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Housing

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 4th December 2013.

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Photo of Mary Fee Mary Fee Labour

No—I have just taken one.

Where was the minister when that information was reported in July? Why has there been no Government debate to discuss the crisis in housing?

On the funding of affordable housing, Audit Scotland warned that the Government had yielded that its approach was flawed after it accepted all the recommendations of the financial capacity, affordability and development subsidy working group. Long before the final report, RSLs had indicated to me that the subsidy levels had been cut too much and that that was having a detrimental impact on the services that they provided and on planning for future housing developments. With £3 billion of private borrowing, there was a danger that reserves would be used, and many RSLs were struggling to gain access to new lending, unless they had significant reserves.

In recent years, the housing association grant per unit has been cut from £70,000 to £42,000. The average cost of building a social rented home is around £125,000. The Scottish Government recently announced an increase in that grant but, given the extent of the cut in the grant, it is easy to see why RSLs are struggling to build new homes.

The motion also raises the issue of homelessness. Statistics show that, since 2007, there has been an increase in the number of households in temporary accommodation, albeit that that is mostly down to the recession and the tough economic conditions that followed. Despite our having legislation that guarantees anyone who presents themselves as homeless access to emergency temporary accommodation, it was reported at the weekend that our largest council has been turning people away. I hope that the minister will address that.

The Shelter Scotland campaign that states that 4,847 children will wake up homeless on Christmas day is to be commended. Labour members support Shelter, which, in addition to reaching out for public support, seeks to change the guidelines on minimum standards of temporary accommodation and to give families the legal right to challenge the appalling conditions that they are often forced to live in. Children and expectant mothers need to be protected from damp and dangerous accommodation. It is clear that, with 157,700 people on waiting lists and 23,000 houses unoccupied, more needs to be done. The need for a national housing action plan is palpable.

There are many reasons for homelessness, such as relationship breakdown, income or job loss, and, crucially, the callous Tory welfare reform agenda. However, the effects of homelessness on many areas or aspects of people’s lives cannot be overestimated, especially for children and young people.

The Scottish empty homes partnership, which was launched in 2012, has returned to use only 200 of the estimated 23,000 empty properties. Last year, only 72 were brought back into use by councils. It would be interesting to assess where those empty properties can be found. Are they in rural or urban areas? Are they in areas of deprivation or more affluent areas? Assessing the location of those empty properties could emphasise returning them to use, so we call on the housing minister to address the concern about empty homes and say whether they could be included in a national housing action plan, especially when it is reported that it costs far less to return a house to the market than to build a new one.

Scotland’s census results show us that population increases and changing demographics mean that greater demand is to be expected in future. The results underline the scale of the challenge and, for the first time ever, there are more single-person households—more than one third of homes are now one-person households—which can be attributed to the increase in the number of pensioners. That figure alone creates pressure on housing policy. How does the Scottish Government plan to address the expected 80 per cent increase in the number of pensioners between now and 2050, with most of the increase occurring in the next 25 years? Also, when looking at the personalisation and self-directed support agenda, we need to meet the housing demand of disabled people, to allow them more independence and more freedom.

The Parliament also faces the major challenge of ending fuel poverty. The Scottish Government has committed itself to ending fuel poverty through lower bills, which is to be achieved through the home energy efficiency programme for Scotland. Perhaps the minister can inform the chamber whether 2016 is still the target. If so, can she explain the white paper pledge to end fuel poverty? Is it an admission that the Scottish Government cannot achieve that despite its HEEPS pledges?

Much was made in the white paper of ending the bedroom tax, and that is quite right. That unjust policy must be ended, but why does the SNP want to wait until 2016 and do it only in the event of a yes vote? Instead of playing political football with this horrid tax, will the minister say whether she will back Jackie Baillie’s bill to protect tenants now? Why should vulnerable Scots be used as pawns in the SNP’s attempt to break up Britain? No one in this chamber can deny that the Scottish Government can do more to mitigate the effects of the bedroom tax but, for political reasons, it chooses not to.