HOUSING should be one of the most urgent topics for public-minded Scots. We have an evident crisis; we have many fluent advocates and activists in this field; and we have some (though not the full range) of the governing powers that might address it.

I’ve seen the programme for the forthcoming Common Weal conference, Housekeeping Scotland – happening the day before the SNP conference begins on October 8 – and it is a full menu of reforming busyness. Need something to do in your “day job”? Enough here for any minister.

But I was struck this week by two Scottish news reports which touch on the more elemental aspects of housing: how central it is to how we see the world, and how (even in a developed country in 2017) it can still fail to keep us safe.

The second story first: the discovery that 57 private buildings in Glasgow are covered in the same combustible cladding (ACM) that was involved in the Grenfell Tower conflagration in London a few months ago. ACM has also been discovered on the new Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, and in 44 Scottish schools. Across the UK, 111 buildings with the material – made from aluminium, polyethylene and stone-wool – failed a firetest in August.

Pursuing this issue relentlessly is an all-too-human response. The horrific, blackened tombstone of Grenfell stands like a giant reproach to all who have managed to gaze upon it in London, and far beyond.

Grenfell is the anti-Shard (that ziggurat of status and money which now dominates the skies of the metropolis’s centre). You might even wish it to stand for as long as possible, as a provocation to the gulf between rich-and-poor in this megacity.

But better by far to prevent such disasters happening at all.

In Scotland, housing advocates are warning very sternly against any prideful complacency over housing safety.

A report by a Sunday paper in June noted that the Scottish Housing Quality Standard, which applies to 594,000 social houses in Scotland, requires that each house has only one smoke alarm – and they don’t even have to check that it’s working.

The SHQS also measures for damp and condensation, which badly affects the health of residents – but 45 percent of social housing doesn’t meet its own “tolerable standards”. No surprises there at another indicator of Scottish economic inequality, nor at the usual frustrations that we don’t command enough of our national resources and development to definitively deal with poverty’s enduring effects.

But the other “housing” story of the week drives us right back to the very roots of sovereignty itself. Working on the mains network between Ayrshire and Glasgow, engineers at Scottish Water have uncovered a Neolithic farming settlement outside Kilmarnock, dated to be around 6000 years old. Huge holes for timber posts were revealed in the dig, along with fragments of storage pottery.

This indicated, said the archaeologists, “a large house, probably home to an extended family or group of families”. They were among the first communities in Ayrshire, said the experts, to “adopt a sedentary lifestyle, clearing areas of forest to establish farms, growing crops such as wheat and barley and raising livestock such as cattle, sheep, goats and pigs.”

This turn to agriculture – in which humans stop nomadically hunting and gathering, and literally put down sticks to build and sustain their homes – is one of the fulcrum moments in human history.

In The Patterning Instinct, Jeremy Lent defines agriculture as the beginning of human “anxiety” itself. As cultivating farmers, we don’t just rely on natural bounty any more, but generate surpluses of food and other materials. This we hoard for the future, and regard as a resource which we must defend – which starts to generate hierarchy and status.

(The Kilmarnock find dates from the same era in which areas such as Sudan and Bulgaria show graves that start to indicate social inequality. Most people are buried in their rags – but a select few are found with ivory bracelets, copper artefacts, hundreds of pots).

As we domesticated ourselves, our animals and our crops, we became hugely worried about what we have to do to keep this precarious new enterprise going… Any of that sound vaguely familiar? Maintaining the integrity of the homestead has never been a stress-free affair. But one of the points that contemporary housing activists make – for example, see the superb book Rethinking the Economics of Land and Housing by Ryan-Collins, Lloyd and Macfarlane – is that history is a great teacher when it comes to housing.

The authors state very clearly that, unless we act consciously, we could be looking at the 20th century as something of a blip. A period where state interventions into land, housing and finance “allowed millions to achieve the dream of a decent, secure home”. Instead of “renting from a small, wealthy minority of property owners” – as it ever was, and as it now threatens to be again.

So whether you’re a Neolithic from Killie, or a millennial looking dumbfounded at the housing ladder, the radical housing activists have the same message for you: land is land. Meaning, as a fixed quantity on the planet’s surface, you can’t make more land to make more money (unlike a iPhone, or any other product or service).

This is why struggles over how to define land, and its ownership, are so eternal. It’s also the reason why our recent achievements in public and social housing – or even the era when mortgages were designed to support residence, rather than accumulation and speculation – were so much the target of New Right elites in the 1970s and 1980s, and then of full neoliberalism in the 1990s.

So housing and land reformers are battling away with a serious burden of human history of their shoulders – and a recent turn backwards to the bad old ways. But I find their current arguments sharp, engaged, and relevant at all levels.

Can it be right, many of them argue, that our banks are largely engaged in providing capital for ever-inflating mortgages – rather than that capital being ploughed back into productive investments, to develop new technologies and industries?

The French economist Thomas Piketty pointed out how property was sucking the capital of the 21st century towards it – at the cost of our stagnating societies and economies.

As for everyday housing policy, at the level of our neighbourhoods, towns and cities, the options are many for an active Scottish Government. They can pass legislation – such as a land value tax, and various community purchasing powers – that compel owners of fallow land in urban areas to develop their properties. Rather than wait for land prices to raise.

Also, they could regard major public housebuilding programs holistically. How many societal factors can it improve at once? Efficient and community-friendly public housing can reduce fuel costs, improve wellbeing and health indicators, and contribute to environmental targets.

This can be the repair of old stock, as well as new build. There are also over 34,000 homes in Scotland sitting literally unused. Yet to repair a house incurs 20 per cent VAT, while to build one incurs the zero rate. Can these be at least equalised, ask the campaigners? At the very least, this is a generous schedule of employment for many Scots.

This housing revolution could also come in a variety of social forms: cooperatives and other forms of collective living, community land trusts, self-build communities.

In an odd way, we are lucky with our inheritance. Much of the passion for decent homes in Scotland thrums with the history of rural (and urban) dispossession.

And as for the investment required? The Scottish Government seems minded to create a National Investment Bank, to facilitate a range of low-interest, socially-minded projects. But Common Weal’s Ben Wray identifies other financing instruments – housing bonds established by local councils using their pension funds, co-ownership with construction companies – that are worth exploring.

Always good to end with a limerick, I find – and one which should cement land and housing issues to the centre of our attention in Scotland:

A captious economist planned

To live without access to land

He nearly succeeded

But found that he needed

Food, water, and somewhere to stand.

The Housekeeping Scotland Convention is on October 7, at Glasgow University’s Sir Charles Wilson Building.

Tickets at bit.ly/HousekeepingScotland