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Housing

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

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Photo of Jim Hume Jim Hume Liberal Democrat

I am in my first minute.

I congratulate Mary Fee on bringing the debate to the chamber; the Scottish Liberal Democrats will support her motion later today.

Just last month the Scottish Government published its latest housing bill. The bill contains some useful measures such as the overdue regulation of letting agents, the ending of the right to buy and more local flexibility in social housing allocations for landlords. However, none of that will, in any meaningful way, drive down the appalling length of Scotland’s housing waiting lists. The housing minister’s own press release highlighted that there are 400,000 people on waiting lists for housing association and council homes, which is an astonishing figure.

What the quarterly housing statistics never tell us is just how long those people have been on those lists. Information that I obtained last year revealed that two thirds of the 180,000 people on the council house application lists had been there for more than 12 months—a 6 per cent increase on the year before.

More than 60,000 of those applicants had been waiting for over three years. Let us imagine someone who has arrived at the decision that their living circumstances are no longer adequate and that an application for a new home is necessary, and then let us consider that, three years later, they are no further forward in extricating themselves from those circumstances. We can then begin to imagine the damage that is being done to the welfare of families across the country.

Why have we arrived at this point? As others have said, we can probably begin with the 29 per cent real-terms cut in the housing budget, which led to the destructive policy decision in 2010 to cut the subsidies to councils and housing associations. The cut from £70,000 per home to just £40,000 has had serious consequences: a 29 per cent reduction in the number of completions of homes for social rent; a 42 per cent reduction in housing association completions alone over the past three years; and a decline in the public sector housing stock in each year under the SNP Government. Although the minister announced in the summer an increase to subsidy levels, they are still some way short of 2010 levels.

The situation is bad now, but we need to be mindful of what lies further down the track. With people living longer and Scotland’s population continuing to grow, it is estimated that an additional half a million homes will be needed by 2035. Research by the previous Scottish Government, which was undertaken before the recession and the subsequent need for more social housing, revealed that 8,000 new homes for social rent were required each year to satisfy demand. The Government’s target is to build half of that.

On another note, the minister must check her facts and bring more balance to the debate. She says in her amendment that only six council houses were built in the last four years of the Labour-Lib Dem Administration. That in itself is wrong, but the minister, like all SNP members, continually fails to acknowledge the 19,704 approvals of new housing association homes under the Administration in that time. That was nearly 20,000 homes for social rent. I gently remind the minister that that is her target for the five years of the current session of Parliament and that it remains to be seen whether it will be achieved, given the recent decline in new housing association homes. In the eight years under the Lib Dem-Labour coalition, the figure for housing association new-build approvals and local authority new-build starts was 33,118. The Government has some way to go to match that record. Let us not concentrate only on council houses, because housing association houses were also built.

Prior to last week’s publication of the white paper, we were promised that it would answer all our questions and would detail what an independent Scotland would look like. Last week, more than 400,000 people were asking how they would find a new home in an independent Scotland, and they are still asking this week.

Despite the white paper being heralded as an historic document—the most important in Scottish history since the declaration of Arbroath—its 670 pages yielded three on housing. In those three pages, the Scottish Government is at great paints to highlight the constraints that are imposed on it that hamper its ability to provide affordable housing. I do not recall Westminster compelling the SNP to renege on its manifesto commitment to build 6,000 homes for social rent every year or to cut the subsidy that is provided for each home.

Would it not be fair to surmise that, with just three pages of the white paper devoted to housing, and given the Scottish Government’s failure to bring a debate to the chamber, it simply does not have the answers, the commitment or the passion to solve this crisis?