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Housing

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

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Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

No—I will carry on for the moment.

The minister made a wonderful claim about a manifesto commitment to build all these affordable houses—but no; the commitment was to build social rented houses and, in a bit of sleight of hand after its election, the Government changed its target to make it easier to meet.

That is not the only sleight of hand in which this Government has been involved. Another piece of magic was its decision to count completions as well as starts, which meant that, when taken over the whole period, one could draw in houses that were started before the period in question began. Even better, if the approach was changed mid-period, one could actually count houses started in one year and finished in the next—in other words, they could be counted twice over. The Government’s figures in that respect have to be studied very closely.

There is also an in-built contempt for housing associations. The Government will deny it but, when it talks about councils to the exclusion of housing associations’ achievements, it undermines the contribution of those organisations. I have never ceased to be amazed at the way in which, reminiscent of an old Hammer horror film, housing associations have batted their eyelashes and swooned as the Government, like a vampire, sucks the very life-blood from them.

As for this Government’s actions and their results, yesterday’s housing statistics really are a damning indictment of the Government’s failure to address Scotland’s housing shortage. Under its stewardship, the supply of new homes has fallen by almost half. Perhaps we should not be surprised at that, given the Scottish Government’s choice to disproportionately slash the housing budget. Periodically, it unveils additions to the housing pot that are quite often funded by Barnett consequentials from that evil Tory Government south of the border. I am sorry—I should perhaps have put that phrase in quotation marks.

I believe that that is fiscal fancy footwork and that it is having a hugely detrimental effect on Scottish house-building levels. The uncertainty is, in my view, hampering progress and we need only look at the Scottish Government’s spending choices to see why. Its response is not to become more ambitious; instead, it resorts to the well-worn tactic of pointing the finger at global downturns and, of course, Westminster. It is the political equivalent of saying, “A big boy did it and ran away”, which is one of the three key defences that the Scottish Government regularly uses.

The long-awaited white paper on independence tells us many things. We will keep our phone numbers, we will still have mobile internet access and we will still be able to watch “Dr Who”. However, it does not tell us anything meaningful about how the SNP would build enough homes to house those who need them. We can all take comfort from the fact that an independent Scotland will still be called Scotland—I believe that that is in the white paper. However, we should not be surprised. Housing is a devolved issue, and given the SNP Government’s lamentable performance on housing with the powers that it already has, those who are languishing on the housing waiting list cannot expect a reversal in fortunes whatever the outcome of the referendum.

The SNP told us that it would seek to leverage in private investment to build social housing. That is a laudable aim, but where is the money and where are the houses? The best that the Government has come up with so far is the national housing trust, which is now limping along in its third incarnation. Yes, with the NHT we are seeing houses built, but let us look a little more closely. Once a tenant has moved into an NHT property, the clock is ticking. They have their home for as little as five years, and if they cannot afford to buy it after that time they are left with little option but to move out. Let us compare and contrast that with Conservative housing policy. The right to buy offered tenants the option of either continuing to rent their home or buying it if they chose to do so.

In key areas of policy, delivery by the SNP Government is unacceptable compared with that by previous Governments. Until the Government accepts its limitations and responsibility, there is no way forward. I support the motion in the name of Mary Fee.