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Housing

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

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Photo of John Wilson John Wilson Scottish National Party

Since I was elected, and despite what the Labour Party states in its motion, it should be noted that the Scottish Government has brought numerous housing debates to the chamber. If my memory serves me correctly, the first debate in which I spoke was on housing. I welcome any debate that allows for greater discussion and scrutiny of the issue of housing.

In many ways, the current direction of housing was set by the Scottish Government in its discussion paper in 2010, “Housing: Fresh Thinking, New Ideas.” When we examine housing and the issues surrounding it, we need to consider the historical context. Over the past 30 years, the UK Government has repeated policies of large-scale voluntary stock transfers, which have produced many changes in the provision of social housing.

Moreover, there was a constant push by the two Liberal-Labour Administrations in Scotland towards large-scale voluntary stock transfers of housing stock being marketed as community ownership. Some might say that that was pushing the model of community ownership a bit too far. In fact, we had Wendy Alexander, as a Labour housing minister, pushing for the right to buy to be extended to housing associations.

The critique offered by Labour’s motion chimes with a well-worn theme developed previously. There was criticism that the housing association grant has been reduced. Richard Baker just referred to the HAG. I remind members that the grant is a public subsidy. When it first came into existence, it was not supposed to be there for ever and a day. Throughout the previous Liberal-Labour Administration, it was on a downward path. There needs to be recognition that the Scottish Government’s capital budget was reduced in substantial terms by the UK coalition Government, hence the reason for looking at these budgets and the HAG funding that is being made available to housing associations and others.

That issue ties up with the wider issue of housing affordability. People cannot afford rents at the current rates in the private rented sector. Patrick Harvie alluded to that. The current financial climate brings more financial pressure to those in the private sector who are trying to keep a roof over their head. More people are applying to council housing waiting lists and looking to social housing to get a roof over their heads. In that respect, I welcome the fact that the Scottish Government, through various discussion papers, has highlighted fairer rents, although rent setting is limited in many respects to the landlords from whom individuals rent their homes.

Additionally, it is worth noting that the community growth area where I live, which was proposed in 2006 by private developers, is finally going out to consultation this month. The possibility of delivering 2,600 private houses in an area of essential housing need has been continually delayed by local authority inaction and failure to sit down with the developers and discuss the issues surrounding the developments. In relation to house building, we must consider what is hampering such developments, including the issue of the international financial crisis and the effects of the situation that we faced in 2008. There are housing developers who have been keen to move forward and develop housing but who have been hampered because local authorities have not had the vision to take on those developments and look at how they can assist house builders to go ahead.

The Scottish Government does not operate in a policy vacuum. Scotland is severely constrained under the current devolved settlement. That is even more apparent in respect of the benefit changes that have been announced by the UK Government since its emergency budget in June 2010 and almost every subsequent financial statement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. A more responsive and effective welfare system is not helped by arbitrary changes in the benefits system, such as the so-called bedroom tax.

I will address Alex Johnstone’s point about the wonderful policies pursued by successive Conservative Governments. The right-to-buy legislation that was introduced in 1979—it is actively promoted and supported by some in this chamber—has meant increased waiting lists for social housing since the legislation was enacted. That has clearly had an impact on the achievement of homelessness targets that were set for local authorities under housing legislation.

It is important that we advocate a position of tenure neutrality. In Scotland, we have had for far too long a tenure policy rather than a fully structured housing policy. Only now, with the changes that the present Scottish Government has made to the right to buy, might we get an influential game changer that will assist people now and in future generations.

I welcome the debate—[Interruption.] Does Duncan McNeil want to intervene?