What a shameful indictment it is that, nearly a quarter of a century since devolution, and since housing has been solely in the hands of the Scottish Parliament, it is still necessary to lodge a motion on the scandal of damp housing in Scotland. Why is that? Is it because there are too many landlords in this Parliament and too few tenants? We do have a problem of the overrepresentation of landlordism—the register of members’ interests is bulging with landlords. Is it because there are too few representatives in the Parliament who have first-hand experience of poverty and the decrepit slum housing that is below the tolerable standard that invariably goes with it, or is it because the Government of the past 15 years has simply had the wrong political priorities?
Next march will mark the centenary of the Housing (Financial Provisions) Act 1924—the John Wheatley housing act. By common consent, it is not just the most important piece of legislation but the most important practical action and act of socialism of that first-ever Labour Government.
Wheatley took the concept that he had developed as an Independent Labour Party councillor in Glasgow, representing the slum dwellers of the city, and worked with people such as Mary Barbour, and John Maclean, whose centenary we celebrate this year. He also worked with the tenants movement and the trade unions to invest the surpluses from the Glasgow Corporation trams to clear out the slum landlords and to invest in decent council housing.
He scaled that concept up nationally and, in so doing, he unleashed the means for some of the finest council houses ever built—“homes, not hutches”. That is the kind of national vision that we need now, but it is also the kind of national urgency that we need now, because I tell you this: the experience of Wheatley, of Mary Barbour, of Maclean and of other pioneers was that bad housing led to bad health.
Wheatley, as minister for health, had responsibility for housing, too. In 1945, Nye Bevan was not just the minister for health but minister for housing, too. They knew that we needed the clearance of slums to ensure the clearance of public health ills such as tuberculosis. So I call on all members of this Parliament to start giving a much higher priority to housing, and for much higher investment, too. Let us have the imagination of a century ago.
Finally, I do not want to overinflate the minister’s ego, but I have long held the view that the housing minister should be a dedicated minister of Cabinet rank, because there is a housing crisis, there is a public health crisis and there is a class-based crisis.
So we are indebted to Foysol Choudhury for lodging this motion, but we need to send out the message that Parliament does not bring about change; it is the people who bring about change. It was the people outside Parliament—the rent strikers in Glasgow—who brought about the Increase of Rent and Mortgage Interest (War Restrictions) Act 1915. It was the people outside Parliament who built the movement for change that culminated in the Housing (Financial Provisions) Act 1924, and it will be the people once again—the Living Rent campaigners, the tenants organisations and the trade unions—who will build up pressure on this Parliament to use the powers that we have to build a better future and to banish damp housing finally to the history books.