy for housing is that it does not have one.

The Government has built some new houses, which are very welcome, and it has taken forward some ideas that I would agree with—not least because, as Mary Mulligan pointed out, many of those are based on Labour ideas. However, to call the Government's actions on housing a strategy is to stretch the definition somewhat. In addition, we must recognise that the building of many new houses has been possible only because the Labour Government at Westminster agreed that there could be accelerated spending of £120 million. Moreover, we know that last year witnessed the building of the lowest number of houses for 10 years.

In the past 13 years, my constituency has witnessed a fundamental change in the quality of its housing. From time to time I, like others, have had occasion to criticise the Glasgow Housing Association, but I recognise that the GHA has been responsible for much of the modernisation that has taken place in the past few years and that it is making a real difference to our communities.

The same is true of the many community-based housing associations in my area. The work of the housing associations has been especially important—at a time when housing was not being built by local government—in helping to stabilise communities by building excellent new homes and engaging in a range of wider action programmes throughout Maryhill and other areas. Those projects have helped to keep older people in their own homes comfortably and safely and have provided jobs and apprenticeships for young people, giving them a real stake in their community and an opportunity to make their own lives. They include self-build projects, which have given local people the incentive to continue to make their homes in the area.

Talking of achievements, I am sure that Parliament would like to join me in recording my congratulations to North Glasgow Housing Association, which is the first housing association in Scotland to achieve the prestigious new customer service excellence standard. That is an achievement, indeed.

I was surprised to read recently that the minister had told the housing association movement that it had a tough time ahead. The housing association movement knows how to deal with hard times. It has demonstrated that it can adapt and change to cope with changing situations. Let us face it—the Government has already challenged housing associations in a most unhelpful way by cutting HAG. The irony is that that has been done at a time when the Government should be strengthening and supporting housing associations, and encouraging them to build more houses, not only to allow Scotland to meet its commitments under homelessness legislation—which, I am truly sad to say, is looking increasingly unlikely—but because we need to recognise that housing associations and local councils—

Photo of Sandra White Sandra White Scottish National Party

Does Patricia Ferguson agree with her colleague Malcolm Chisholm that in the budget, the allocation of money to housing must come before the allocation of money to transport?

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

If I were a member of a Government, I would make the argument for money for whatever was in my portfolio, but it must be said that housing is so fundamental to the lives of members of our communities that it must be one of the very top priorities of any Government. If this Government does not want to make housing a priority, it should stand aside and make way for one that does.

Housing associations and local councils are the only people who are building houses right now, and we need to maintain the skills that the construction industry will need as it comes out of recession.

Another challenge is coming the way of all registered social landlords in the next few years, and on this point I very much agree with Sandra White and Malcolm Chisholm. If the coalition Government succeeds in making its planned changes to the housing benefit system, it is likely that fewer people will be able to take up private lets, with the result that more people will depend on RSLs for their housing. There has already been a fall of more than 1,200 in the number of new starts in the social housing sector in the first two quarters of this year, and we need to equip all our RSLs to make them fleet of foot and able to act quickly if those cuts go ahead.

On the subject of the Con-Dem coalition, I hope that the minister will give us assurance—I have no doubt that he will—on tenancies, because I am greatly concerned about the measures on tenancies that the coalition is putting in place south of the border, and I hope that we do not see similar moves in Scotland.

I have a particular concern about the lack of sheltered housing for our older citizens. As people live longer, the demand is obviously rising. Many more people than ever now live beyond 75 and, indeed, 80, and their needs must be met. I read what the "Housing: Fresh Thinking, New Ideas" document had to say, but I was not comforted by what it contained, none of which was fresh. I know that we are talking about a complex and difficult area, but sometimes it is necessary to look at the evidence, make a decision and implement what one thinks is best. In addition, we need to be able to test whether money that was intended for housing support services is being spent where it is most needed. At the moment, we cannot do that. As Malcolm Chisholm did, I urge the minister to examine how data are collected.

In summary, the SNP Government's actions to date on housing sometimes seem to have been driven more by its need to announce legislation than by an understanding of what needs to be done, backed up with a plan on how to do it. That is particularly apparent in the attempts to tighten up on rogue landlords. The measures to do that should have formed a discrete piece of legislation instead of being split into two legislative halves, the second of which will be really tight for time, given that it has not yet been introduced.

The Government may not yet have a clear strategy, but it is clear that the incoming Government will have to take up housing as a priority and will probably have to introduce a housing consolidation bill as a matter of urgency. In that respect, the present Government will not leave much of a legacy. However, I genuinely hope that the minister will be able to persuade the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth that funding for housing should be a top priority in the SNP's budget. If he does that, he will have my support.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

At the moment, members can probably take about one minute more than they were expecting for their speeches.

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party 10:24 am, 16th September 2010

Safeguarding the right to housing and ensuring that everyone has access to warm and secure accommodation is one of the most serious responsibilities that can be placed on any Government. Since 2007, the Scottish Government has made it clear that it is committed to living up to that responsibility by improving and increasing Scotland's housing supply.

Of course, that task is not without its challenges. The decline in council housing, largely due to the effects of the Tory right-to-buy policy, has made it difficult to ensure that those who want and need council houses can always get them. In 2007, more than 200,000 people were on social housing lists.

During the past three years, the SNP Government has worked hard to meet Scotland's housing needs head on. Approximately £1.7 billion has been invested in affordable housing, with the result that the building of affordable housing is now at a 30-year high. Last year, the SNP Government supported the construction of 83 per cent more affordable homes than were built in 2006-07.

We should be hearing no more nonsense about a cut to Scotland's housing budget. We know full well that the Scottish Government accelerated money into earlier budgets to support the construction industry during the worst of the economic downturn. It has been instructive to hear Labour members saying how we should welcome the fact that the last Labour Government consented to that acceleration of capital expenditure. Such a supine attitude displays the limitations of their ambitions for Scotland. We should have a Scottish Government that can decide for itself how to set and allocate its budget without reference or deference to Big Brother. That said, acceleration of spending was the right thing to do.

However, we should be clear that, over the three-year period, Scotland's housing budget has not been cut: it has increased. Even in the face of the economic downturn, the Scottish Government has worked hard to invest in the housing sector because housing is so crucial to so many different aspects of our society. Decent housing is, first and foremost, about keeping people warm and secure, but investment in housing also supports jobs in the construction industry and beyond. That is particularly important because of the slowdown in the private house-building sector.

As we seek to meet the targets that have been set by Scotland's world-leading Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009, making our houses as energy efficient and environmentally friendly as possible will go a long way towards reducing our carbon footprint. It is a virtuous circle that promotes innovation in industry and should help to save householders money by making not just the rent or purchase of a property affordable, but its maintenance as well.

One of the most significant policies of the Government, and perhaps of any Administration since devolution began, is the inclusion in the Housing (Scotland) Bill of the end of the right to buy, not just for new-build properties but for all new tenancies. Scrapping the right to buy will give councils and housing associations the confidence that they need in order to invest again in new high-quality homes that will help to produce a housing stock in Scotland that will serve our communities for generations.

I also hope that the policy will have a transformative effect on our attitude to housing. Much of what Tricia Marwick said earlier was instructive about that. Let me be clear that I have no objection to individuals owning their homes, and I declare an interest as a homeowner, or at least as someone who is paying back the bank. Since Margaret Thatcher introduced the right to buy, home ownership has become an end in itself. It is less about having a place to live and more about having capital, equity and an unending source of wealth generation. A person's house should be viewed primarily as their home rather than as an investment. Although it would be naive to expect people who own their home to be totally uninterested in its price, it should not be the be-all and end-all.

The change in the pattern of tenure has created a perception that someone who rents their home is inferior to someone who owns theirs. That is unfortunate. Social housing has certainly become less accessible, leaving many people with little choice but to pursue the private ownership option, and that in turn has helped to fuel what became the housing bubble that burst so spectacularly in the past few years. It should not be the case that someone who rents their home is somehow a failure.

The Scottish Government has acted in advance of the Housing (Scotland) Bill to help and encourage councils to build and attract more social housing to their areas. For example, last year it granted pressured area status to various parts of the Central Scotland region that I represent, including Cumbernauld and Moodiesburn. That has allowed the retention of homes for rent for people who live in areas that are facing high demand for social housing.

There is no doubt that there is high demand for the limited stock in those areas, and the Government's policy gives councils the confidence to plan for the future and invest in new homes. No one can realistically expect local authorities to build new homes that will become liable for purchase quickly thereafter, so the suspension of the right to buy will act as an incentive to build new council houses.

I am delighted to see a number of new social housing developments in my home town of Cumbernauld. The minister will recall that he attended the opening of the new development at Lochlea Road in Kildrum and will, as I am, be delighted that the Cumbernauld Housing Partnership is today holding a public event to unveil its plans for the next phase of the Kildrum development at the former site of flats on Ainslie Road and Maclehose Road. The Government has also supported developments elsewhere in the town, thus increasing the availability of socially rented accommodation in an area where it is desperately needed. That is welcomed by people whom I represent who are seeking new homes, and I am sure that it will be welcomed across the board in Parliament.

Of course, the private sector has been hit hardest by the recession, and the seizing up of the construction industry has exacerbated the housing shortage in Scotland. I therefore welcome the steps that the Scottish Government is taking or considering to improve the housing situation in the private sector for owned and rented properties. Schemes such as the low-cost initiative for first-time buyers have helped those who are on lower or moderate incomes to get on to the housing ladder. The energy assistance package and home insulation scheme have helped homeowners to make their properties more energy efficient and cheaper to run. The forthcoming private rented housing bill will also introduce new safeguards for private sector tenants, and it will increase landlords' responsibilities to repair and maintain their properties. Those requirements can help to drive up standards, improve energy efficiency, reduce carbon emissions and stimulate jobs in the associated economy.

However, as long as we remain with the current devolution settlement, the Government is not in a position to reduce VAT for home repairs and improvements, or to use the taxation system to provide incentives for green and energy-efficiency measures or, most fundamentally of all, to redirect resources to housing from other areas, such as the billions that are to be lavished on a new generation of nuclear weapons. Why do we not spend more on housing than we do on weapons of mass destruction? In housing, as in so many areas of policy, we reach the limits of devolution and the case for more powers and independence becomes clearer.

There can be no denying that significant progress has been made since 2007 in tackling the housing challenges that face Scotland. The Government's consultation on the new strategy is further evidence of its vision and ambition, and of its willingness to find new and creative policies to ensure safe and warm homes for all.

Photo of Helen Eadie Helen Eadie Labour 10:32 am, 16th September 2010

I declare an interest as listed in the register of members' interests as I proudly serve as a Labour and Co-operative Party member. I will therefore rise to Linda Fabiani's bait; I had not planned to do so but I will. Linda Fabiani either suffers from selective amnesia or she simply does not know the facts. In the 11 years that I have served in Parliament, I have been proud to see the work of people such as Cathy Jamieson, Johann Lamont, Bill Butler and a number of other colleagues who serve under the banner as I serve. They fought in and outside the Cabinet to get the Co-operative Development Scotland agency established, and have the scars to prove it. That work has been absolutely essential.

In addition, I point to some of my Westminster friends and colleagues, primarily my constituency colleague, Gordon Brown, as well as Alistair Darling, Ed Balls and Mark Lazarowicz. Each of them has proposed changes to enabling legislation at Westminster to help housing and every kind of co-operative across the land. I am proud of the work that they have done.

I go back to recent events and Nicola Sturgeon, and to how Linda Fabiani pressed her voting button just three or four months ago when we were considering the general medical services contracts. Today she had the hypocrisy to speak about supporting co-operatives and co-operative models, but when it came to empowering communities in rural areas and providing the facility of community enterprise and co-operatives, she chose not to support that. She chose only to support social enterprise. Linda Fabiani is being completely hypocritical in her approach to the debate.

Photo of Helen Eadie Helen Eadie Labour

No, I will not. Linda Fabiani has had her chance to speak.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

Order. Wait a minute, Mrs Eadie. It is entirely up to the member who has the floor whether they take an intervention or not.

Photo of Helen Eadie Helen Eadie Labour

My contribution this morning will focus on builders' missives, an issue that has rarely been discussed in Parliament. The collapse in construction, and mortgage funds being drastically reduced, are devastating the lives of some new-build home buyers.

Buying a new-build home from a plan has been the start of a worst-ever nightmare for many people throughout Scotland. People from all over—from Motherwell, the Borders, Glasgow, Fife, Aberdeen, England and Ireland—have contacted me on the issue, and trading standards officials, members of the legal profession and academics have written to me and have supported and commended my efforts to protect purchasers of new-build properties in Scotland. If members are interested, I can share with them an extract from the text of a lecture relating to the contractual complexities and a view on what the solution is, which was given jointly by Professor George L Gretton and Professor Kenneth Reid to Scottish solicitors around the country in January and February of 2009.

I have, however, reached an impasse in my work because the Scottish Parliament's non-Executive bills unit has determined that the issue is a reserved matter, although the Government at Westminster has said that it believes that it is a devolved matter. So, I am caught in a no man's land, with neither the UK Government nor the Scottish Government seeming to be willing to help. It would have been helpful if the non-Executive bills unit had advised me of the competence issue at the outset of my work. I am very disappointed and frustrated that it did not do so until the end of the consultation period on my proposal for a member's bill. Despite that, I remain tenacious and will continue to highlight the need for new laws to protect buyers of new-build homes who are forced to wait helplessly while entry dates are pushed back months or even years by developers.

The worst nightmare of which I am aware is a five-year wait for a date of entry into a new-build home. The individuals concerned have taken the best legal advice, but it is more than ever clear that builders' missives are weighted entirely in favour of the property developer. The 2003 housing strategy task force acknowledged the problem in its report to the Scottish Executive. The conveyancing committee of the Law Society of Scotland, working with the Scottish Government and Scottish Homes, made recommendations that included the introduction of a standard missive for new-build properties that would provide a balance of rights for buyer and seller, but that has never happened.

The UK Office of Fair Trading also acknowledged the problem in its report, but its recommendation was for a voluntary code of practice among property developers. I questioned the wisdom of that approach at the time, and I have been proved right. I scarcely need to tell members that the voluntary code is simply not working. Here we are, eight years later, and the problems are getting worse.

I have won support from frustrated families all over Scotland and beyond. My bill would seek to give compensation and the right to withdraw from the contract if the developer did not meet the commitment to have the home ready by the date that was agreed at the time of the deposit's being paid. At the moment, the scales are weighted entirely in favour of the developer.

My most recent case involved a couple from Aberdeenshire who purchased a property. The developer did not deliver on time but would not allow the couple to withdraw from the contract. Two years later, having been silent on the matter for the whole time in between, he contacted the couple to say that the home was ready and demanded that they purchase the property. The Stewart Milne Group, on behalf of the company concerned, took the couple to court and they are now without a home of their own. They have had sequestration and their wages arrested and are left with a huge bill to pay for the rest of their lives.

Another individual lost £50,000 and another lost £40,000—and my list continues to grow. I have also had two cases in Dunfermline East. That is not to mention anything like all the cases that I know of. Solicitors are well aware of the problem and will give chapter and verse on it.

Once again, we have a situation that is on-going and people simply do not care about it. Government ministers do not want to know about it. A report by the former Scottish Consumer Council says that delays of many months, sometimes years, have been widely reported in Scotland as causing problems for buyers, especially if they have a fixed date for the sale of their own property. The Law Society of Scotland and Homes for Scotland, the body that represents the Scottish home-building industry, have worked together on the issue but the problem continues. I hope that Parliament listens to what I am saying. I had a proposal for a member's bill.

Photo of John Wilson John Wilson Scottish National Party 10:39 am, 16th September 2010

The present Scottish Government has brought a number of housing debates to the chamber since May 2007, and I am glad that the trend has continued. Its discussion paper, "Housing: Fresh Thinking, New Ideas", correctly refers to some interesting questions associated with the challenges to a large number of people who are on waiting lists, and with how housing can act as an economic driver.

In examining why the Scottish Government has launched its discussion on housing and issues surrounding the housing strategy, we must consider the historical backdrop. Over the past 30 years, the UK Government has had repeated policies of large-scale voluntary stock transfers, which have produced many changes in provision. Moreover, in the recent past, there was a push by the previous two Scottish Executives towards large-scale voluntary transfers of public-sector housing, marketed as community ownership. Some people might say that that was pushing the concept of community ownership a bit too far.

In terms of the consultation paper, "Investing in Affordable Housing", there has been criticism that the housing association grant has been reduced. Currently, registered social landlords such as housing associations do not have to comply with the centralised rent-setting regime. Although some housing associations—especially those that have expanded through stock transfer—can calculate annual rent increases according to the retail price index plus 1 per cent, a great many housing associations do not set their rents at RPI plus 1 per cent. The housing association grant is a public subsidy, and when it was introduced it was not supposed to be there for ever and a day. Throughout the previous Administration, the grant was on a downward path.

That issue ties up with the wider issue of housing affordability. In the current financial climate, people cannot afford rents at the current rates in the private rented sector; therefore, more people on waiting lists will look to social housing to obtain a house. In the area where I stay, North Lanarkshire, the number of applicants on the housing register as of 31 March 2007 was 12,851 and the number of applicants on the register at 31 March 2009 was 17,698—an increase over the period, despite the fact that North Lanarkshire Council tried to change the housing waiting list criteria for people who were applying for a council house. In that context, I welcome the fact that the consultation paper highlights the need for fairer rents although, as I stated earlier, rent setting is limited to landlords.

The Scottish Government does not operate in a vacuum in setting its policy objectives. As members have said this morning, Scotland is constrained under the current devolved settlement. That is even more apparent in the housing benefit changes that were announced by the UK Government in its June 2010 budget. A more responsive and effective welfare system will not be achieved through arbitrary changes in housing benefit, whereby anyone who is in receipt of jobseekers allowance will have their housing benefit reduced by 10 per cent after being unemployed for 12 months or longer.

Although some members welcomed and supported the right-to-buy legislation that was introduced in 1979, it has meant increased waiting lists for council housing since it was enacted, and that has clearly impacted on local authorities' ability to meet the homelessness targets that have been set for them under the current Scottish housing legislation. The burden of responsibility to house people who present as homeless currently lies with local authorities, which has real implications for the tenants who are on the authorities' housing waiting and transfer lists. I have a constituent who has been waiting 18 years for a house transfer but keeps being told by the local authority that they cannot get the house that they are after because someone has presented as homeless and is a greater priority for the local authority. My constituent ends up losing out and not getting a transfer.

As stated by Gavin McCrone and Mark Stephens in their 1995 publication, "Housing Policy in Britain and Europe", the housing structures in Scotland are unique. Both those academics advocate a position of tenure neutrality. I suggest that, in Scotland, we have for far too long had a tenure policy rather than a fully structured housing policy.

Scotland has been severely tested by the recent economic climate, and households in all sectors have been increasingly exposed to the economic downturn, which has led to significantly higher levels of short-term or variable debt. Since 1997, personal consumption has been correspondingly more sensitive to interest rate movements, which has affected people's ability to service their mortgage payments at any given time. The repossession rates in Scotland are therefore likely to increase, although we have not seen the level of repossessions that was expected and had been predicted. Such an increase will place further strains on the provision of housing, particularly in the social rented sector.

I welcome today's debate and look forward to many of the issues that arise being taken forward in the coming months and years. We can develop a real housing strategy that benefits all sectors in society, and we can offer individuals real choice and opportunity so that they can choose the tenure and ownership sector that they want rather than having it forced on them through the provision of whatever housing is available.

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour 10:46 am, 16th September 2010

I have had the privilege of being the minister for housing twice during my time in the Parliament. During my first period in office I was asked to introduce the homelessness legislation, which was greatly denounced at the time by Shelter for not going far enough but a month later became the leading legislation in Europe.

I am particularly proud that I introduced the supporting people initiative. However, I echo the comments from members earlier in the debate about the problems that people who have been greatly privileged by that scheme now face as local authorities seek, following the end of ring fencing, to strip away or reduce financial contributions to individuals. We will hear a lot more of that, along with reductions in housing benefit.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

I am sure that Des McNulty will welcome the amendments that the Government will lodge at stage 2 of the Housing (Scotland) Bill to introduce pre-eviction protocol for people in rent arrears. That is partly to ensure that the support goes in first, so that we have a strategy of prevention rather than waiting until the problem becomes very difficult.

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour

Prevention is always desirable in such circumstances.

In my second period of office, I initiated second-stage transfer in Glasgow, which the minister and his predecessors have taken forward. Glasgow Housing Association is moving on the right track, and those of us who are just over the border see the amount of investment that is going into areas throughout Glasgow and wish that we were getting the same attention; I will return to that issue in a minute.

I signed off the 80,000 house starts in the 2007-08 budget, which provide the foundation of some of the claims that the Government is making about its investment pattern. We must look at what is happening this year and next year to see where we are going with regard to the number of houses, as there are some serious problems.

As the minister came to Clydebank earlier this week, I am sure that he will not be surprised that I want to talk about the area. One of the things that he said during his visit was that in relation to investment, there is a balance between drivers of need, drivers of homelessness and drivers of regeneration. We were talking about regeneration, because some areas of Clydebank—the minister was taken to see Salisbury Place, and he would have seen the same circumstances if he had gone to the Clydebank East area—have in effect become derelict. There is a need for a selective demolition and replacement process for that type of housing.

I hope that that type of regeneration is given appropriate priority, but I say to the minister that Clydebank suffers a need issue too; it is not just a matter of regeneration. Malcolm Chisholm said earlier in the debate that at every surgery he holds he gets at least one person complaining about inadequate housing. I have to say that I get substantially more than that.

There is a significant excess of people who are looking for houses in Clydebank in comparison with the number of houses that are available. Roughly 400 to 500 houses are available in Clydebank each year, but the number of people on the waiting list is around 6,000. Given the relative size of the place, those numbers compare similarly with the situation that John Wilson described in North Lanarkshire.

Places such as West Dunbartonshire, Renfrewshire and parts of Lanarkshire require significant amounts of investment, and I disagree with Malcolm Chisholm that the money that is available should be given to places such as Edinburgh where there is absolute need. I say that as someone who represents an area—Bearsden and Milngavie—which, statistically, has the highest level of absolute need in Scotland. That area needs some investment, but the right balance must be struck. Clydebank needs investment too, particularly because there is a real risk that it will not come anywhere near to meeting the Scottish quality housing standard by 2015.

The estimates that the council has made suggest that in order to reach the Scottish quality housing standard, the amount that is invested per house would need to be £25,000, which is a very high figure even in comparison with Dumbarton, and double the amount that would be needed elsewhere in Dunbartonshire. It is higher than the equivalent figure in Glasgow, and that is to do with the construction history of Clydebank and the fact that so much of it was rebuilt after the blitz in the 1950s and early 1960s. A lot of the building methods that were used at that time were intended to produce buildings with a lifespan of 20 or 30 years, and many of those buildings have now vastly outlived the amount of time that they were initially expected to last.

We want and need investment in Clydebank, and I want the Government to be clear, if it does not favour stock transfer, about what the alternatives are that will actually deliver investment. West Dunbartonshire Council is going into a consultation about a potential partial stock transfer—I am unsure about that business model, and I want to know how the money will be delivered to ensure that the houses that we have are brought up to standard and the houses that are past their sell-by date will be replaced by other houses, which are needed in that area.

We have a relatively high percentage of non-traditional housing, which includes houses built using different construction methods, flat-roofed houses and a significant proportion of high-rise housing. Those are the same type of buildings that are being demolished in Glasgow by the GHA, but that is not happening in Clydebank. I do not want a situation in which Clydebank or places in Renfrewshire or Lanarkshire become residual locations because they are, in a sense, at the bottom of the investment heap or the back of the investment queue.

There is a problem with antisocial behaviour, to pick up Alex Johnstone's point. However, the issue is not how we deal with that as individuals but how we prevent landlords from putting in people with known histories of antisocial behaviour or serious behavioural issues, which may arise from drug or alcohol problems. The landlords know about those problems, but they simply rehouse those people and do not put in place the support and the monitoring to ensure that they do not cause problems for their neighbours. We have to ensure that we invest in houses and manage them properly.

Photo of Bill Kidd Bill Kidd Scottish National Party 10:54 am, 16th September 2010

We all talk about human rights to things such as safety from violence, education and legal representation, but among all those must be ranked the human right to a house, to shelter and to somewhere to live. I have a fairly important quotation from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was agreed on behalf of the peoples of the United Nations in 1948. Nothing has changed since then, and unfortunately this right has not been delivered in every situation since it was expressed. The declaration states:

"Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services".

Housing was recognised as a human right in 1948, but it is still not enjoyed by everyone in society. That is why I welcome the document "Housing: Fresh Thinking, New Ideas", which looks to address the fact that we all have the right to a home.

I remember the clearance of tenemental property when I lived by the Clyde in Partick. Everybody else has mentioned where they come from, so I thought that I might as well slip that in. Back then, we still had enough shipyards to go round. The housing was not in the best condition, though, and we were moved to a four-in-a-block in Knightswood. It was all very nice. It was next to a canal and we could look across the canal and see the coos in the field. It was really pleasant. We were cleared from an area of a multiple deprivation. That was a success for us, but many of our neighbours in Partick moved from slums that were nevertheless communities that held jobs, shopping and transport into town, to deserts wi windaes, as Billy Connolly said. Out of the frying pan and into the fire.

I am happy that community housing associations in Glasgow and throughout Scotland have become the way forward and that they are continuing to develop mixed tenure with good-quality social rented homes and affordable owner-occupier properties. It is important that communities can remain together. Aspirational or not, people like to live in communities, and it is important to have a range of tenure within them. That is the way forward.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

Does the member accept that nothing has worked in the creation of mixed tenure communities like the right to buy did during its operation in Scotland?

Photo of Bill Kidd Bill Kidd Scottish National Party

I know that Alex Johnstone likes to make that point. In fact, he is beating it to death today. I understand the right to buy. I know that many people took up the offer, but I also know that, if we were clearing slums anywhere in Glasgow today, the people would not be able to move to Knightswood as we did, because most of those nice houses have been bought over and only the poorer properties are left behind. We need to have mixed tenure housing developed and built and we need to ensure that there is a future for people to have proper, decent rented accommodation if that is what they choose or what they can afford. I appreciate that people had the right to buy and that it afforded many people on low incomes an opportunity to own their homes. I will not deny that, because I know a lot of people who did exactly that, but it is still important that people who need a registered social home can access one.

The progression of second-stage transfer from the monolithic Glasgow Housing Association to community housing association control will see, at last, the re-establishment of viable communities in the city of Glasgow. That is the way forward these days. The GHA had 70,000 to 80,000 properties. It is not viable for such an organisation to be set up and to last forever when it was supposed to bring homes closer to communities. It is therefore important that the second-stage transfer is carried through. Des McNulty mentioned that he was greatly involved in that. That is recognised, but it was extremely important that it came to fruition, and that took place under the present Government, with the minister who is sitting in front of us today. I thank him for ensuring that the process is, at long last, under way, but we must remember that there is still a long way to go. A number of housing associations and communities in Glasgow are looking for the roll-out. I am grateful that the minister indicated to us recently that that will be carried through.

With the changing demographic of the Scottish population, there is an increasing need for local flexibility in housing provision. There are more single-person households than at any time in the past, including not only young people who have left home—although many young people cannot afford to do that these days—but those in the growing elderly population in Scotland. Many of those older people are living in homes that are not suitable for them and they will require something else in order to see out their days in the community that they have lived in. However, with the growing financial constraints, less money is available to build specialist housing for the elderly and those with disabilities.

We need support for independent living and the development of new ways to provide support through the best use of new and existing technologies, as well as updates on standard adaptations. We must ensure that local authorities act on their new duty to provide support for disabled adaptations.

Photo of Bill Kidd Bill Kidd Scottish National Party

I did not realise that I had taken so long.

Organisations such as Bield Housing Association provide remote support centrally to allow people to continue living in their homes, often with the help of aids and adaptations. I welcome the Scottish Government's "Housing: Fresh Thinking, New Ideas" and look forward to its implementation for the benefit of all our people.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour 11:01 am, 16th September 2010

Housing is one of the most important issues that we face. We are really struggling to meet our homelessness targets, and without a house building programme that shows a year-on-year increase in the number of houses that we build, we will not meet them.

This summer, we received the figures for the new affordable homes that were built last year. Those figures show the effect of bringing forward spending on housing last year. I agreed with the policy of bringing forward that spending, but I am concerned that it led to our having a much smaller budget this year and that we are therefore unlikely to be able to build on the increase that we saw this summer. That will affect not only people who are homeless or inadequately housed, but construction workers and the wider economy. We need to build houses not only to provide homes but to provide jobs and apprenticeships. At a time when building companies will deliver good value for money, we should be building those homes, and we should be building public buildings for the same reasons.

Nicola Sturgeon boasts that our largest hospital is being built in Glasgow using traditional funding methods. [Interruption.]

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

Order. Could members hold conversations more quietly, please?

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

Although we all welcome the building of that hospital, it will take an enormous chunk of the Government's overall capital budget. If it was funded differently, say through a public-private partnership, we would have that additional capital available for house building, which is not so easily procured through PPP. The Government is looking at funding the new Forth crossing in a similar way, although that might prove impossible as it would wipe out the capital budget for a number of years. We need to look at ways of funding major building projects that also allow us to continue building homes, schools and hospitals. That said, we also need to look at alternative ways of funding housing. I welcome the minister's comments this morning, but, as always, the devil is in the detail. I look forward to seeing some more of that detail.

In the present economic climate, it is important that we ensure that the whole public sector is looking at innovative ways to continue building. It is disappointing that the Government, which has dumped so many of its ideological beliefs and reneged on so many of its promises, still holds one dear. It is also deeply disturbing that its opposition to PPP is putting those in the construction industry out of work, robbing young people of jobs, and leaving our children learning in inadequate schools. The Government pledged to match our building programme brick for brick and to build new schools and hospitals using the Scottish Futures Trust, but that is a procurement body and not a funding body, and again the pledge has been dumped. It is time for the Government to wake up to the reality that we find ourselves in and take some action. We need to get the country back building homes, schools and hospitals.

I turn to rural housing and an issue that has concerned me for a long time. I feel a bit like a stuck record, but I make no apologies for continuing to mention the issue until it is sorted. The Government has to get rid of the assumed rent in calculating additional housing association grants for rural areas. I see no reason for imposing that rent. Affordable rent levels in the local area will be available as a comparator for those that are proposed by the housing association.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

Is the member aware that we have introduced a separate set of calculations for rural areas that take account of the affordability of rents in rural areas and the lower incomes in many rural areas compared with the Scottish average? We are already addressing that issue.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

I very much welcome the change in the formula for rural areas, but there is still an assumed rent. Rent levels have to be determined by the housing association in the local area. The formula that is in place is still not adequate for building some houses. It covers many rural buildings, but some are really expensive due to servicing, land prices and the like and need further action. John Wilson talked about the important issue of the ability of housing associations to use reserves. The assumed rent and what financial institutions require as rent levels stop building. I welcome the fact that the minister is considering those issues, which are quite complex, and welcome the change in the formula, but there is still work to be done. I welcome that work being carried out.

When we talk about affordable housing, we need to talk about not only affordable rents, but the affordability of maintenance and heating. When I visited the Scottish housing expo with Mary Mulligan this summer, I was fascinated to see what could be done by design and technology to cut costs. While we were walking around, we got to the point at which we saw that a house's heating costs were more than £200 per annum and asked why it was so expensive to heat. Houses had renewables incorporated into them—normally air-source heat pumps—but they mostly depended on insulation and design to cut costs. The insulation that was used was of a higher specification than that in the current regulations, but it appeared to me that such insulation would pay for itself very quickly. One house had no heating at all; rather, design and heat exchange were used to keep it warm. I remain slightly sceptical about how that would work in the winter months, but I was assured that the technology had come from Scandinavia, which enjoys even worse winters than we do.

The expo challenged many of the ideas that I had about housing design. It was really worth while for policy makers, developers and architects to exchange policies and ideas, and I hope that it will not be the last such expo. I hope that we will look at finding other ways of exchanging ideas and best practice.

Fuel poverty remains a huge challenge, not only with respect to new stock; we need to look at our older stock, too. Insulating older buildings is more challenging, but many of our elderly people live in such buildings. Therefore, we need to take that on board.

In conclusion, I hope that the minister will take my comments on board. Obviously, some of those comments are less palatable than others. I welcome the progress that is being made and hope that my comments will be considered further.

I am grateful for having had the opportunity to speak in this debate.

Photo of Jim Tolson Jim Tolson Liberal Democrat 11:08 am, 16th September 2010

This debate, which is based on the Government's document "Housing: Fresh Thinking, New Ideas", is important. The Government claims that that document is a search for innovative policy ideas, and Alex Neil said that we must do more to increase the availability of housing. It is right and important that he outlined the 10 major challenges that we face, which include reaching the 2012 homelessness target, the 2016 Scottish housing quality standard targets and carbon emission targets for 2020. It is also helpful to look forward to what is likely to happen in those ensuing periods, particularly in population growth, which the minister talked about, and with the budget challenges that we face in meeting many targets in the coming years. Many members have outlined those budget challenges.

According to the minister, it is likely that there will be more than 100,000 people on waiting lists, so there are real challenges for all of us. Longer waiting lists are caused by a number of factors, not least of which is our low housing stock as a result of the right to buy.

My colleague Ross Finnie said that "Housing: Fresh Thinking, New Ideas" sets out the problems, but it does not seem to me that it contains any new ideas. I am glad that Ross Finnie clarified that. He said that the current housing model is unsustainable and that house price inflation has brought the system to its knees. I hope that the minister agrees that we need to take decisions now and that he will progress matters when he sums up in the debate and with the housing legislation in the coming weeks. I am sure that we all aim to increase the supply of affordable housing. Ross Finnie said that void or vacant stock simply deteriorates. That is often the case. We need to see whether there are innovative ways by which we can bring that stock back into good use.

Patricia Ferguson said that we need to maintain a construction industry and the skills in it. I could not agree more. However, the key issue for many of us is funding. The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations has clarified the cost issue well. It said:

"The average Housing Association Grant ... award is £68,500 (and £70,000 for rural areas). We welcome the recognition of higher cost elements in rural areas where costs are often higher. HAG currently funds up to 70 per cent of the cost of building a house."

Where the rest of the money comes from has to be better worked out and it must be more secure in the future. Ross Finnie mentioned that the private sector must play a vital role in ensuring that funding is brought forward to tackle the housing crisis in Scotland and that the recession must not damage the homelessness target. That is a key issue that we must tackle.

Malcolm Chisholm said that housing must have priority over transport. That was a brave statement. He talked about the supporting people money that he brought forward and said that he regrets the removal of ring fencing. I can agree with him on that latterly.

On allocations and common housing registers, Ross Finnie said that the SNP was initially opposed to stock transfers, but it has revelled in new projects that have arisen. That has certainly been the case in many debates in the Parliament in the past three and a half years. In my experience, the common housing register in Fife has worked well for the council and many housing associations. The Chartered Institute of Housing in Scotland has said that it

"agrees that Common Housing Registers should exist in every local authority area in Scotland. It should also be easy for people in one area to get information about the register in other areas."

I certainly agree with that. It has also said:

"we believe that the development of a national CHR should be avoided at all costs, due to the likely complexity and expense".

That is a well-balanced assessment of the issues.

Many members focused on the right to buy and possible reforms of the system. I understand what Ross Finnie said. Preserving the right to buy absolutely is simply not defendable, but our Conservative colleagues have defended it and have sought to have that issue brought forward again and again. Over the past 30 years, it has been quite common in Scotland to lose three quarters of the housing stock. Not nearly enough of that has been replaced. The Tories have had their heads in the sand on that issue again and again. I hope that, in the coming weeks and months, the Lib Dems will lead the charge for right-to-buy reforms. We have mentioned that today, and I hope that there will be appropriate reforms in the coming housing bill.

Jamie Hepburn spoke up well in saying that he wants to scrap the right to buy. In summing up, will the minister say whether he agrees with him? I certainly agree that rental is not inferior to ownership. Rental is not a failure in our society and it should not be viewed as such. John Wilson, who is another SNP back bencher who has strong views on the matter, touched on increased waiting lists as a result of the right to buy and homelessness adding to the lists. People can sometimes wait more than 10 or 15 years to get a decent property that meets their housing needs.

AHIP has been discussed, although perhaps not enough. Mary Mulligan spoke about it well. She welcomed the new homes that it has brought forward for the Scottish Government, but it does not fill the gap in funding for future years. I recall standing here as housing spokesperson in 2007-08 arguing that point strongly with the minister's predecessor, Stewart Maxwell. This Government has failed to address the point. We have needed that investment, those houses and those skills that house building would have provided. However, we now have a gap that is not being filled and which is leaving a bigger difficulty in the market.

The Lib Dems welcome the focus on this debate. I hope that the minister is not just in listening mode, but that he is willing to support the challenges that the Lib Dems will bring to stage 2 of the Housing (Scotland) Bill—fresh thinking and new ideas will come from the Lib Dems. Today is a springboard for change, so let us grab the challenge and ensure that we provide good-quality, affordable houses for rent for many years into the future.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative 11:15 am, 16th September 2010

It is ironic that a housing document published by an SNP Government is entitled "Housing: Fresh Thinking, New Ideas", given that the hallmark of the Government's housing policy to date is devotion to a back-to-the-future municipal socialism of which Uncle Joe would have been proud.

In 2007, the progressive way forward for housing in Scotland would have been to continue the process of housing stock transfer to new or existing housing associations and to take up the generous offer made by Her Majesty's Government to write off all housing debt related to the transferred properties, as of course happened in Glasgow and the five other local authorities that adopted that approach. The new housing association managers would have provided existing tenants with an improved standard of customer service and they would have had available to them a stream of rental income against which new borrowings could be incurred to upgrade their existing housing stock or build new affordable homes for rent or sale.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

Can the member confirm the rumours that the Treasury under George Osborne will no longer facilitate that kind of stock transfer?

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

No, I cannot confirm that one way or the other. If I were the housing minister in the Scottish Government I would have got out my pen and paper to seek clarification for myself. That is Mr Neil's responsibility at the moment, not mine.

Despite Tricia Marwick's denials, we have had an SNP Government and a Scottish National Party that are at best neutral and at worst downright hostile to the whole concept of stock transfer. As a consequence, the opportunity to wipe out the remaining £2.2 billion of housing debt in Scotland and to invest hundreds of millions of pounds of new money in our affordable stock has been lost through an act of sheer negligence or political spite.

The Government has launched an attack on the concept of the right to buy and has embarked on a policy that in some instances will end that right and in others will ensure that it withers on the vine through the diminution over time in the value of the discount. Shamefully, that policy has been supported by Labour and the Liberal Democrats who are equally culpable in ensuring that another £100 million will not be available to either councils or housing associations from right-to-buy receipts. That means less money for new affordable housing programmes throughout Scotland.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

No, thank you.

Finally, the SNP has been determined to promote new council house building and takes great delight in castigating the previous Scottish Executive for having built only six council houses in its last four years in office. Such childish behaviour completely ignores the fact that what matters is not who builds affordable homes but that there are affordable homes to rent or buy. Homes sold under the right to buy were not towed into the middle of the North Sea and sunk; they continue to provide affordable homes for the working people who bought them, or their successors. The previous Scottish Executive is not to be castigated but commended for having sensibly continued a Conservative policy of identifying housing associations as the appropriate and principal developers and managers of new affordable housing in Scotland.

We can debate further some of the issues in the context of the current Housing (Scotland) Bill, but it is worth making those fundamental points, because what the new ideas document is essentially about is how we facilitate capital investment in new housing in Scotland, particularly affordable housing, at a time when there will be unprecedented pressures on the public purse and likely cuts in the affordable housing investment programme. As everyone knows, I believe that one key way to plug that funding gap would be to extend rather than restrict the right to buy and generate receipts from those sales, but I recognise that the Parliament is unlikely to agree with me.

Another key way that might find greater favour, even if through the gritted teeth of necessity, is to facilitate more private investment in affordable housing for rent. I welcome Ross Finnie's comments on that subject on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. As far as possible, investors in any assets want a secure income return and the prospect of capital appreciation over time. In the past, no one would have considered housing for the homeless as falling into that category, but in fact it fits the bill perfectly. Through housing benefit, the state underwrites rental payments and a management company, funded from the same source, takes responsibility for repairs, voids, tenant support and liaison. In Edinburgh, the private sector leasing scheme, which was established by the formerly Labour council with Orchard and Shipman, has built a portfolio of 1,600 properties that are currently occupied by formerly homeless people who would otherwise have ended up in bed and breakfasts. I am told that at least 3,000 more flats and homes owned by buy-to-let investors could readily be brought into the scheme, such is its popularity with landlords.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

No, I am sorry; I have only a couple of minutes left.

I welcome the fact that other councils are now looking at such schemes as a way of addressing the 2012 homelessness target. We have to work out what interventions from the Scottish Government and councils can facilitate such investment and extend it beyond housing for the homeless to housing for other categories of tenants, including tenants who are in work and not wholly reliant on housing benefit. In essence, that means providing a guaranteed income return on capital to investors, relieving them from management responsibilities that can be undertaken by a housing association or private company, and flexible tenancy arrangements. As well as using properties directly owned by individual investors, we should encourage the establishment of housing investment trusts whereby investors would buy units or shares from a fund, which in turn would invest in new social housing for rent.

In fairness to the Scottish Government, its consultation looks at how private sector, individual and institutional investment might be harnessed to increase the supply of affordable housing for rent in Scotland. My criticism of the Government is not what is now under consideration, but the sheer incoherence of its housing policy. For over three years the Government has deliberately spurned the investment opportunities available through stock transfer and right to buy, but now pleads that it wants to know how it can raise more money for housing investment. To have fresh thinking, one needs a fresh mindset. Past performance suggests that this Government is not in the right frame of mind.

Photo of Mary Mulligan Mary Mulligan Labour 11:23 am, 16th September 2010

Thank you, Presiding Officer, for being so precise.

This has been a thoughtful debate in which we have shown how varied and complex housing strategy can be. It has been quite a serious debate, although we can always depend on Mr McLetchie to give us a laugh.

In my opening comments I referred mostly to public sector housing, but a well-developed housing strategy cannot ignore the owner-occupied sector and the private rented sector. Before I respond to some of the points made by members, I will add a couple of my own. As we heard earlier, just a few years ago house builders were completing over 20,000 houses a year with much talk of increasing that. Latest statistics show that the total number of both public and private houses built last year fell to just over 16,000, which is the lowest figure in the past 10 years. Apart from that resulting in fewer housing choices for individuals and families, it has led to the latest homelessness figures showing that the number of households in temporary accommodation has risen to almost 11,000—an 8 per cent increase since last year. Statistics also show that more than 150,000 people are on the waiting lists that the minister referred to earlier. The minister is absolutely right that whoever forms the Government after next May's election, it would be wise for them to review the housing waiting lists so that we have a clear view of their numbers and make-up so as to reflect the needs of the people on them.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

I apologise for not being here earlier—I was at another meeting with the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth. Given what the member has just said, does she disassociate herself from a rumour that I heard that around Clydebank and Milngavie way there is a feeling that Edinburgh should not be counted in the statistics on homelessness? There is a complete disregard for the fact that on average 130 families apply for every house that comes up in Edinburgh.

Photo of Mary Mulligan Mary Mulligan Labour

Housing need should be addressed wherever it is—we should take it seriously. I hope that in her meeting with the finance minister, Margo MacDonald urged him to invest in housing programmes in the future.

The other serious implication of the drop in new-build homes is the loss of jobs. In excess of 200,000 people have lost their jobs in the construction industry. There are fewer and fewer opportunities for apprenticeships and the worry is that when the economy does start to pick up, skills will be in short supply or lost. In such circumstances, Governments must do what they can. On a number of occasions, the Minister for Housing and Communities and I have discussed whether the Scottish Government would be able to establish an infrastructure fund. I have always received a positive response to my questions but, so far, we have seen nothing, despite the fact that professionals and businesses in the housing industry continue to say that one of the barriers to new build is around financing infrastructure. Perhaps not even a grant but a loan could be given to ensure that that happens. I would be interested to hear the minister's comments on that.

We all know, and we have heard again today, that the demographics show an increasing number of older people. Although we all hope that we will remain young and active, we must be honest and accept that at some stage we might need a little support in our living environment. Sheltered housing is often seen as a good way to allow people to remain independent but access relevant support. It is disappointing that when the Scottish Government was asked how many sheltered housing units had been built it said that it did not know. The Government does not have a strategy for sheltered housing—it appears to pass all responsibility for that to local authorities.

Does the minister know that there is a financial hurdle, too? Many people who have taken advantage of the right to buy, which has been much discussed today, are coming to an age when sheltered housing might seem attractive. However, if they sell their property and move into sheltered housing, the service charges can be prohibitive. Some housing associations, such as Bield Housing Association in my constituency, offer a shared ownership scheme alongside a sheltered housing development. Let us hear about more such innovative ways of working, for which I praised the housing associations earlier. The Scottish Government could certainly provide a further lead on that.

Although we often refer to the challenges of housing for older people, we should not forget the equally challenging situation for those who are looking to leave the family home. The likelihood of their being able to get a council house is slim and, as we all know, it is now very difficult to get a mortgage without a substantial deposit, which young people will struggle to find, so private rented accommodation appears to be the only answer. The Scottish Government must continue to build affordable rented housing. I would be interested to hear good examples of housing associations that have targeted the young persons market. We need to push on with better regulation of the private rented sector. The bill on private sector housing that the minister will be bringing forward should address some of those issues further. We need to explore further all types of shared-ownership options for those who are starting out.

One of the issues that has been to the fore in today's debate is housing benefit, which David McLetchie mentioned in his winding-up speech. There is grave concern about the changes to housing benefit that seem to be coming from the coalition Government at Westminster. There is great uncertainty and worry for individuals and families. There is also concern from housing providers—how can they plan for the future if their rent income is to be challenged in that way? I cannot imagine anything more likely to put off private sector landlords than the concern that they will lose their housing benefit income or have it reduced.

The right to buy has also been to the fore. Alex Johnstone, Jamie Hepburn and others have all spoken about the advantages and disadvantages that have arisen from the right to buy. The previous Executive made significant changes to it by reducing the cost floor and introducing pressured area status. I acknowledge that the Housing (Scotland) Bill, which the Local Government and Communities Committee is considering at the moment, will make further changes to it, to balance the proportion of people coming forward. However, I have to wonder whether the minister has told Jamie Hepburn that he is not scrapping the right to buy altogether, because I do not think that he got that point.

Linda Fabiani mentioned co-ops. I do not think that I need to respond to her comments, which I found quite misleading, because Helen Eadie did a more than adequate job.

The minister said at the beginning of the debate that a number of targets needed to be achieved over the coming years. The Scottish quality housing standard is one of the most challenging targets. My colleague Des McNulty referred to a number of councils around Scotland who are trying to flag up that they will have difficulty achieving it. Perhaps the Scottish Government would like to consider that further.

As I said at the beginning of the debate, I welcome the fact that the Scottish Government has finally realised that we need a housing strategy. For the past three and a half years, no one in Government has provided that overview. For all its problems, that is what Communities Scotland provided, but it was abolished in haste at the beginning of the Government's term in office. I am sure that the minister hears, as I do, that people in housing now regret its demise.

We have heard many thoughtful contributions on how a strategy should be developed. I am grateful to the minister for starting the debate and I hope that whoever is in power after May next year will take the strategy forward.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party 11:32 am, 16th September 2010

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I want to cover three specific points that members made in their contributions. In response to Linda Fabiani's worthwhile and interesting contribution, I confirm that we are committed to looking at how we can further develop the co-operative principle in the housing sector. I am happy to take forward any new ideas that we think are achievable.

Photo of Linda Fabiani Linda Fabiani Scottish National Party

Does the minister recall that when the Labour Party in this Parliament extended the right to buy, many co-operatives that were not fully mutual felt obliged to change their rules so that they could become charitable? Now we have Labour's Calman proposals, which will disadvantage fully mutual co-operatives. Does the minister agree that the mutual sector in Scotland has suffered a double whammy from the Labour Party?

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

I absolutely agree with Linda Fabiani. We will do what we can to rectify as much as we can in the future.

Housing support is a valid concern of everyone in the chamber and we are addressing it through the joint working party that we have with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and, in relation to homelessness, with the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations. It is not just about homelessness, however; people who are not facing homelessness sometimes require housing support, too. There is no doubt that the quality and range of services available can be variable. We need to look at that in depth for the future.

I also want to clarify that we have no ideological objection to stock transfer per se. What Mr McLetchie fails to understand is that in most cases in which the proposal was put to the people in a ballot—not least in Edinburgh—they rejected it. I should point out that, having picked up the mess left by our predecessors at Glasgow Housing Association, which had not approved any second-stage transfers, we have in the pipeline and are making substantial progress with 20,000 second-stage transfers that will be achieved a year at Christmas. That was never achieved under the previous Administration, so our record on transfers is a very good one.

I agree with Ross Finnie on the wider issues of the sustainable model. We have addressed that in the document. Before the recession and the credit crunch hit, we had the ridiculous position whereby organisations such as Northern Rock were offering people mortgages that were equivalent to 125 per cent of the value of the house and up to seven times the joint income of the applicants. That bubble was always going to burst and it burst spectacularly. The bubble was, of course, built up on Gordon Brown's watch. As Chancellor of the Exchequer, he deregulated many of these issues, to much ill effect on the whole economy.

I want to make it absolutely clear that housing policy is not only about the rented sector—extremely important though it is—but the owner-occupied sector. I want to see growth in that sector and in the whole private rented sector—indeed, I see big growth potential in the shared equity and shared ownership sector of the market. We also need councils and RSLs to build houses and maintain them to a good standard. Ross Finnie is absolutely right in what he said in that regard. There should be no competition between RSLs and councils; they should be complementary in what they do. In terms of the finance regime, we are working towards that.

There is a great deal of myth around the HAG. We have heard about the terrible impact that our changes to the HAG will have on construction. The reality is that we have the highest level of housing association house building for 10 years. The figure is the highest since the Parliament was set up. The argument that our changes to the HAG have been detrimental to the building programme is not substantiated by the facts. The position is similar for council housing. At present, 3,500 council houses will be built and are in the process of being built in Scotland. The number of council house starts that we have initiated over the past three years is equivalent to that of the previous 11 years. In three years, we have done what Labour took 11 years to do.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

I will in a minute.

The figure for completions shows that we are building houses faster than was the case in the past. If the figure on starts took us three years, that for completions has taken us only two years. In only two years, we have achieved what Labour took 11 years to do.

I listened in particular to speeches from the Labour benches. Labour members told the Government to spend more on the HAG and more on building more houses—it was all more money on this and more money on that—but we know that, by the end of the next four-year period of the comprehensive spending review, the annual reduction in UK public expenditure will be £80 billion a year.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

I will come to the member.

We know that £50 billion of the £80 billion reduction was imposed by the Labour Government and that the other £30 billion is being imposed by the coalition between the Tories and the Liberal party. Equally important, Alistair Darling cut to ribbons the capital budget. He planned to make a 60 per cent reduction in the capital budget. To be fair to the Tories and Danny Alexander, they have decided not to make any further cuts in that budget because it was cut so deeply by Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

It is therefore sheer hypocrisy for Labour members to argue for more money on this, that and the next thing. They should not criticise us when they have made the bulk of the cuts. I will take Margo MacDonald.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

I am sorry minister, but you do not have time to take the intervention. You are in the middle of your last minute.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

I was told that I had eight and a half minutes, Presiding Officer.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

I want to move to questions at 11:40.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

Okay. I am sorry that I cannot take the interventions.

What about the stuff that Labour announced on repossessions, tenancy deposits and party flats? The Labour Party had 13 years to sort all that; we are doing it all. Labour members say that they campaigned on all that. If they did, they were not very successful in persuading their leadership. In 13 years, the Labour leadership did nothing about any of that.

I am the very one who is in favour of action not words. We have taken action: we are building council houses when Labour did not. We have a new supply shared equity programme, which Labour did not. Indeed, we are working jointly with Homes for Scotland and developers on that new supply shared equity programme. We have the national housing trust—a concept that is totally alien to Labour—that can build up to 1,700 new houses. We will take no lessons from the Labour party as far as housing is concerned. Labour's track record on housing is a disgrace; ours is a record to be proud of.