EMERGENCY – what emergency?

Anas Sarwar wanted the Scottish Government to declare a national housing emergency yesterday and that happened just before the Labour-led debate. So that’s alright then? Well no.

We have a housing emergency but a Holyrood debate that lasted around an hour with garbled contributions, warm words from the Scottish Government and no detail.

OK, maybe that will finally come.

But Wednesday's performance wasn’t anywhere near good enough.

Look at the numbers. Despite a better track record on social housing for years – 40% better than England and 70% better than Wales – social rent new builds in Scotland last year were running at half pre-Covid levels. That was thanks to a mix of construction inflation (higher than food inflation for the last three years) and supply shortages after Brexit.

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Meanwhile the Liz Truss mini-budget ramped up mortgage rates, worsened affordability and left more desperate people chasing anything vaguely affordable.

But then, when the sector was struggling and totally out of the blue, Humza Yousaf’s Scottish Government cut the social housing budget by 26% in February. Wallop.

It was a whopping cut set against an ambitious target to build 110,000 new affordable homes by 2032. Why the cut? No-one knows but it looked like the whole capital funding cut from Westminster to Holyrood passed straight on to social housing providers.

The result was entirely predictable. Yesterday Edinburgh Council officers warned no new grant-funded affordable homes are likely to be approved this year. Every other city is in the same situation and most have declared local housing emergencies. So, there’s no chance of reaching the 110,000 new homes needed by 2032.

According to David Bookbinder, director of the Glasgow and West of Scotland Forum of Housing Associations (GWSF): “That target has been dead for some time and the funeral has come and gone.”

“The continued implication by Ministers that it remains achievable isn’t helpful and isn’t fooling anyone in the sector. The Government must admit this and reverse the 26% cut to capital spending immediately.”

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So that’s what’s needed. Did it happen yesterday? No. So, the emergency will just continue. And that’s dangerous in lots of ways.

Housing was the top concern for most Dutch voters prompting Geert Wilders’ far-right Freedom party to finish first in last year’s election after blaming immigrants for the crisis. Meanwhile the sheer unaffordability of homes is the biggest single driver of rising support for Sinn Fein.

It’s the same story across Europe – but especially Britain.

As a Guardian report put it recently: “Housing has become a home for money not a home for people.” Especially not for younger generations.

Is that what Scots simply have to accept?

Certainly the Scottish Government had the wit to abolish Thatcher’s right to buy in 2016, stopping the constant leak of social housing to the private sector, something Manchester mayor Andy Burnham demanded from Rachel Reeves for England this week – in vain.

And it matters. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Scotland’s lower poverty rates are a direct result of our greater reliance on social not private housing.

But that funding cut must be reversed.

And we must discuss Scotland’s big underlying problems with land and housing instead of just exchanging statistics, otherwise kids taken out of poverty by the Scottish Child Payment will be condemned to precarious lives in temporary accommodation.

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Let’s start with the crazy exclusion of community house builders from rural housing funds.

As the Isle of Eigg Trust tweeted last week: “Shockingly … the year-old £25m rural key worker housing fund has built ZERO new homes – only local authorities & RSLs [Registered Social Landlords] are eligible to apply. Development Trusts like those on Eigg & Tiree could have built 50+ homes with that fund.” This is scandalously closed minded and should be changed immediately.

Only a couple of RSLs operate in the Highlands and Islands and they must establish if there’s real housing need before deciding to build. But folk in sparsely populated rural areas often don’t join the single “pan-Highland” waiting list because they don’t want a house hundreds of miles away, and without a visible house to “bid” for, there seems no point.

The result is that when housing cash is finally available, it doesn’t go to areas where no-one’s on the waiting list.

Thus, the crisis of rural homelessness continues, housing cash remains unspent and the myth that young folk don’t want to live beyond the “bright lights” continues.

This would make you scream. And it’s so easy to reverse. Stop excluding community trusts from house-building kitties.

Yesterday’s debate touched on second homes in rural areas – Rhoda Meek last week wrote: “It is a simple fact that around 46% of houses [on Tiree] sit empty most of the year. And the reality is that if we keep being too polite to talk about it, we will shortly reach a point where it is too late. Tiree is already desperately short of working-age adults.”’

From my experience, it’s the same EVERYWHERE and has been for decades. On a recent trip to Arran I heard the best paying job for a local is now cleaning a holiday let.

It’s all wrong. But as Rhoda points out, restricting folk who let out homes weekly may only prompt house sales to someone doing the “classic” six-week stay a year and returning even less to the local economy.

I’ve written many times about the Norwegian remedy for this – a system called boplikt (the duty of place) where some homes are permanently designated first homes and can only be bought by someone on the local electoral roll, whilst second homes (mostly off-grid huts) are permanently second homes and cannot be lived in all year round. This system has worked for 80 years but there’s been no interest from any Scottish political party.

The Scottish Government has shown interest in the Compulsory Sales Order, championed in the National by Andy Moseley, of the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership. Will they fast track it now to let the authorities reclaim 30,000 Scottish homes which have lain empty for more than a year – many slowly becoming derelict?

How is that OK in a housing emergency?

A Compulsory Sales Order rather than a purchase order lets the council enforce change without the hassle of buying. CSOs were recommended by the Scottish Land Commission but then Covid struck. And then delays. And the latest mention last September was that the Scottish Government would “continue to consider” the case.

Stop considering! If the SNP is serious CSOs need to get the go-ahead now.

Without boldness from the SNP, the housing emergency will simply follow the path of the climate emergency – declared as a goal without any realistic strategy to achieve it. And alert to that recent failure, voters will not forgive a second. As my mum would have said, what we had yesterday was all gong and no dinner.

Of course it’s galling to hear opposition parties gaily call for millions in extra expenditure without suggesting how to raise the extra cash or what current spending should go. Indeed, in the Tories’ case they still object to higher tax rates that raised £1bn for the Scottish budget. Go figure.

It was good to hear Douglas Ross challenged when Good Morning Scotland interviewer Laura Maxwell asked if he would lobby the UK Government for more cash to help the Scottish Government deliver ALL the extra spending he demands.

You know the answer.

But whilst all of this is true – it’s not enough. The clash of stats is no substitute for a proper, thoughtful, radical debate.

And if we aren’t there after 25 years of Holyrood and the “reset” achieved last week, when the hell will it happen?