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Housing

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

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Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

I welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate, though I feel that I must apologise to members, as I seem to have arrived in the chamber with a speech that has nothing to say about independence—I hope that it will be acceptable if I give a speech that is only about housing. I say that in relation to both opening speeches. Housing is an important issue and I congratulate the Labour Party on, and thank it for, bringing the debate to the chamber, but I feel strongly that turning the debate into yet another tiresome spat between Labour and the SNP is not going to help anyone.

There is an argument to be made about the number of homes that are being built. I say to the Government that it is important to recognise that the social rented sector is about more than simply council house builds, on which it is proud of its figures. We need to look at the numbers in relation to need and not only, as the Government’s amendment does, in relation to the Labour and Liberal Democrat coalition’s record or what is happening in other parts of the UK. We need to look at supply in relation to need.

We should acknowledge, as I think the Labour motion might, that the Scottish Government cannot simply wish away the context of ill-conceived and socially damaging cuts from the UK Government. We should also acknowledge the statement in the briefing from the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations that

“getting the affordable housing supply programme back on track is no easy matter and not helped by the difficulties in raising private finance to complement the subsidy levels.”

No Scottish Government of any political persuasion would find this an easy area to deal with at present.

If there is a housing crisis, we also need to recognise that it is not entirely about people not having adequate and suitable accommodation available to them. My amendment leaves in the Labour Party’s comments about temporary accommodation because they are important, but there are many people who have suitable accommodation for whom that accommodation is becoming increasingly unaffordable. As my amendment does, I want to focus on the private rented sector, which has doubled in size in 10 years, or thereabouts, and is continuing to grow ever more expensive. The figures in the Citylets report show year-on-year rental increases in Glasgow and Edinburgh of 5, 6 or 7 per cent or more in some areas—and that at a time when incomes are static or falling for far too many people.

To rent in the private rented sector is a choice for some and we should acknowledge that there is nothing second class about renting instead of owning a property. It is a choice for some and we should respect that, but for many other people it is not a choice—it is the only housing that is available to them. Trapped between unavailable social rent and unattainable owner occupation, and with the increase in single-person households that has already been mentioned, many people are finding that the private rented sector is their only option.

If we recognise that private renting is no longer simply a free choice in a marketplace but the only housing that our society is providing for many people, I believe that the case becomes clear for regulating the private rented sector as social provision.

There are good and bad landlords. Members will recognise that from dealing with their constituency case loads over the years. There are also good and bad letting agents. There are certainly those who regard properties simply as investments and not as homes. The imperative is for homes to provide housing for people, rather than income for landlords who do not wish to provide a quality service in exchange. A colleague has mentioned the example of a constituent who was threatened with notice to quit, against which so many private tenants have no defence, simply for seeking private rented housing panel mediation in relation to a dispute over the heating system in the home. The landlord was unwilling to provide the appropriate remediation that was necessary. The tenant simply sought mediation and was threatened with notice to quit.

Constituents have contacted me—this will be a familiar story to many members from around the country—about repairs that have been outstanding for years in some cases. Landlords have passed them from pillar to post and have simply not resolved vital problems that affect the liveability of that housing—which, I say again, is the only housing that is available to many people.

The Government’s Housing (Scotland) Bill includes measures that I welcome, such as the abolition of the right to buy and the regulation of letting agents. However, although such steps are positive, I encourage the Government to consider other options such as those relating to the provision of feedback on landlords. Many people who are looking for a property can go online and find out whether their landlord is registered but they get little more information than that, and a mechanism that allowed tenants to provide feedback on the quality of service from a landlord or letting agent would give people the information that they need to sort the good landlords from the bad ones who are out there. We also need more measures on security of tenure and energy performance standards in the private rented sector.

Finally, I want to make a case for the reintroduction of something that some European countries never abolished in the first place: some level of rent control.