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I am delighted to lead this debate on housing, which is my first such debate as Minister for Housing and Transport. I intend to use the debate to point out a number of challenges that face housing in Scotland; to set out the Government’s housing strategy; and to update the Parliament on the progress that we are making on delivering the strategy.
Housing has been a cause and a casualty of the global financial crisis. Unsustainable lending practices by the banks and unsustainable promotion of outright home ownership, including the right to buy, contributed to economic volatility, put households at risk and undermined our objective of sustainable economic growth. The credit crunch and lack of mortgage availability for first-time buyers not only introduced barriers to home ownership but put housing developers out of business and people out of work.
The Government has acted quickly by accelerating capital spend on affordable housing; kick-starting a new generation of council housing; expanding access to shared equity for first-time buyers; and introducing, through the Home Owner and Debtor Protection (Scotland) Act 2010, new protections for home owners who are at risk of losing their homes. Although private housing construction fell, the number of social housing completions was higher than in any other Scottish parliamentary session, which kept thousands of people in work and helped to house those in need.
Following the financial crisis, we face a number of challenges. Demand for social and other forms of affordable housing remains high. First-time buyers face a tough challenge to save a deposit. Local authorities are making good progress on meeting the 2012 homelessness target, but our efforts to achieve that jointly with our partners are undermined by United Kingdom Government cuts in housing benefit. It is essential that we improve the energy efficiency of our stock if we are to meet our climate change targets and help those who have to pay large energy bills. Some people now pay more for their energy than they do for their mortgage or rent. A further challenge is that the number of households is growing every year and our population is ageing. Achieving the right mix of housing is essential if we are to meet people’s needs.
Despite the UK Government’s drastic cuts of about 36 per cent over four years to Scotland’s capital investment, our strategy is to tackle the challenges by making our funds work harder to deliver affordable housing; encouraging housing associations, developers and local authorities to work together to deliver housing that meets their communities’ needs; and making better use of the existing housing stock and improving choice and quality for households.
I believe that we are leading the way in developing new ideas. The award-winning national housing trust initiative is delivering hundreds of affordable rented homes and supporting hundreds of jobs for very little taxpayers’ money.
As I have said previously in the Parliament, and as the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth has said to the Parliament and in committee, our target is to have 30,000 affordable homes over the next five years, 5,000 of which will be council houses and at least two thirds of which will be socially affordable housing. That is not a final figure, of course—we hope to exceed it if at all possible.
The innovation and investment fund allowed housing associations and others in the sector to develop alternative approaches to the funding and delivery of new affordable homes. Those initiatives are evidence of the progress that we are making in implementing our strategy.
Increasing the supply of affordable homes remains our top priority and is a vital part of our efforts to build a better and fairer Scotland, to address homelessness and affordability issues and to continue to regenerate our most deprived neighbourhoods.
Does the minister find it acceptable that the supply of social rented homes is plummeting, whereas he is talking about the broader definition of affordable homes? Is it acceptable to cut the housing budget by 36 per cent in real terms when the infrastructure budget of his department will increase in real terms in the next three years?
I am not sure that I agree with the premise of the question that the supply of socially affordable houses is plummeting. I have just said that at least two thirds of the 30,000 houses that we intend to have over the next five years will be social rented housing. That is vastly in excess of the figures that previous Administrations delivered. The supply of those houses is not plummeting. The supply of affordable homes is increasing, it remains our top priority and it is a vital part of our efforts. I have no doubt that we will deliver our target to have 30,000 affordable homes completed by the end of this session.
To come back to the other part of Malcolm Chisholm’s question, despite the cuts in capital spend for housing, we have prioritised more than £600 million for new housing over the period in question. That commitment enabled me to announce a doubling of investment in new affordable homes through the investment and innovation fund. The £111 million that we are committing through that fund will lever in more than £283 million in additional investment. Combining that money with the equivalent provision through Glasgow City Council and the City of Edinburgh Council will deliver 4,310 new affordable homes, more than 70 per cent of which will be for social rent.
Many people doubted housing associations’ ability and capacity to deliver that kind of housing at £40,000 grant per unit, but the sector has risen magnificently to the challenge, and has drawn on its ability to tap into new sources of funding. Local authorities in Scotland are now building almost as many council houses as the rest of the UK combined, and private developers are taking advantage of guarantees offered through the national housing trust and our support for shared equity, which are providing lifelines for construction businesses throughout Scotland and homes that Scotland needs.
I underline the point that, as a result of the drastic cut in the capital budget, we are forgoing employing more people who would pay taxes rather than receive benefits. Investing now in capital in housing and transport means creating economic assets for the future at a cost that will be hard to replicate when the economy picks up again. This is the time to invest in capital.
Our record is there for all to see. Under the four years of the first Scottish National Party Government, more than 27,000 affordable homes were completed. That is a third more than the four-year total under the previous Administration. More than 19,000 of our total of 27,000 affordable homes were for social rent. As we look ahead, we are confident that, together with our partners in the housing sector, we have the ideas, capacity and commitment to keep Scotland building.
Obviously, investment in new supply dominates the discussion about housing, but we also need to make better use of existing homes. We have already said that we will look to limit further the right to buy to preserve social housing stock, and we will soon consult on proposals to allow councils to charge a council tax levy on long-term empty properties. Empty properties are a wasted resource. We aim to introduce legislation next year to allow councils to charge the levy from April 2013 to help to provide more revenue for them to use for affordable housing. The levy will also help to reduce homelessness by releasing more houses as owners rent or sell their empty properties. Our focus on alleviating the causes of homelessness stands in stark contrast to the actions of the UK Government and its swingeing housing benefit cuts, which—make no bones about it—will force people out of their existing homes. I have made my concerns about the reforms crystal clear to UK ministers, as the cabinet secretary has on a number of occasions.
Prevention and planning are important in preparing for the challenge of an older population. The Government supports older people’s aspirations to live independently in their own homes for as long as possible, but significant demographic and financial challenges mean that we must find new ways to achieve those aspirations. I plan to publish a national strategy for housing for older people in December that will set out a clear vision for housing for older people and what needs to be put in place to achieve it.
With the challenge of reducing greenhouse gases and the rise in energy prices, it is essential that we build houses to the highest standards of energy efficiency. Progressive increases in our rigorous building standards are ensuring that new houses will be near zero carbon but, with the expectation that more than 80 per cent of current housing will still be in existence by 2050, improvements to the existing stock are also vital.
We are tackling fuel poverty head on with an increase of more than 30 per cent in funding to support fuel poverty and energy efficiency programmes.
Will the minister acknowledge that, although he referred to “progressive increases” in the building standards for new stock, we have not seen progressive increases in the funding for energy efficiency and fuel poverty measures and the increase this year to which he referred only partially reverses last year’s cut? I just seek an acknowledgement of those facts.
Those points were well covered yesterday in the statement by the Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure and Capital Investment. Our programme is progressive and it matches the need that is out there. Given some of the things that are causing difficulties, such as the energy price increases by different companies and failure to get support from Westminster, I think that the programme of fuel poverty support is realistic and ambitious.
I was about to say that we are also providing £50 million over the course of this session for a warm homes fund, so Patrick Harvie should consider in the round all the actions that we are taking to support communities that are affected by fuel poverty.
We saw very big increases in energy prices over the summer, which is why the First Minister has called for a summit with the energy companies.
The UK Government’s green deal and energy company obligation will change support for energy efficiency measures, which is why the cabinet secretary announced yesterday a review of our fuel poverty strategy.
I have made clear our commitment to deliver 30,000 affordable homes during this session of Parliament. It will be interesting to see whether other parties would match or even seek to exceed that commitment by changing budgets. Our commitment is to deliver 30,000 affordable homes during this session.
Our approach and our priorities are shaped by the fact that Scotland is facing a period of almost unprecedented austerity as a result of the spending cuts imposed by the Westminster Government. Councils, housing associations and developers should be congratulated on rising to those challenges and using their creativity and innovation to deliver much-needed affordable homes.
That the Parliament recognises the difficulties that the current economic climate presents for those in need of affordable housing; believes, in light of the severe constraints on public expenditure, that this challenge can be addressed only through the development of innovative and creative measures to provide a range of high-quality sustainable homes that people can afford and that meet their needs; notes with approval initiatives such as the National Housing Trust and the Investment and Innovation Fund; welcomes the willingness of local authorities, registered social landlords and developers to participate in these initiatives, and congratulates them on working together innovatively to deliver the maximum number of affordable homes in these testing circumstances.
The Presiding Officer:
Before I call Lewis Macdonald, I point out to members that we are going to be extremely generous with time. Feel free to take interventions; if you do, I will make sure that you are not penalised in the time that you are allocated. Mr Macdonald, you have a generous 10 minutes.
Thank you very much, Presiding Officer. Your generosity is, as always, much appreciated.
When John Swinney introduced the draft budget and spending review a couple of weeks ago, he made much of the merits of what he chose to call “preventative spending”. Indeed, a casual listener might even have formed the impression that he had thought it up all by himself. Spend to save has, of course, been a shared objective of successive Governments and how best to do it is right at the centre of this debate.
The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations gave a very detailed response to the Finance Committee’s call for views on the draft budget and spending review in which it spells out what I think are the key points. The submission states:
“Investing now in affordable housing, housing support, community regeneration and energy efficiency can save money in other budgets such as health, social care, education, justice and climate change.”
Not many members would disagree with that, nor would many dispute the economic benefits and the jobs created by house building or the redoubled importance of houses built for rent at a time when levels of house building in the private sector have collapsed to a 30-year low.
Ministers have said that they agree with all that yet, two weeks ago, in the budget and spending review, we saw affordable housing take one of the biggest hits of any area of Scottish Government expenditure. Like-for-like figures in table 13.10 of the spending review document show the overall funding for housing and regeneration fall from nearly £390 million this year to only £265 million in 2013-14—as Malcolm Chisholm said, a cut of some 30 per cent. Within that, the budget line for housing supply is cut from £268.5 million to £133.5 million over the same period, which is a 50 per cent reduction in what ministers see fit to invest under that heading.
If John Mason is suggesting that the Government cuts the Forth road bridge in order to fund housing, perhaps he needs to take that up with his own front bench. That is not my proposition today, but I am very interested in his suggestion.
We are also told in the spending review document that there is additional funding for housing supply in the local government budget. This year, that funding is worth £100 million, but the numbers for future years are to be confirmed. We have not yet heard from ministers what those figures will be but, when we do, I suspect that they will confirm that that on-going funding under the local government heading will come in at less than £100 million a year. In fact, the minister himself has used a figure of £250 million over three years. When he sums up, perhaps the cabinet secretary can explain precisely what that number will be. In any event, it will not make up for the loss of £400 million from the housing supply line of the housing and regeneration budget over the next three years.
That goes to the heart of our debate. New mechanisms to fund house building for mid-market rent or rent to purchase cannot make up for cuts of hundreds of millions of pounds in the mainstream budget for building social rented homes at the very time that such investment is needed most.
Some councils have chosen to explore the national housing trust route. Others, such as West Lothian Council, which is led by the SNP, have chosen not to do so. A range of housing providers have bid for project finance from the investment and innovation fund and have clearly worked hard to secure funding of any kind to take schemes forward, but those schemes do not get the Government off the hook of having to set a realistic budget for the sector as a whole.
There is another hook that ministers have got themselves on to, which they still show no signs of getting themselves off. Earlier, Keith Brown was invited to offer an explanation but chose not to do so. When the SNP sought re-election in May, it made a highly specific manifesto commitment, which ministers have spent the past five months simply failing to acknowledge. I will quote from page 17 of the SNP manifesto, a copy of which I have with me, if ministers need to see it for themselves. Next to an image of Alex Salmond and Alex Neil, it says:
“Overall, our aim is to build over 6,000 new socially-rented houses each year.”
That could hardly be clearer, but I have tried in vain to get ministers to confirm that commitment or to explain why they will not do so. In a written reply, Keith Brown told me that ministers
“have not set an overall target for council/housing association homes for social rent”,—[Official Report, Written Answers, 29 June 2011; S4W-00866.]
yet that is exactly what they did in their manifesto.
After our debate before the summer recess, I wrote to the minister and offered him the opportunity to say why the party manifesto said one thing and his ministerial replies another. Back came another response that again said that there were targets for affordable homes in general—as Keith Brown said earlier—but which made no reference to targets for social rented homes in particular. Instead, Mr Brown referred me to Mr Neil’s evidence to the Infrastructure and Capital Investment Committee, so naturally I made haste to find out what Mr Neil had said.
I could have phoned Mr Neil and I suspect that, if I had, I might have got a more direct answer than we have had so far in parliamentary debates. Perhaps that is a piece of advice that I should follow if he does not respond, but I hope that he will take the opportunity at the end of the debate, in a public communication, finally to answer the questions that have been put to ministers.
In his evidence to the committee, in response to a question from Malcolm Chisholm, Mr Neil said:
“We had two numerical commitments on housing in the manifesto.”
That was true, but he went on to say:
“One was that over the five-year period we would build 5,000 new council houses ... The second was that we would build over 6,000 affordable homes each year”.—[Official Report, Infrastructure and Capital Investment Committee, 29 June 2011; c 31.]
No, it was not. The commitment in the manifesto was
“to build over 6,000 new socially-rented houses each year.”
That is a different thing, and both Mr Neil and Mr Brown know the difference.
Maybe ministers are tired of avoiding that simple question—phone a friend might be the way to get out of that quandary. I am as keen as anyone to move the debate on. All that it would take is for ministers to tell us why their manifesto says one thing and their spending plans say another.
Does Lewis Macdonald agree that the situation is even worse? When he replied to me earlier, Keith Brown said that the commitment was now to build 4,000 social rented homes, but the whole housing lobby believes that that is based on a set of completely heroic assumptions, given that only 1,500 social rented homes have been approved for this year and that, according to what the Port of Leith Housing Association in my constituency tells me, a typical new development for it will involve 30 per cent social rented housing and 70 per cent mid-market rent housing. In the past, the vast majority of housing in such developments was social rented housing.
That intervention goes to the nub of the argument. It is one thing to say, “We are providing funding to build new houses,” but, if the provision of that funding shifts the balance away from houses that people on low incomes can afford to houses at mid-market rent, it will not achieve the objective that the SNP set out in its manifesto.
Nevertheless, I am happy to welcome the progress that has been made. As we have heard this morning, Mr Brown has moved on from the position he outlined in his 30 June letter to me, in which he refused to set a social rented housing target. On 22 September, the day after a spending review that was heavily criticised for its cuts to housing, he finally promised at a housing conference that
“at least two-thirds of these homes”— the 30,000 affordable homes planned for the next five years—
“will be for social rent”.
That is good. It means that there will be at least 20,000 social rented homes. It is a big step forward from the lack of a social rented target that had been made apparent only a few weeks before and represents a clear acceptance from the minister that affordable homes are not the same as houses for social rent. However, there is still some way to go.
I guess that, tiresome though it may be, we will have to keep on reminding the SNP of its election promise. If we have succeeded in persuading ministers to increase their social housing ambitions from having no specific target at the end of June to having a target of 20,000 social rented homes at the end of September, we might even get them to endorse their manifesto in time for Christmas.
Of course, it will not be impossible for ministers to do so. As Malcolm Chisholm pointed out, they have to address the balance between different types of affordable housing in their current plans. They also have to listen to the views of those who are willing and able to build houses that are genuinely affordable for people on low incomes and ensure that there is adequate funding support to allow those developments to happen. Mr Neil and Mr Brown might need to have a word with Mr Swinney about his pledge of £500 million for preventative spending and explain to him just how preventative spending on new social housing can be. They might want to ask him about the consequentials from spending elsewhere that might be available to the Scottish Government and which were not accounted for in the spending review announcement of 21 September. Finally, they might want to explore the scope for adjusting Government priorities as the budget bill makes its way through Parliament in the months ahead. If they do not do so, the Scottish Government’s ability to deliver against any of its targets will remain uncertain as long as the available funding falls so far short of what is required.
That is not just an Opposition view; it is also the view of the housing sector. According to the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations,
“The most serious issue facing housing associations and co-operatives is that the overall budget for housing supply is falling steeply” and an “austere grant rate” of £40,000 per unit for housing associations
“will not fund affordable rented housing, while keeping rents genuinely affordable to low income households”.
In other words, housing associations can build with that level of subsidy—indeed, we have seen as much—but only by borrowing larger sums per house, which will in turn require rental incomes that will price the poorest families out of the sector.
Shelter has also asked why the sector is apparently being punished for being willing and able to deliver homes at reduced levels of subsidy. If delivering more output for less input were indeed valued by ministers, one might have expected an increase rather than a cut.
First, I point out that Shelter asked for around £610 million in the budget and just over £600 million is being provided.
Lewis Macdonald said that he will be tiresome and go on about this. I have no doubt about his ability to do so but, with regard to his consistent point that the budget is too low, can he tell us how much he would put into the housing budget and where he would take the money from? It is a fair question and people deserve an answer to it.
It is a fair question. Indeed, I put it to ministers. If they are listening to the housing sector, they know themselves—[Interruption.] Publishing a manifesto and then winning an election based on it will have certain consequences, one of which is the need to make decisions. If the ministers in front of us want to stand up for the housing sector, they have to explain to their colleagues why investment in housing is the best way forward for the economy and low-income families.
There is no buy-in from the sector to the Government’s claim that it is doing all that it can in straitened circumstances to support Scotland’s social housing. Like the builders, the housing providers believe that this budget represents a missed opportunity for housing and many people will hope that ministers will indeed think again.
I move amendment S4M-01022.3, to leave out from “, in light” to end and insert:
“that strengthened investment in social rented housing will benefit those in greatest need and will also stimulate economic activity and create jobs; notes the SNP’s manifesto commitment in the 2011 election campaign “to build over 6000 new socially-rented houses each year” and its failure to endorse that target while in government; regrets the lack of clarity about the Scottish Government’s future funding plans for new low-cost and mid-market housing in the Spending Review, and calls on the Scottish Government to address urgently the question of how it will enable sufficient new social rented houses to be built.”
Thank you very much, Presiding Officer. In fact, the generosity that you have shown in this and previous debates indicates that the wise thing for us all to do is to use as much time as possible in case too much scope is left for the cabinet secretary when he winds up at the end of the debate. We know that he would use the time constructively but, if we ensure that his time is limited, perhaps we will all enjoy his speech a little more.
However, we are here to discuss housing. I welcome the opportunity that is provided by the Government’s debate to do that. Unfortunately, though, housing is an area in which the Government has left itself open to criticism. A look at the figures indicates that housing has been targeted for a significantly reduced budget in years to come.
Excluding the separate allocations for Edinburgh and Glasgow, this year’s housing figure of £268.5 million falls to £155 million next year and £133 million the following year, which represents a 40 per cent cut between this year and next.
Within the local government settlement, £250 million has been allocated over three years. That is an average of £83 million compared with the figure for 2011-12, which is £98 million. The £98 million this year was allocated to the councils in Edinburgh and Glasgow, but housing minister Keith Brown says that he wants to talk to the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Association of Local Authority Chief Housing Officers about how the £250 million can be distributed across Scotland.
The picture is unclear. The total housing supply funding figure of £238 million for 2012-13—assuming £83 million within the local government settlement—means that, overall, housing supply funding has been cut by one third on the £368 million figure for this year.
Jim Strang, chair of the Chartered Institute of Housing Scotland, said:
“The Scottish Government says that the funding will enable it to meet its 6,000 homes per year target. We can only think that this confidence is based on the premise that current grant rates are, in the Scottish Government’s view, sustainable in the long term or can even be cut further.”
The Scottish Government has said that its target supply figures will now be based on completions, not approvals. In the long term that makes more sense, as a completed home is a tangible result. However, I cannot help thinking—and we have heard it already this morning—that that will allow the Scottish Government to turn its ailing 2011-12 figure into a roaring success as it will mean thousands of homes approved under the previous funding regime can be claimed as being within the Government’s targets.
The Scottish Government claims that the shortage of affordable housing can be addressed only by innovative and creative measures. That is true, in the current circumstances, but the fact is that the Government has failed to come up with anything innovative and creative beyond the clunking national housing trust, which continues to fall well below its targets, and the innovation and investment fund, which effectively makes registered social landlords do the Government’s job for it.
We will get on to that.
The innovation and investment fund has encouraged RSLs to do the Government’s job for it, and local authorities are now borrowing money to pay for much-needed social housing. Meanwhile, Alex Neil and Keith Brown ship themselves around Scotland, turning up for photo opportunities wearing hard hats and high-visibility jackets.
In reality, the Government is bereft of ideas. However, there is much more that could be done, such as the introduction of more flexible tenancies that reflect the increased mobility of tenants. Given what the Government has said today about the importance of mid-market rents—on which I agree with it—it is important that we have a system that provides the mobility necessary to ensure that those mid-market rent properties are used to create vacancies within the social rented sector, so that a house made vacant can be let again to an appropriate tenant. Although the Government has said that time and again when it is objecting to the sale of council houses, it has failed to understand that it can be as effective if it is applied within the rented sector.
On that last point, will the member acknowledge that our shared equity initiatives do exactly that by freeing up housing stock that can be used by other people? Can he also say in what sense we are asking RSLs and councils to do our job for us and how that criticism fits with his ideology? I presume from that that he wants the Government to build houses, which is a strange idea for a Conservative.
This is a time when we all have to find ways to make money go as far as possible, which means that some of us have to think the unthinkable. I would just like the Government to consider doing that occasionally as well.
Housing is about more than just bricks and mortar; it is about safe, sustainable communities. The Government needs to look closely at how it can empower local authorities and their partners to achieve that. For example, only last month, a convicted drug dealer from Angus was evicted from her home; although that individual chose to leave the area, she could, having been evicted for dealing drugs from her council house, have presented herself as homeless and vulnerable and re-entered the system. The opportunity exists to streamline the system and ensure that those who choose to prey on the vulnerable in our communities and deal in the misery of drugs lose their entitlement to a scarce resource such as social housing.
I need to correct the member on that point. We have made it absolutely clear that anyone who is evicted because they have been using drugs in a council or RSL house cannot then present themselves as involuntarily homeless. It is only if someone is involuntarily homeless that the council is required to make provision for them. It is simply not true that someone who has been evicted for a drug offence can then go on to the homelessness register.
I have heard that explanation from the minister before and I am sure that he remembers that we have had this exchange before. The problem is that the practice does not reflect his interpretation. Within local authorities, there is a reluctance to apply the more controversial elements of the law when the opportunity is presented to do so. As a consequence, the actions that are taken on the ground do not reflect the definition that the minister has just given. We need to ensure that that is achieved in the future.
Let us move on to some of our ideas. The lack of supply for both rent and low-cost home ownership is a problem that we must address. However, the planning system is one of the blocks to that and is strangling developments. The opportunity for development is being denied by planning permission not being granted in many circumstances. The minister must consider what needs to be done to remove that blockage in the planning system.
Registered social landlord unit subsidy costs are high, so they need to be more realistic. The days of high subsidies are gone and everyone needs to accept the new funding landscape. Many RSLs do not fit the efficiency agenda that is being pursued north and south of the border. As a consequence, we need to consider whether they can be brought into larger units, perhaps reflecting regional identity within the larger groupings. We need to ensure that rents are affordable and not just for benefit claimants. Further, the standardisation of development, design, costs and build techniques will help to squeeze more out of the same pot.
The public sector has assets that are little used. Can we release them and ensure that that money is used to work more effectively in joint ventures with the private sector? Why not release the public sector from the shackles of secure tenancy and allow it to make the money work more effectively? Can we review property holdings to ensure that, where feasible, empty properties are forced back on to the market? We know what we have heard from the Government about taxing unoccupied houses, but why not incentivise properties back into use by more flexible financing and tenancy packages?
We could propose much more and will take the opportunity to do so as we go along, but we have a problem to address today. It would be remiss of me not to take the opportunity again to ask the minister to consider abolishing home reports before they cripple the market completely.
I move amendment S4M-01022.2, to leave out from “recognises” to end and insert:
“is concerned that housebuilding in Scotland has slumped to its lowest level in almost 30 years while the number of house sales is 10% lower than last year; is further concerned that, against this background, the Scottish Government has chosen to cut spending in housing and regeneration by 30%, with a 40% cut in the Supporting Economic Growth/Housing Supply budget line, and therefore calls on the Scottish Government to take action to free up the planning system to boost the construction industry and to scrap home reports to boost house sales.”
I declare an interest and ask the Parliament to note my entry in the register of members’ interests.
It is a great privilege to speak in the debate, because I have helped to build houses since I was a boy. I have seen huge changes in the house building industry over that period, almost all of them for the better.
I am sure that members will be relieved to know that the era of the builder’s bum has almost gone. It has been banished and is no longer the acceptable face of Scotland’s house building industry. Instead, we now have smart, sophisticated people working in a highly complex and technical industry. Having worked all over the UK, I can confirm that Scotland is at the cutting edge of good practice and new techniques in house building.
I hope that that sophistication will be matched by the speeches that we hear this morning, but I fear that we may be disappointed. In fact, I have already been disappointed. I fear that we will hear nothing more than plaintive cries for mair money. In the current climate, that is as naive as Oliver Twist asking for more porridge.
That question has already been answered. I will not dwell on the semantics of the difference between two terms. The occupants of a house do not care whether it is part of a shared-equity ownership scheme or social rented; they are just pleased to have a house.
I might take one shortly.
Before we hear calls for more money, I hope that our Tory and Labour friends will tell us where they would find it. Which other budgets would they cut to provide it? What services and capital projects would they cut? Anybody can ask for more money.
I am disinclined to take lessons from the Tories on housing. That party sold off our public sector housing stock for far less than the cost of replacement and brought council house building to a standstill.
Not at the moment. I will explain why a little further on.
I am equally disinclined to take lessons on housing from the Labour Party, which knowingly helped to pump up property prices, believing Gordon Brown’s proud boast to have ended boom and bust. It even considered allowing self-invested pensions—SIPs—to include domestic property to further inflate the property bubble. That bubble, which Labour helped to inflate, resulted in decreasing affordability and meant that the fall was even steeper when the bubble inevitably burst. As if that was not bad enough, the Labour Party lacked the political courage to end the Tory right to buy.
It has always been the Labour way to throw money at problems, as if that was always the only answer. However, the SNP Government will be judged not on the amount of money that it spends, but by the number of houses that it builds.
The SNP alone has shown the political courage necessary to end the right to buy so that councils can begin building houses again. The SNP alone has shown the political courage required to end the council tax discount for second home owners. Now, we are removing council tax relief for long-term empty properties to encourage the reoccupation of Scotland’s 25,000 empty homes. The national housing trust is working with developers and councils to enable the completion of stalled housing projects, and the innovation fund is playing to Scotland’s great strength in innovation—to great effect already.
The reality is that, to solve our complex housing problem, there are three golden rules: innovation, innovation and innovation. Beyond that, we need a multi-faceted approach that is open to new ideas because, as Einstein famously said, the definition of stupidity—which I am hearing from all the Opposition parties this morning—is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
On innovation, does the member agree that the co-operative model has a great deal to recommend it in relation to future housing, especially in view of sustainability, district heating and a range of other issues that can empower communities?
That is one of many innovative schemes that have come forward recently, and yes, of course, all innovation is welcome.
I will take no lessons from the likes of Alex Johnstone, criticising our ministers for wearing hard hats. I will not take lessons from Alex Johnstone or any member of the Opposition who has never laid a block, cut a rafter or nailed a slate on to a roof. I will take no lessons from anyone on the Opposition benches who has not read and understood the Barker report, the “Firm Foundations” report, the Mackay report and, most recently, the “Homes Fit for the 21st Century” report.
On fuel poverty, I am proud of the Government’s commitment to the energy assistance package, to the universal home insulation scheme and to the boiler scrappage scheme, and I will not take lessons on energy efficiency from Opposition members if they have not read the Sullivan report and the hard-to-heat homes report and if they do not understand part 6 of the 2010 building standards or the 2010 standard assessment procedure calculations. That is partially why I have not been prepared to take some of the interventions.
Over the last three years, we have built 25,000 affordable houses—the largest number of houses built since the 1980s. Over the next five years, we will build 30,000 affordable houses and 5,000 council houses. That is what the SNP Government will achieve by working in partnership with councils, housing associations and builders in new and innovative ways, playing to Scotland’s great strength in innovation.
That was a rather strange contribution from Mike MacKenzie. If we were to accept his approach, no one in here should have the right to talk about education unless they have taught a child in a school and no one in here should have the right to talk about social care unless they have worked as a carer. The member may parade a huge list of documents that he has read, but what he actually demonstrated was a complete lack of understanding of the relevance of many of the points that have been made in the debate today.
Mike MacKenzie and ministers have asked what the Opposition would suggest for the use of budgets. Members of the Government party may want to reflect on exactly the same question. Let us think about the period from when the SNP came to power to now. What budgets will it cut to deliver the promise to cut class sizes in early years? What budgets will it cut to write off student debt? What budgets will it cut to give a grant to first-time home owners? We have heard nothing so far about how the SNP intends to deliver those promises.
The SNP has done exactly what it is accusing others of doing: offering to spend money without the wherewithal to deliver in the hope that it will prove attractive to the voters. What we are discussing is but the latest example of a series of disingenuous and frankly dishonest promises that have been made. The language and terminology have changed from a specific promise in the manifesto—asking people to vote on the basis of social rented housing being delivered—to something completely different, which is affordable housing. That is disingenuous and dishonest because those are two different things.
There is no way that the SNP will meet its target for social rented housing. [Interruption.] I hear someone say “rubbish” from a sedentary position, but we will wait and see. Lewis Macdonald was very specific in the questions that he asked. We will wait and see whether the SNP delivers on its promise of social rented housing over the lifetime of the Parliament. Frankly, it will not meet its target even in the first and second years. We are beginning to see double counting, and the Government is changing its announcements from units approved to units completed to cover up the fact that the number of units approved this year is nowhere near the 6,000 target. That will also allow the Government to claim credit for a second time for schemes that were approved in previous years. There is dishonest counting, never mind failure to meet targets.
The practical reality is that housing associations up and down the country—particularly locally based housing associations—are struggling. The £40,000 grant will not provide what they need to deliver housing, and they are having to borrow up to £70,000.
How many times do we need to come back to dishonesty and disingenuousness in relation to a specific manifesto promise that the SNP, not the Conservatives or Labour, made? The SNP won the election and now it has to deliver on the promises that it made. It is absolutely farcical of the minister to ask others what they would do. If he and his colleagues are so bereft of ideas that they cannot deliver their manifesto, they should move over and let others govern. They should not ask us, in opposition, without the full facts available to us, to do their job for them. They are the ones who made the promises and they are the ones who must be held accountable.
Good, honest practitioners up and down Scotland—many of whom were taken in through their enthusiasm for the SNP in 2007—now face the harsh reality that their enthusiasm and trust were misplaced.
No, thank you.
They are telling me clearly that they cannot deliver the figures that the SNP proposes. In Glasgow, the number of units approved has gone down by 42 per cent over the past year—a 60 per cent cut in approvals of social rented housing. Local community-controlled housing associations are suffering and there is huge scepticism about whether the 21,000 homes for social rental will be completed with the £40,000 subsidy. Even COSLA says that council house building is unlikely to be sustainable at the current levels. The fact that the Government is now changing its announcements from units approved to units completed is yet another sleight of hand to cover an abject failure, a dishonesty and the fact that the SNP says one thing when seeking votes but another thing when it is in office.
The worst thing about this is the human cost. The Government is pushing more people, including homeless people, into the private rented sector at a time of housing benefit cuts and it is placing increased demands on housing associations. Housing association professionals tell me that they are awash with consultation documents, medical adaptations, a Scottish social housing charter with 71 commitments so far, the Scottish Housing Regulator’s new role, the review of housing benefit and service charges for support, the threatened loss of the supporting people fund and the national strategy for older people. They are having to cope with all that as well as having insufficient funds with which to deliver the houses that the SNP promised would be delivered. We are facing a crisis in social rented housing and among the poorer sections of our community, and we are seeing a glib response from the SNP.
There must be thinking and well-meaning people in the SNP who are prepared to put aside their fundamental desire for unity in order to drive forward an independence referendum and they must surely be starting to say, “What are we doing? This is not working. This is wrong. It is frankly dishonest.” Now is the time for them to answer the questions from Lewis Macdonald and others and say specifically where and when they will deliver the manifesto promise that they made.
I refer members to my declaration of interests. Like Hugh Henry, I was leader of Renfrewshire Council, but I fear that we might both fail the Mike MacKenzie test. Have we ever physically built a house? I have not and I do not think that Hugh Henry has either, but I did manage to achieve something as leader of the council. We have both worn hard hats and high-visibility jackets and attended high-profile events in Renfrewshire, but the difference is that I built houses and Hugh Henry demolished them. That is the difference between the SNP and the Labour Party when in control locally.
New build is important, but we must also sustain our current housing supply. If we lost sight of that, it would be an extreme misdirection, so I want to focus on how we can sustain what we already have. In that respect, I was delighted as leader of Renfrewshire Council to lead a £149 million investment programme for the 13,000 tenants in Renfrewshire with the support of the Scottish Government. It was not easy. It required innovation, new ideas and partnership working, and we had no support from the UK Government, even though it could at the stroke of a pen have written off the housing debt—debt saddled on the tenants of Scotland—and released hundreds of millions of pounds for housing supply in this country.
We also have a serious threat in the Welfare Reform Bill, as rents will become a pressure. In many areas, rent increases have been matched to inflation or perhaps slightly higher, but they are fair if the money from those increases, as in Renfrewshire, is levered in to deliver investment in housing to meet or surpass the Scottish housing quality standard that I commend the Parliament for passing. Our citizens should not be living in inadequate housing. The issue is about not just supply, but the environment that our people live in. I speak from the personal experience of living in a council house that was not the best. It had no central heating or double glazing and it was riddled with damp. I am not alone, as many people have lived in council housing, but I resolved at an early age to do something about it.
When we delivered the investment programme for Renfrewshire, in incredibly difficult circumstances, I asked the director of housing, “If we see this plan through, will any of our tenants continue to live in inadequate, damp housing?” The answer was no. What a great achievement. What a wonderful thing to achieve for my community, but it was only done in partnership with a Government that was willing to innovate. We can compare that with the blackmail that we had from previous Labour and Liberal Executives and UK Governments.
We have to innovate with less resource. In these challenging times, what is happening in my constituency and in constituencies across Renfrewshire, from where Hugh Henry hails? There are new council houses for the first time in 30 years, despite the difficult financial environment. There are housing association partnership homes to address gaps in supply and need. There is innovation, even though we have less resource.
There is less resource not because the Scottish Government has decided on that but because the UK Government has reduced capital spend to this country and this Government. Of course, it could help further. Alex Johnstone joined in with the “Just gie’s more money” gang. The UK Government could do that, expanding the borrowing capacity to ensure that we invest in council housing and other forms of housing. We will not meet the homelessness targets if we do not ensure the sustainability of our current housing stock and develop new stock as well.
We also require imaginative service reform. We should not just make a plea for more money, although more money absolutely would be nice. The current toxic mix of UK policies will certainly not help housing.
I have some sympathy with what Labour members said, but they would have much more credibility in the Parliament if they named the SNP policy choices that they think are wrong and should not be progressed. Labour is not facing an election; if its members said that their priority was housing and set out where money should be transferred from, I would believe what they are saying.
However, we just have crocodile tears from Labour. John Mason asked Lewis Macdonald which capital project he would not proceed with, so that we could fund more housing investment. There was silence. I make the offer to any Labour member to intervene and tell us what capital project they would not proceed with, so that they could invest in housing—
Malcolm Chisholm rose—
I will be brief. Did the member not hear the question that I asked of the minister? I made the point that the infrastructure budget is increasing in real terms. I am not suggesting one thing; I am saying that if we look across the budget it will be perfectly easy to find extra money for housing.
We all have the right to adequate, warm and secure housing. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says:
“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family”.
Housing is central to that. A person’s home is one of the most important factors that affects their life, from the home of a child’s early years to the home that has been adapted for an older person, whether people seek to rent or aspire to move up the property ladder. The Government is successfully moving in the right direction in making housing a top priority for the next five years, and we should make no apology for our ambitions.
As we have heard, Scotland needs more housing. We need modern, affordable, and—this is crucial—high-quality 21st century homes. We can all agree on that. Population projections suggest that the number of households in Scotland will increase by more than 200,000 during the next 10 years. If we are to accommodate housing growth in the next decade we will have to invest significantly in the private and social sectors, as well as in emerging areas such as intermediate rent.
The Scottish Government’s response to the challenge has been encouraging. There is a solid commitment to build 6,000 affordable homes during each year of this parliamentary session. Indeed, the Government has not only identified the urgency of Scotland’s housing needs but taken steps to address the issue. Record investment is supporting the delivery of almost 28,000 affordable new-builds and there have been almost 25,000 completions during the past three years.
Most crucial, a new generation of council homes is being built, after decades of Labour neglect. The previous Labour-Liberal Administration did not build a single council house in Edinburgh or indeed in mainland Scotland. The myth that Labour is the party of social housing has been fully exposed.
The abolition of the right to buy for new tenants was one of the Government’s most responsible decisions and will alleviate pressure on councils and benefit people who have been stuck on waiting lists for years. In my constituency, just after I was elected as a councillor in 2007, a council house was available for which there were more than 1,000 applicants, which is a damning indictment of the former Labour Administration in Edinburgh.
During the past two years there has been a 50 per cent reduction in sales of local authority homes in Scotland under the right-to-buy scheme. Graeme Brown, director of Shelter Scotland, said that the Scottish Government
“was right to reform the system to secure the supply of social housing.”
I very much welcome the establishment of a Scottish social housing charter, which will look after the interests of tenants, homeless people and others who use the services that social landlords provide, and which focuses on issues such as quality of housing and environment.
The scars of the economic downturn could not be any more visible in the private sector, stalling its ability to invest in new development. The restricted availability of mortgage finance has exacerbated that, which is why the SNP’s commitment to housing could not have come at a better time, as it boosts the construction sector and safeguards jobs across the country.
The challenge for the next few years will be how to increase the housing supply right across the spectrum in the current economic climate. It is clear that our housing system will continue to face challenges and, as a result of Westminster cuts to the Scottish budget, we must find new ways of investing and building homes, using Government funding to lever in maximum investment from other sources.
The Scottish Government’s national housing trust and the innovation and investment fund are part of the answer, as we have heard. Indeed, just a few weeks ago through the latter scheme, the City of Edinburgh Council was allocated funding to deliver more than 600 new affordable homes. Edinburgh will see substantial progress in housing over the coming years. It is no secret to anyone that the capital has been struggling with social housing supply for many years. The 21st century homes project will facilitate the regeneration of areas in my constituency, such as Muirhouse and Pennywell, where around 470 quality homes will be built. The long-awaited regeneration in the Muirhouse community is an exciting prospect that is expected to attract new business and investment to the area.
The scale of regeneration in the capital is probably best illustrated by the demolition of the infamous Sighthill tower blocks, some of Edinburgh’s biggest eyesores, which were turned to dust less than two weeks ago.
I want to conclude by saying a few words on fuel poverty. Price hikes by energy companies are scandalous and many people will be suffering the consequences this winter. Through numerous schemes, the Scottish Government is working to lift people out of fuel poverty, but those irresponsible price hikes undermine that progress.
We will not get people out of fuel poverty unless the UK Government takes decisive action on energy companies and their out-of-control prices. However, to end on a positive note, the Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure and Capital Investment’s recent announcement to extend the energy assistance package to carers is a clear commitment to addressing the needs of vulnerable citizens in our society.
Housing is crucial for the economic, health and social wellbeing of our people. There are undoubtedly challenges ahead, but I am proud of this Government’s record on housing and confident of the actions that we are taking.
I recognise that this has been the toughest spending review since devolution. However, this Government has the majority to enable it to carry out its manifesto commitments and I urge it to fulfil its housing commitments. I welcome the grants that have been provided to the council and other housing providers in the North Ayrshire area for such social housing projects as the third phase of the Vineburgh project and the construction of a further 37 council houses in Kilwinning and Millport. However, there are still 5,900 people on North Ayrshire Council’s housing list and 766 people presented themselves as homeless last year.
The last time that I spoke about housing, I urged the Scottish Government to make housing a priority and confirm that the budget for housing and regeneration would not be diminished. However, it seems that my pleas fell on deaf ears, and funding has been drastically cut. The housing and regeneration budget is clearly not a priority for the SNP Government. Capital investment to affordable housing has been cut by 19 per cent in the first year and, once earlier adjustments are taken into account, that is a 30 per cent cut. That falls to almost 50 per cent in the second year.
According to Shelter, housing is the single biggest loser in the draft budget. It appears that housing is being pushed further and further down the priorities of this Government, which is of great concern to me.
No. I am sorry, but I do not have time.
The SNP’s election manifesto promised that the SNP would build 6,000 new social rented houses each year, and one of its flagship manifesto commitments was to build 30,000 new social rented homes during the next five years. The point that we are making this morning is about social rented houses. We have heard that it will, in fact, be 20,000 social rented houses, which is a drop of 10,000 in just a few months.
Those pledges were made in full knowledge of the hard times that we face. The Scottish Government knew how much money it would have available when it made those promises. However, based on the money that was made available in the spending review and the draft budget, the Government’s manifesto commitments seem to be impossible to sustain. Shelter Scotland and the Chartered Institute of Housing stated:
“The SNP Government’s flagship manifesto commitment on affordable housing is set to be its first big failure unless there is a radical rethink of spending priorities”.
Fewer funds will also have a detrimental effect on the construction industry and the associated jobs. Between April and June this year, 10,000 Scottish construction jobs were lost, and a total of 30,000 jobs have been lost since March 2009. Does the Government think that it is wise to put further pressure on the construction industry and put the economic recovery at risk by hitting housing and regeneration so hard?
It seems that, as demand for new affordable housing is rising, supply is falling. The Government will struggle to meet even half of the target to supply 6,000 social rented houses this year, especially given the fact that so few developments have been approved, even though the Government has changed the accounting method that it used in previous years by doing some jiggery-pokery.
The spending review is a blow to the 156,000 families and households that have been waiting for years for a home of their own. That is all the more true because the Government signed up to the commitment made by the Labour Party in 2003 that all unintentionally homeless households would be entitled to settled accommodation by 2012. I fail to see how that target can be met, especially considering that the number of people who live in temporary accommodation rose by 3 per cent during the past year alone, and continues to rise. That is even before the new housing benefit rules come into play.
I urge the Scottish Government to reconsider the budget. There is room for manoeuvre. In particular, there is an urgent need to re-examine the second and third years of the draft budget proposal, or I predict that the Government will not meet its targets on social housing and will be shown to have failed to achieve its election commitment to the people of Scotland.
I welcome the opportunity to participate in today’s debate on an issue as important as housing and I have no doubt that everyone in the chamber should support the measures outlined in the minister’s speech and in the motion.
Housing is an issue that arises in every constituency and region represented in the Parliament and I am delighted that the Scottish Government is tackling it head on. Housing remains a priority for the SNP Government and I greatly welcome that.
The “Homes Fit for the 21st Century” policy paper that was published in February this year makes no apology for setting ambitious housing targets, and nor should it. Between 2009 and 2011, 3,295 council houses were approved and, in 2010, 1,055 were started. That is the highest figure in 20 years and a record of which we can be proud. We are seeing a Government working with local authorities and the industry to find innovative ways of plugging the affordable housing gap.
Given the pressures on public finances and the UK Government’s drastic squeeze on capital spending in Scotland, the current emphasis on innovation and on ways to deliver more housing for less public subsidy is crucial. That is why I am particularly pleased with and supportive of the innovation and investment fund. That fund alone is providing £2.5 million of investment in Dumfries and Galloway. That is a huge boost for the projects that it will assist in Dumfries, Castle Douglas, Dalbeattie, Newton Stewart, Thornhill and Lockerbie. The fact that nine of the 10 submitted bids for that area were accepted shows that the SNP Government is listening and taking note of where issues are arising. Not only that, but the Government is addressing those needs by providing vital funding.
The fund also allows us to address the national housing challenges, which are all the more acute as a consequence of Westminster-based cuts. The Tories’ right-to-buy policy depleted much of Scotland’s social housing stock, which adds to the challenges that we now face in delivering an adequate provision of social housing. As a direct result of the Scottish Government’s policy of restricting the right to buy for new council tenants, we have seen a growing confidence from councils, which are willing to invest in new social housing.
In that, our councils are supported by Scottish Government initiatives such as the new national housing trust, which is an additional tool to help to make more new affordable homes available for below market rent in areas where not enough affordable housing is available to meet demand. The trust not only reinvigorates the housing market but offers the construction industry support. In recent times, how many of us have passed building sites where work has had to stop because of financial constraints? The national housing trust scheme is a way of ensuring that that work can restart and continue to an end point, which will help to rejuvenate the construction sector and to deliver a good stock of new-build houses.
Not only do we often see halted building works, but I am sure that many of us will agree that it is unacceptable that good homes should lie empty for long periods. Scotland is estimated to have 25,000 long-term-empty homes. That is a complete and utter waste when we consider the level of homelessness.
The SNP wants to give councils powers to increase the council tax that is levied on properties that are empty for six months or more, which will tackle the problem of empty homes. Councils will be given the option to decide to charge an additional levy or to give exemptions in some cases. In addition to encouraging the reduction of empty properties, that measure could raise up to £30 million a year for councils to spend on affordable homes.
Throughout the debate, the word “affordable” has been key. Rural communities feel that just as sharply as urban areas do. Just this week, the Bank of Scotland rural housing review said that house prices in rural Scotland have more than doubled in the past decade. The average price of a house in rural Scotland has risen by almost £80,000 since 2001.
Affordable housing has always been particularly difficult to provide in rural parts of Scotland, but recent financial constraints have made that even more difficult. In such times, we appreciate even more keenly the work of organisations such as the rural housing partnership among three housing charities, including the Dumfries & Galloway Small Communities Housing Trust from my region.
Those charities were instrumental in five of the recently approved innovation and investment fund bids and have a track record of working directly with rural communities to enable the provision of innovative, affordable rural housing developments. That can include providing low-cost self-build plots, selling discounted housing in conjunction with private developers and securing low-cost land for social housing projects.
Essential to those bodies’ approach is identifying where need is greatest and working with communities and a broad range of partners. Most important, they are flexible, so they can alter their solutions for each community. For those reasons, they and others that do similar work should be congratulated.
I commend the motion to Parliament and support the Scottish Government in all its efforts to help the affordable housing market. I hope very much that members across the chamber will do the same.
I, too, am glad to have the opportunity to debate such an important issue. The various statistics surrounding the housing debate in Scotland are eye watering and should concentrate minds across the political spectrum. Currently, 156,000 families in Scotland are languishing on housing waiting lists, and many of them have been doing so for many years. When we consider that population projections suggest a net increase of more than 200,000 households in Scotland by the end of 2020, we get a sense of the enormity of the challenge. That makes the SNP’s 30 per cent cut to the housing budget in one financial year and its 42 per cent cut in real terms over the spending review period all the more difficult to understand. The settlement for housing that was announced in the spending review was one of the major disappointments.
There is a 12 per cent cut to the Scottish budget, but we are talking about a 42 per cent cut to the housing budget. If the Scottish Government had not spent four years trying to get a non-profit distribution scheme to deliver the Borders railway project, it might not have wasted millions of pounds on procurement.
I have given two answers.
It is not only me and other Opposition members who are concerned. The Chartered Institute of Housing in Scotland described the 2013-14 budget in particular as a “real cause for concern”, and the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations described the figures as “disappointing reading”. The director of Shelter Scotland, Graeme Brown, did not miss the issue in his response to the spending review. He said that the 42 per cent cut in affordable housing investment
“is a devastating blow to the housing sector and now there is no way the SNP Government will be able to meet one of its flagship manifesto commitments of 30,000 new socially-rented homes”— not affordable homes—
“over the next five years.”
“This is another hammer-blow to the 156,000 families and households across Scotland who have been waiting for months and years for a home of their own”.
That brings me nicely to the shifting sands of the SNP’s commitment on social rented homes—not affordable homes, which are a different matter. The Government is in trouble on the issue and it knows it. This summer, the Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure and Capital Investment wrote to me on the issue and Keith Brown wrote to Lewis Macdonald saying the very same thing. The cabinet secretary said:
“We have not set an overall target for council/housing association homes for social rent.”
That was in July this year.
The Government is trying to be very cute on the manifesto commitment. I, too, have a copy of the manifesto, or at least page 17 of it.
It is popular among Opposition members, who seem to like to collect fictional novels. The manifesto, which was published only in April, states:
“our aim is to build over 6,000 new socially-rented houses each year.”
That is a target in black and white in the SNP manifesto, which the SNP claimed was fully costed. To renege on a commitment in a matter of weeks is not only cynical, but highly disappointing. The Government’s eagerness to emphasise repeatedly that it intends to build 30,000 new social rented homes over the course of the parliamentary session has not gone unnoticed. There is, of course, an important distinction between affordable and social rented housing. I hope that the minister or cabinet secretary will clarify that they know the difference.
To change tack, one unfortunate aspect of the housing crisis in Scotland is the impact that it has on children. Research that was published this year revealed that one in 10 children lives in overcrowded accommodation and that 186,000 children live in homes with condensation or damp. The implications of growing up in such environments will be obvious to members. Research has shown that children who live in housing that is overcrowded or in a poor condition are less likely than other children to achieve well in English and mathematics and more likely to have a long-standing illness or disability, and have more of a tendency to drink alcohol and take drugs. In essence, children who reside in poor housing face an increased risk of negative wellbeing.
The minister will be aware that the previous Administration introduced the Scottish housing quality standard to ensure that there was a floor below which the standards of social housing in Scotland should not dip. The Government has until 2015 to ensure that all social housing passes the SHQS, but 61 per cent of children are currently living in homes that are below that standard.
I would have done—unlike the member.
It is incumbent on the Government to ensure a fair start for our children, and I am keen to hear about how it plans to meet the target in the allotted time.
I will be unable to support the Government’s motion. I agree with most of its sentiment and measures such as the national housing trust, which we have also committed to, but the end of the motion congratulates social landlords and developers
“on working together innovatively to deliver the maximum number of affordable homes”.
I apologise, but I have concerns about the word “maximum” in particular.
I support Labour’s amendment.
This week, we have seen just how far the UK Government and the Scottish Government diverge on housing policy. The short-sighted plans that have emerged this week from the Conservative-Lib Dem UK Government to try to encourage even greater numbers of people to exercise the right to buy and thereby significantly exacerbate the shortage of affordable housing, which has been the long-term legacy of Thatcher both north and south of the border, are extraordinary. The Scottish Government is trying to reverse that legacy.
Not yet. I am still in my first minute.
The UK Government’s plans are another clear sign of how far out of step it is with the needs of ordinary people. Thank goodness we have a Government in Scotland that understands how critical it is to increase the availability of affordable housing rather than consign more people to ever-longer waiting lists.
Between 2008 and 2011, the SNP Government invested a record £1.76 billion and delivered 27,828 affordable new-build starts. That equates to 24,646 completions over the same period. There were around 7,500 new housing units, compared with only 6,000 under Labour. We should never forget that only six new council houses were built between 2003 and 2007 under the Lib Dem-Labour Administration. I say to Hugh Henry and Lewis Macdonald that the SNP was voted in on its record, and I am sure that Scotland’s electorate trusts the SNP Government to deliver in this session. There were more new council houses in my constituency than Labour delivered in the whole of Scotland.
I welcome the fact that the SNP agrees with Labour on the iniquity of some of the changes that the Westminster Government is making, which will affect housing benefit and people in social rented housing. Does the member think that this is the right time to put pressure on our housing associations’ reserves by reducing the level of subsidy for affordable housing, or is that the wrong response to what is happening at Westminster?
It is absolutely the right time to use reserves to build houses. People should not build up reserves when we are short of capital spending.
Within the incredibly tight budget constraints that have been passed on to us from Westminster, there is little doubt that the target of 30,000 homes over five years is ambitious. To achieve it, Scotland will need to make the most of more innovative ways of funding house building and maximise the return that is received on every penny of public investment. As the minister said, the national housing trust is one such innovation. It has been extremely positive in delivering more housing and providing work to the construction industry on projects that would otherwise have completely stalled. Labour is stuck in the previous century in considering ways of financing house building while the SNP is forging forward and finding new and innovative ways to build houses.
Keeping the construction industry building is a critical part of economic recovery. That is why it was important that the Scottish Government diverted resources into capital spending in the spending review. Whether we are talking about the demand for new property from the public sector or the private sector or greater efforts to renovate and refurbish buildings, the importance to the Scottish economy of ensuring that there is work for the construction sector is not to be underestimated.
With just over 200,000 applicants currently on local authority housing lists, the need for more affordable housing in Scotland is unquestionable. At least two thirds of the affordable homes that the Scottish Government will support will be for social rent, which will go at least some way towards driving down housing waiting lists. The actions of the Scottish Government are positive, despite the extraordinarily tough financial conditions that have been imposed on it, and the Parliament should welcome them.
The need to make housing more affordable also extends to the need to support first-time buyers seeking to make their first step on to the housing ladder. With schemes such as the new supply shared equity scheme, the open market shared equity scheme and the rural home ownership grants scheme, the Scottish Government supported 5,287 households into home ownership in the first three years of the previous session of Parliament alone. That is compared with the 3,371 that Labour and the Lib Dems managed over the seven years leading up to that.
It remains the case that the biggest hurdle for first-time buyers is getting a mortgage. Shared equity schemes certainly help to lower that barrier, but housing developers need to ensure that there is a good supply of property that is aimed at first-time buyers rather than those further up the housing ladder. If suitable property for first-time buyers is scarce, it is inevitable that the demand will drive up the price and force buyers out of the market and on to housing waiting lists.
Although the short-term interests of developers might dictate that building for the upper end of the market is the best way to maximise their profit, the long-term sustainability of the sector rests on first-time buyers being able to make it on to the housing ladder.
The Scottish Government built an impressive record on housing during the previous session of Parliament and I am sure that it will do its utmost to meet its commitments this time. I was pleased to hear about the bill giving councils the powers to increase council tax and the strategy for old people’s housing, but the cuts in the Scottish budget mean that maintaining the progress that has been made will become more challenging.
It is clear that the Scottish Government will focus precisely on what matters most: the need to expand the supply of affordable housing. That focus will only serve Scotland well.
There is not enough detail in the spending review to see exactly how much money will be spent on housing. Some 40 per cent of the budget for new affordable homes is included in the local government settlement. However, the actual amount is unclear from budget documents, although the Minister for Housing and Transport has said that it is likely to be £250 million over three years.
There are significant question marks over the ability of councils to meet their commitments with shrinking budgets, but what we can see makes it clear that the Scottish Government will struggle to meet a range of housing objectives.
We really need level 4 figures to see just how badly the Scottish Government is doing at keeping its manifesto promises and meeting its commitments under existing legislation, such as the requirement under the Housing (Scotland) Act 2001 to eradicate fuel poverty by 2016.
Energy Action Scotland estimates that meeting that target will require a total investment of around £200 million in each year of this session of Parliament, and yet the Government’s spending on energy efficiency reduced this year and the spending review gives only £200 million over the next three years for domestic energy efficiency and fuel poverty. It looks extremely unlikely that the commitment will be met. If the Scottish Government wants consensus, why is it not listening to Energy Action Scotland and other organisations?
The SNP manifesto pledged to build 6,000 social rented homes for each year of this session of Parliament. Is it not funny how reality sometimes gets in the way of promises and then those promises change?
Ministers now talk of 6,000 affordable homes, rather than the manifesto pledge. Of those, only 4,000 are now to be social rented. Even that less ambitious target is unlikely to be met, given that the money available for new affordable homes in the three-year period ahead is more than 60 per cent less than it was in the previous period. The target is to be achieved by giving lower subsidies per house. Even if that is successful, it is likely to be at the expense of social rented homes being built where they are most needed.
Bluntly, the subsidy of £40,000 per unit is not enough to make building new social rented accommodation a feasible proposition in areas of high deprivation.
No, I want to move on.
Social landlords have to pass on the increased costs somehow, but many households cannot afford higher rents, and those that can are not common in deprived areas. The minister told me recently that there is some flexibility for projects in such areas, but if higher subsidies are made available, that will reduce the overall number of units that can be built.
What of the other 2,000 affordable homes? Half are to come from subsidised home ownership and half from “intermediate rented homes” through the national housing trust. Intermediate or mid-market rents are, by definition, higher than some people can afford and are of limited use in areas of high deprivation and unemployment, such as parts of Motherwell and Wishaw, where help is most needed.
Scotland needs 10,000 new affordable homes a year to meet demand. With reduced budgets, there is no way that that can be achieved. As well as new affordable housing, we need to upgrade the existing housing stock. We need investment to improve the energy performance of housing, including existing private housing. The draft budget and spending review are underwhelming in their lack of ambition and do not provide the sort of investment that is necessary to deliver the emissions savings that the report on proposals and policies allocated to domestic energy efficiency to meet the requirements of the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009.
That is an extremely serious issue, because Scotland’s housing is responsible for a quarter of our carbon emissions, but it is not only our climate change progress that will suffer—there are serious consequences for the economy and fuel poverty. Most improvements in energy efficiency will pay for themselves through lower bills, but those who have the most difficulty paying for fuel are also those who have the most difficulty making and paying for improvements to increase their home’s energy efficiency.
A third of Scottish homes—770,000 households—are in fuel poverty, and the latest fuel price rises are set to push that figure nearer to 1 million. Not spending on energy efficiency and fuel poverty creates other costs elsewhere. According to the Fuel Poverty Advisory Group, for every £1 that is spent on fuel poverty, 42p is saved by the national health service. Such work is not only a great way of spending to save and meeting emissions targets; it acts as a significant stimulus to employment and the economy. It is estimated that nearly 10,000 job opportunities could be created through improving the energy efficiency of our existing building stock.
“Housing is crucial to the economic, health and social wellbeing of Scotland’s people.”
Those words are not mine or my party’s, although I am sure that we would agree with them; they are from the SNP manifesto. Neglect them at your peril.
It is good to start by remembering some of the achievements of the present and the previous Governments. There are two that I am particularly enthusiastic about: first, the restricting of the right to buy—I am perfectly clear that the reason for my constituents not being able to get the housing that they need is that much of it has been sold off; and secondly, the breaking up of Glasgow Housing Association, on which I again congratulate Alex Neil. Labour said that that was too hard and that it could not do it, but it has now happened. Although I accept that the GHA has improved, I would, in the longer term, like to see it being completely broken up so that local tenants can be in control of all the housing.
It has already been stated a number of times how worthwhile housing investment is, but the point is worth reiterating. For example, the briefing from the SFHA says:
“The activities of housing associations and co-operatives increase community wellbeing, improve public health, provide a sound basis for educational achievement and reduce poverty and social injustice.”
Absolutely. The theme of preventative spending is that if we put money into housing, that will benefit us, the residents and society much more widely.
On affordability, which has been mentioned a number of times this morning, CIH Scotland makes in its submission the good and interesting point that
“CIH Scotland is working with SFHA and” local authority housing officers
“to try to ascertain what capacity councils and housing associations have to build social rented housing at these grant rates over the next 5 years. Notwithstanding what we find, we believe that the Scottish Government should not make assumptions about such subsidy rates being sustainable”.
If more of that kind of information can be brought to the table, I am sure that we and the Government will listen to it. However, it sounds like such information is not available at the moment.
I have already partly answered that by pointing out that CIH Scotland and SFHA are undertaking a study on the issue. As for the use of the word “concerns”, I think that we need to be realistic. We are facing huge problems across Europe and around the world. We have concerns about every budget, not just the housing budget, and in any case we are at the mercy of Westminster, which could arbitrarily cut our budget even more and give us even more serious problems.
I am very enthusiastic about housing associations, having worked for them a number of times, and understand that the Scottish Housing Regulator is carrying out a review of the way in which they are regulated. The regulator has suggested that committee members should be paid for working for housing associations and that there should be a time limit on membership of such committees. However, housing associations seem to have some reservations about those suggestions, especially the proposal to pay committee members. The east end of Glasgow, for example, has a lot of small local associations to which tenants put in a lot of time. Of course, not every tenant is willing or able to do so and payments for and time limits on committee membership might really change the whole situation.
On the limit on capital finance, one solution lies in the Scotland Bill and whether we can get better borrowing powers. Setting some arbitrary limit is not the way to go; instead, we should take the prudential borrowing route, which is open to councils, to allow the Scottish Government to borrow what it can afford to finance and repay. That might give us a bit more flexibility in the capital budget to spend more on housing in particular.
I am happy to say that my personal priority is housing. I see what is happening in my constituency, which has gained hugely from SNP investment in transport with the completion of the M74 and the opening of the new railway from Airdrie to Bathgate and is doing very well from investment in the Commonwealth games. I would certainly put housing and primary schools at the top of my own priority list.
The debate’s purpose is to push housing up the agenda. Labour’s top priority would be a rail link to Glasgow airport but, as I have made clear, my top priority is housing.
Having dealt with housing issues for the past 35 years, I know that housing is an emotive subject—indeed, one can feel that emotion in this debate. Many inquiries that MSPs receive relate to housing. Over the past four years, the SNP-led Scottish Government has made significant progress in house building and I compliment the cabinet secretary and minister on their work in that respect.
The Government kick-started council house building after it had stalled under Labour. I remember the years when the Labour Party did not build one single council house. However many houses will be built in this session of Parliament, let us remember that Labour and the Lib Dems—the latter are not here—built only six houses between 2003 and 2007. More than 1,000 houses were started by the SNP in 2010—
Since 2008, more than £1.7 billion has been invested in new housing—the largest amount in any comparable period since the early 1980s. In 2008-9 and 2009-10, when the recession first hit, the SNP Government brought forward £120 million of affordable housing spend to support the construction industry.
The cuts that have been implemented by the UK coalition Government are hitting Scotland hard, but this Government and our housing minister are taking the correct steps to protect tenants and home owners. The housing minister is looking at new ways to invest and build housing using Government funding to lever in maximum investment from other sources. It has established the national housing trust and the innovation and investment fund.
The Government is addressing the challenges of fuel poverty and domestic energy efficiency. It has increased the housing sustainability budget to £327 million over three years and it has funded the energy assistance package, the universal home insulation scheme and the boiler scrappage scheme. The energy assistance package has offered free energy advice, home insulation and the installation of new heating systems; more than 40,000 new heating systems have been installed since 2007.
The Government has four targets: to end homelessness, to ensure that there are properties for social rent, to end fuel poverty, and to improve energy efficiency. It is also taking action on empty homes. As has been stated, there are more than 25,000 long-term empty homes in Scotland, which is a national scandal. Those homes should be used to clear housing waiting lists. I appreciate the point that was made by one of my colleagues earlier about the number of people on the housing waiting lists, especially in respect of my area.
I suggest that it is the right of all to have a decent and affordable house. Over the past 35 years, I have dealt with people who have had damp houses and houses that are not fit for their children. We have steadily improved such houses over a number of years; the SNP Government will do more.
First-time buyers face a challenge in obtaining mortgages, so the banks need to do more to help them. It is wrong that people have to save up £10,000 to £20,000 before they can get a mortgage.
Cuts in housing benefit should be opposed. During the summer, I had the opportunity to visit two housing association developments in my region. The first was a Bield Housing Association development at Woodburn Street in Motherwell, which is an excellent facility that caters well for its residents. I enjoyed the couple of hours I spent there, seeing what Bield was doing for its residents. The second was a development in my area, at Corson Court in Bellshill. It is owned by a trust and provides sheltered accommodation. It was also an excellent facility.
Most of our elderly people wish to remain in their homes, so we should do all that we can to allow that to happen. On Tuesday I attended an event in the Parliament that was hosted by Sandra White MSP with Bield Housing Association and Hanover Housing Association. I compliment those associations for the work that they are doing in Scotland.
Labour, the Tories and their Liberal friends criticise us for house building, but they have failed us in the past by not building any council houses since 1976—I am sorry, they built six. The SNP Government has made a start. I support the motion.
Yesterday I spoke in the debate on welfare reform. There are some policy areas that should transcend the political divide and unite us in a common purpose. Welfare and housing are two such areas. In “Homes Fit for the 21st Century—The Scottish Government’s Strategy and Action Plan for Housing in the Next Decade: 2011-2020”, the Scottish Government articulated its commitment, which I welcome, to
“enhance the quality and sustainability of our existing housing stock” and to ensure that everyone has
“a safe, warm home which they can afford”.
On the face of it, that is a laudable aim. However, I have some concerns, chiefly pertaining to the Government’s definitions of what is “sustainable” and what is “affordable”. In 2002, the then Scottish Executive set up the homelessness task force, which was a multi-agency forum that produced a draft of proposals to tackle homelessness. The key recommendation, which is now a legislative duty, was that there be a commitment that would require local authorities to assess all homelessness applications as a “priority” by 2012—the 2012 commitment. The progress that has been made by local authorities towards that target has been strong, if somewhat uneven.
In 2009-10, 85 per cent of homelessness applications were assessed as being priority applications, with a third of local authorities exceeding 90 per cent. However, some local authorities have made little progress. They—and therefore we as a country—face a real challenge in meeting the 2012 commitment. Clearly, the Scottish Government will want to do everything possible to support them.
If the priority needs test were to be abolished now, local authorities would have to secure settled accommodation for an additional 1,318 households—that is, those that are currently assessed as non-priority. Despite the action that has already been taken, homelessness applications have increased over the past 10 years, peaking at 60,500 in 2005-6, before dropping to 56,000 in 2010, which is still over 10,000 more than in the mid-1990s.
Concealed within that figure are a number of worrying trends. The fractured and roving nature of modern society has seen a massive increase in the number of single-person households—they make up 62 per cent of the total—and 31 per cent of applications were from households with children, most of which were single-parent households. So what is the Scottish Government’s sustainable and affordable solution to the problem? The SNP manifesto promised to deliver “6000 new socially-rented houses” for every year of this session of Parliament. Leaving aside the obvious disparity between affordable homes and socially rented ones, I would like to establish whether the “affordable” homes really are affordable.
Residential social landlords will provide 850 new homes, which represents an overall increase of 1,550 in the social rented housing stock. Even with 1,000 houses approved for owner-occupiers—which self-evidently do not qualify as social rented housing—there is still a 3,450 shortfall. We must assume, therefore, that the shortfall will be made up by intermediate rented housing, which is a new form of housing procurement to be overseen by the national housing trust. Are those homes affordable for those who desperately require permanent housing? Do they constitute a sustainable long-term solution? Well—let us see.
The costs of development for those houses will be shared between local authorities and private developers. The interest on the loans that will be incurred will be covered by rental income. In order to see a return, private developers will require rents to be set at a level that will exclude the vast proportion of homeless applicants. Furthermore, the houses will remain on the social rental market for only five to 10 years, after which many will, in all likelihood, become private stock. Intermediate rented housing is not affordable for those who need help most, nor is it a sustainable solution to the lack of social rented housing.
In “Housing: Fresh Thinking, New Ideas” the Scottish Government stresses the importance of distinguishing between different types of affordable housing, yet it simultaneously admits that the most deprived are those who are most reliant on social rented housing. That is quite correct: 53 per cent of social housing in Scotland is situated in the 15 per cent most deprived areas, with an additional 160,000 people on council house waiting lists.
I will finish by considering the circumstances of those who would benefit most from additional social housing. Of homeless people, 36 per cent are single adults under the age of 24; many are victims of violence or abuse, or suffer from mental health problems or from drug or alcohol addiction. I recently visited Barnardo’s Scotland’s North Lanarkshire youth housing support service, which provides crisis intervention and group-work support to young people aged 16 to 24. Their need for secure and supportive homes cannot be overstated and too many are currently left in temporary accommodation. Even if they secure permanent accommodation, it is often poorly furnished. There is no sense of belonging and no sense of pride, respect or permanence. It is impossible to establish a stable and healthy lifestyle under such circumstances.
Under the Welfare Reform Bill, the community care grant will be devolved to Holyrood. That will provide the Scottish Government with an ideal opportunity to aid those vulnerable young people. I would like to see the following changes to the community care grant system: the grant should be replaced with a similar grant that supports people setting up and staying in homes; applicants should be able to apply for the grant prior to securing accommodation, which they are currently unable to do; and successful applicants should receive their grant on receipt of the keys to their accommodation. The application process should be reformed to prevent applications from being rejected unnecessarily, and the rules and criteria should be clear and consistently applied across Scotland. Finally, grant awards should be sufficient to allow applicants to furnish a home properly.
The Scottish Government has been justly critical of the Welfare Reform Bill; now it will have a chance to show how it would do things differently.
As John Mason did, I place the debate firmly in the context of the Government’s strong record on housing. Between 2008 and 2011, a record £1.7 billion was invested in housing, which supported delivery of more than 27,000 affordable new-build starts between 2007 and 2011. That is the largest number in any comparable period since the early 1980s. Indeed, between 2009 and 2011, 3,295 council houses were approved, and in 2010 more than 1,000 of them were begun. Again, that is the highest figure recorded in 20 years. By comparison, as Dick Lyle reminded us, Labour completed six council houses in the 2003 to 2007 period, all of them in Shetland. It is shameful that none of them was in Cumbernauld and Kilsyth—not that a share of six council houses would have done us much good.
In just about every debate that involves public expenditure, we have heard carping and whining from Labour members about the Government’s direction, but we hear no ideas, innovation or suggestions. Mr Macdonald has been invited several times to suggest where alternative funds could come from, but we have heard nothing but bluster from him; we have heard not one suggestion of where the money should come from. We all accept that circumstances are difficult and we have had severe cuts to the Scottish Government’s budget, so we now require new and innovative ways to fund house building.
Mr Hume demonstrates a singular unwillingness to recognise the difference between revenue and capital budgets. The cut to capital budgets is far more substantial than 12 per cent, and we should remember that his party in the Government south of the border is delivering that cut to the SNP Administration’s budget.
We need innovation in house building and the Scottish Government is providing that. We have heard criticisms from Labour members about the size of the housing association grant, but they fail to recognise that we are in a different context, because houses are cheaper to build now. In that context, and given the budgetary pressures, it would have been wrong of the Government not to revisit the housing association grant. Even with the change in the benchmark figure for the grant—I think that the new figure is about £40,000—the sector is rising to the challenge. Every time we hear criticism of the availability of the grant, we hear housing associations being done down, because they are willing to meet the challenge and are rising to it.
We all accept that housing associations will ask for more money, just as every sector will. However, they are also willing to accept the challenge that has been laid before them and they are rising to it. New houses are being brought online.
Alex Johnstone criticised the national housing trust, but he failed to recognise that the scheme has been welcomed by the sector. Gordon MacRae, the head of communications and policy at Shelter Scotland, said:
“Let’s get one thing straight—the National Housing Trust is a good thing—a positive initiative which aims to facilitate the building of new privately rented homes across Scotland.”
Jonathan Fair, the chief executive of Homes for Scotland, said:
“The National Housing Trust is making a significant difference to the companies involved in delivering these much needed new homes for the people of Scotland”.
I would rather listen to those individuals than to Alex Johnstone, who also demonstrates a singular unwillingness to provide any new ideas for housing.
I want to touch on the approach that we are seeing in Scotland and the different direction of travel south of the border, although I will probably not have time to say as much as I wanted. Maureen Watt was correct to identify that there is a clear divergence between what is happening here and what is happening south of the border. Here, we have seen a restriction of the right to buy, which has given councils the confidence to invest in council houses again, while the Prime Minister said on “The Andrew Marr Show” that he wants to reinvigorate the right to buy. That is entirely the wrong direction for the people of England, as are the reforms in housing benefit and the rent increases for social housing south of the border.
I should conclude, in that case, by welcoming in particular the significant investment in social housing in my constituency. In the past few years under this Administration we have seen new houses in Carbrain, Seafar, Kildrum, Cumbernauld village, Westfield and Kilsyth. They are good-quality homes that have been provided to the people I represent, many of whom have languished on waiting lists for a long time. In the past few days, the Scottish Government has committed £2 million for the second phase of redevelopment of the Ainslie Maclehose scheme in the Kildrum area of Cumbernauld. I welcome that investment, and I look forward to welcoming Keith Brown or Alex Neil—or indeed both them—with or without hard hats when that scheme is open.
I am duly advised, Presiding Officer.
We have had a wonderfully lively clash today of claim and counterclaim of numbers of homes pledged and of social rented versus other affordable models, but as I sum up I would like to take a swift look at some of the facts. All house building in Scotland has slumped to its lowest level for almost 30 years. The number of houses that were sold between April and June was down by 10 per cent, according to Registers of Scotland, and mortgage lending is at a 30-year low. Nearly 200,000 households sit on council housing lists, and nearly 335,000 sit on housing association lists.
Against that backdrop, we would expect the Scottish Government to inject more money into the sector to boost new building and social supply and to create jobs—but, no; it has not done so. I welcome Keith Brown to his first debate in his new post, but I am dismayed that the figures that he brings to the chamber are not a boost to the sector that is under the cosh, or to the hundreds of thousands of families who are waiting months and years for a home, but a cut, and not just any cut: a 40 per cent cut.
Lewis Macdonald and Hugh Henry feigned surprise at the rolling back of the SNP’s recent manifesto pledge to boost the sector by building more than 6,000 new social rented homes, revised down in the spending review, but I am not surprised. I remember in another SNP manifesto another promise that was designed to help the sector and to help people to get on the property ladder: the £2,000 grant to first-time buyers went the same way as the 6,000 new social rented homes.
I am pleased that Maureen Watt recognised the problems that first-time buyers face—first-time buyers perhaps like myself. In my early to mid-30s, I am still below the average age at which people can get a first-time mortgage: people are now 36 or 37 before they can get on the housing ladder because they need such a big deposit. Perhaps £2,000 could have helped me and hundreds of thousands of others like me, and perhaps Maureen Watt would like to see such a policy actually delivered to help the situation that she has identified.
Mr Henry also made the point that the £40,000 unit-cost grant rate that has been provided for in the innovation and investment fund may be unsustainable. It is not just Mr Henry who thinks that: the Chartered Institute of Housing says that a number of successful bidders to the IIF will not be able to bid again at that level because the only way they could build units on the £40,000 rate would be when things are in play, such as their being able to draw down on bank accounts that they already have or free land being thrown into the bargain.
The institute further points out that the level of subsidy will squeeze specific sectors such as rural housing, wheelchair-accessible housing and specialist housing for older people. On that note, I welcome the minister’s pledge to produce a national strategy on housing for older people and look forward to seeing the details thereof.
With all due respect, I do not think that the member understands that the £40,000 is a benchmark figure. We have made it absolutely clear that, in remote rural areas or for disability housing, for example, the £40,000 figure is not a maximum and that if more is required it will be granted.
The £40,000 benchmark figure still represents a reduction from the previous figure, which was slashed.
As in all debates on housing that we have in the chamber, there has been some knockabout stuff regarding the right to buy. The old myth of the right to buy taking housing stock out of the public sector was repeddled today by, among many others, Mike MacKenzie, Derek Mackay, Colin Keir and John Mason. Well, gentlemen, I am proud of the right to buy, which was the greatest passing of wealth from the state to the individual in a lifetime. It empowered hundreds of thousands of low-income families to enjoy or to aspire to home ownership for the first time.
Is the member not concerned that the remaining housing debt that was incurred in building those houses has been left with the remaining tenants, ever fewer in number and with an ever-increasing debt burden?
No. My concern about the right to buy was the fact that, although we took the money that was made through the right to buy when people bought their homes and we reinvested it in building new homes, subsequent Labour Governments did not build new homes. We have heard much about the low level of house building that has gone on, which is the real scandal.
The SNP’s doublethink on the issue is astonishing. It supports rent-to-buy schemes that, in my opinion, echo the aim that money that is already paid in rent should in some way contribute to the lump sum that is paid for the purchase. I see some similarities and echoes there.
Mike MacKenzie attacked my stout and very capable colleague, Alex Johnstone, for talking of housing without having laid a brick, lifted a hod or tiled a roof. The indignation bristling to my left was palpable, so I must defend my colleague. He assures me that he has done all those things; however, as with much on his farm and in his life, Mrs Johnstone is much better at bricklaying.
SNP members have repeatedly challenged Opposition members’ talk of budget borrowing to give more money to housing. I remind them that it is their finance minister who has delivered a 40 per cent cut to the sector, which is clearly disproportionate.
“hammer-blow to the ... families and households across Scotland who have been waiting for months and years for a home of their own and it undermines our nation’s commitments to badly housed and homeless people.”
Other members have said that we need to suggest where the money would come from, but we have made suggestions already. I am sure that the Scottish Government has read the suggestion from the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations, which suggests that the £67 million of Barnett consequentials that are being passed to the Scottish Government from the English council tax freeze could be employed to help to plug the gap.
The Scottish Government has received exactly the settlement that it was promised in the comprehensive spending review. The SNP went into May’s election knowing exactly what the money in the pot would be. During the election, it promised more than 6,000 new social rented homes for Scotland each year, so we now demand the 6,000 new social rented homes that were promised. I invite the minister, in closing, to give a cast-iron commitment to building 6,000 social rented homes a year and I demand that he answer for the Government on whether 6,000 new social rented homes should be built this year, next year and every year of this session of Parliament.
I very much welcome the debate. Housing is arguably one of the most important issues that we deal with. It is a basic human right to have a warm, dry home to live in. Our housing affects our health and wellbeing and, indeed, our future choices. Many members have talked about that. Jim Hume, in particular, talked about the effect on young children of being brought up in inadequate housing. Spending on that issue, above most others, would prevent future costs to our social services, our health service and many other services that have to pick up the pieces when children are failed at a young age.
The debate was interesting, and thoughtful in many places. There are genuine views and interest in the area and members made many good points. However, it was disappointing in some ways, because we heard the normal rhetoric as well. I cannot start my speech without going back to the SNP’s manifesto pledge of 6,000 social rented houses a year. The SNP knew what the spending position was when it made that pledge to the Scottish people. We need it to confirm that it will stand by the pledge and indeed deliver 6,000 social rented houses per annum. It had the figures, so it cannot pull away from the pledge. We need to make a start for the benefit of the many people who need social rented housing.
As Margaret McCulloch said, the building of those houses will also kick-start our economy, giving a genuine boost to the small and medium-sized businesses that will build them. We also need to look at our economy and provide energy efficiency. Again, that will be a boost to SMEs and ensure that, while we are providing housing, we are boosting the economy as well as saving for the future.
First-time buyers are a huge concern, as are young people in all areas of the housing market. The Government previously said that it would commit to our first foot scheme and indemnify first-time buyers for part of their capital investment in the house—the up-front payment—but we have not heard any more detail on that. I would welcome some detail on the scheme. Young people tend not to have access to housing lists because they do not score enough points. We heard that the number of 18 to 24-year-olds who are assessed as priority homeless is increasing. Indeed, it increased by 40 per cent between 2007 and 2009. As Siobhan McMahon pointed out, the housing that is put in place for them is not permanent and it is not adequate. We need to look at that to ensure that young people have a good start in life.
Another issue that is hugely important when we are speaking about housing is fuel poverty. I agree with what members said about the energy companies and the hike in energy bills. The companies have a social responsibility to look after those who are in fuel poverty. However, it is also the Government’s responsibility. The existing homes alliance Scotland points out that, in 2012-13, the warm homes fund will have a meagre budget of £6.5 million, only part of which will go to initiatives to tackle fuel poverty. The alliance says that the budget falls short of the step change in investment that is necessary. It will not even meet emissions targets, far less eradicate fuel poverty.
I was concerned yesterday to hear that the Scottish Government intends to review the definition of fuel poverty. I seek a reassurance that the definition will not be watered down. We must not move the goalposts in order to meet the targets that have been set. I hope that the cabinet secretary will address that when he sums up. I also hope that he will answer the question that I asked yesterday, about whether carers will have access to the energy assistance package. He said that it would be those on carers allowance and that there will be a rolling programme of 7,000 carers a year, but there are almost 600,000 carers who do not qualify for carers allowance. Will they have access to the package as well? I would welcome any move to include them because they are extremely vulnerable. The fact that they do not get carers allowance means that they lose out on much funding that should be available to them.
A number of members mentioned housing association grant. The SFHA has said that the most serious issue facing housing associations and co-operatives is that the overall budget for housing supply is falling so steeply, and that the £40,000 subsidy will not fund affordable rented housing while keeping rents genuinely affordable to low-income households.
The cabinet secretary intervened earlier and said that the £40,000 is a benchmark. However, Keith Brown said a couple of weeks ago that the grant would be increased only when absolutely necessary. In the rural area that I cover, it would be almost impossible to plan and build a house from start to finish for £40,000. Indeed, for small units of two houses, the amount of money that is required is probably closer to £120,000. The minister has said in the past that bids will be looked at in the round, but housing associations are being asked to put in competitive bids, and if the benchmark is £40,000 I do not see how they can spend money on working up a bid for £120,000 and expect to get it.
There are 9,000 people on the Highland housing register. Those 9,000 people need homes, many of them in remote rural areas. I read recently in the papers that Albyn Housing Society has put in a bid for 50 properties but only 14 will be supported with funding. Albyn talked about its concerns about building in rural areas. Aileen McLeod said that the provision of affordable housing in rural areas has always been challenging. It is becoming even more challenging. We need to ensure that money is ring fenced for such areas, so that housing associations do not have to bid competitively and so that we can provide much-needed housing.
Maureen Watt made clear the Government’s policy towards housing associations when she confirmed our suspicions that the Government is looking to raid housing associations’ reserves. Housing associations, for the most part, have charitable status, which depends on their having reserves that cover the cost of maintaining their houses in a good state of repair. If the SNP raids those budgets, its legacy will be poor-quality, dilapidated housing in Scotland and the demise of our charitable housing associations.
If housing associations have such reserves, as some do, is it not the case that they are not using those reserves for repairs? Should not the reserves be used on a rainy day like today?
Housing associations’ reserves are there to ensure that their houses remain in a fit and proper state, not just this week or this month but into the future. Associations must show the charity regulator that they can maintain the houses into the future.
There are 160,000 people on waiting lists and we need action. We need affordable, good-quality houses in the right places. The building of 6,000 social rented houses a year would be a start. Will the SNP keep its promise to the Scottish people and deliver those houses?
We have had a good debate, with excellent speeches from all parties—well, nearly all parties. The Government will take forward the points that have been raised. Siobhan McMahon, for example, made a number of suggestions, and we will look seriously at them to ascertain whether we can move them forward. We have never claimed that we have a totality of wisdom, although having listened to some parties’ front-bench speakers I think that on this subject we have a monopoly.
Every politician and Government must be judged on their track record. It is not just what we say; it is what we do. I have been looking at the track record of Labour and the Liberal Democrats on housing in Scotland and I have found some interesting statistics—facts, Presiding Officer. Fact number 1: when Labour and the Liberal Democrats were running the Government of Scotland during the first eight years of the Scottish Parliament, they built a grand total of 346 council houses; during those eight years, there were three years in which they built no council houses at all.
Later. Sit doon the noo till you hear the facts.
We have heard a great deal this morning from Labour and the Liberal Democrats about the levels of subsidy. However, they did not mention the fact that they gave no subsidy whatsoever to councils—zilch. We are giving £30,000 a unit to councils to build houses.
I am always entertained to hear the minister rediscover in every housing debate statistics from previous terms of previous Governments. Of course, his responsibility is for his term in government and particularly, in this debate, for the plans that he has laid before us. Why does he plan to spend £1 billion less on affordable housing in this session than was spent in the previous session?
I thought that that was meant to be an intervention, not a speech.
While Labour and the Liberal Democrats built an average of 45 council houses a year, we are building 13 times that. That is what we are doing here and now. Of course, they talk about the RSLs but, if we look at their record, we can see that, on average, they built 10 per cent fewer housing association houses than we have done. Even with the reduced subsidy to the housing associations, we have built more housing association houses, year after year for four years, than they did.
For six of the eight years of the Labour-Liberal Democrat Administration, Mr Macdonald was a minister, as was Mr Henry. Indeed, Mr Chisholm—who is no longer in the chamber—had direct ministerial responsibility for housing for two years. I have checked how many council houses he built: zilch. I do not think that the Labour Party is in a good position to criticise others, especially when it was a Labour chancellor and a Labour Prime Minister who reduced capital spending for this Government and this Parliament by 36 per cent. I think that the Labour Party has a real cheek to demand more spending by us when it cut our budget by such an amount.
I will, later.
Despite that cut, two weeks ago we announced a programme for new house building that is unprecedented in Scotland in the past 30 years. [Interruption.] I say to Lewis Macdonald that he can fall off his chair telling fibs. Two weeks ago, we announced a total investment in new housing in Scotland of £459 million. Some £110 million of that comes from the investment in innovation fund and £340 million comes from other sources.
What matters is not the level of subsidy that we put in, but the quality and number of houses that we get out. For that investment of £459 million—nearly half a billion—we will get more than 4,300 new homes built in Scotland. Just before you go, Presiding Officer, I can tell you that 70 per cent of them are for social rented housing. However, the other 30 per cent are very important as well. Labour derides anything that is not, strictly termed, social rented housing. However, that other 30 per cent is taking people off the waiting list and stopping people going on the waiting list. By putting money mainly into social renting but also helping the mid-market, engaging in shared equity and engaging in the reuse of empty properties—for example, by giving money to Tory-led South Ayrshire Council, which wanted to invest in an innovative idea that obviously did not come from Alex Johnstone—we are taking people off the waiting list and stopping them going on to the waiting list. That is extremely important.
We have a lot to be proud of in our record during the first four years of an SNP Government, and in our plans for the future. We are utterly committed to giving priority to building new houses.
A lot of members mentioned fuel poverty during the debate, and we heard a very good statement on that in Parliament yesterday. One of the most effective ways of dealing with fuel poverty is building new homes to the new building regulations. When I became Minister for Housing and Communities, one of my first visits was to the Lochside estate in Dumfries. I met a single mum who had three teenaged kids. She had moved from an old two-bedroom flat, where her weekly gas bill was £40, to a brand-new, two-storey, four-bedroom house with new levels of building standards, and her gas bill had gone down to £36 a month. That did not just take her out of fuel poverty; it took her out of poverty entirely. That should be the objective of the Parliament, and it is the objective of this Government.
I congratulate the Tories on fielding someone from the old Tory party alongside someone who wants to discard it and set up a new Tory party. I do not know whether its housing policy will be the same, but they will not need many pages to write it on because they do not seem to have a housing policy, except to moan and groan about the consequences of the cuts that are being made by their own party at Westminster.
The housing policy in totality cannot be judged by the level of subsidy alone, although that is important. The figure of £40,000 is interesting, but I emphasise that it is a benchmark figure and not a maximum. When we need to give more than £40,000 per unit, we will do so. Indeed, we have done so. Sometimes the subsidy can be more than £100,000 per unit, such as in remote communities on some of our islands.
We doubled the original amount for the investment in innovation fund because of the quality of the bids that we received. Many of those bids from housing associations show that they are building houses for a subsidy of far less than £40,000. For example, one of this Government’s many innovations has been the introduction through the national housing trust initiative—it will come through other means as well—of giving a rental guarantee instead of giving a capital subsidy. That allows the developer and the housing association to raise the money to build houses under reasonable terms and conditions. The rental guarantee costs the Scottish Government £2,000 per house, compared with the capital subsidy that was £65,000 per house. For the same amount of money, we can build many more houses. What matters to the folk on the waiting list is not the level of subsidy, but whether a house is available for them to move into.
The Government south of the border is cutting social housing by 80 per cent. We are building houses for the people of Scotland. We are building high-quality houses—
We have got the finance. We have already announced £459 million as a starter for 10, and we will continue to fulfil all our commitments to the people of Scotland by building homes fit for the 21st century.