Johnstone’s View - Hustings on housing

Election time always brings with it a range of opportunities for aspiring politicians to engage with voters.

These opportunities, in their various forms, can also prove to be invaluable for voters who have yet to decide which way to cast their vote.

The most recent version of this is, of course, the televised Leaders’ Debates. These are a phenomenon we have adopted from America, and the run-up to these debates can be almost as interesting as the events themselves.

These high-level, carefully choreographed televised events do not always live up to expectations, despite the best of intentions. One of them during the Referendum campaign quickly descended into chaos. It was almost mesmerising to watch, and of course that other modern electoral tool - social media - almost lit-up, such was the level of commentary it attracted.

But hustings are another way the electorate has of engaging with those who seek to represent them. Often, hustings are organised around a specific interest, such as churches, small businesses or charities.

I enjoy taking part in hustings, and so I was delighted to attend one organised by the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations, although it was ironically overshadowed by the Scottish televised Leaders’ Debate.

I have a keen interest in housing; it forms a considerable part of my mailbag, whether it is an individual housing problem, a planning complaint, or the wider issue of delivering enough housing across Scotland to meet the needs of communities.

It is also a complex issue, bringing with it a need to build cohesive and sustainable communities, and avoiding the mistakes of past programmes.

It also complex because different areas have very different housing needs, and these bring with them their own construction challenges.

In urban areas, where higher numbers of houses are often built, construction brings economies of scale which reduces costs. Urban areas also enjoy easier access to construction staff and cheaper transport costs, among other things.

In areas such as the Mearns, however, rural construction can too often mean that economies of scale are lost and logistical costs are increased. For a Scottish Government desperately playing a numbers game of ‘catch up,’ building in rural areas is a less attractive proposition.

The facts speak for themselves; across Scotland there are almost 180,000 applicants on local authority waiting lists, and according to Scottish Government figures, over nine thousand are in Aberdeenshire, a stark increase from 2001 when the waiting list stood at fewer than five thousand.

With just 1227 local authority houses built across Scotland in 2013, we can see that even if every house built across Scotland was in Aberdeenshire, it still would not clear the waiting list in the Shire.

No discussion on housing would be complete without examining the Under Occupancy Charge, or ‘Bedroom Tax’ as opponents like to call it. The fact is that throughout Scotland, families are living in overcrowded accommodation, because larger properties are not available in the existing stock, and year on year, the Scottish Government are failing to build enough homes. Meanwhile, a family a couple of doors away might be living in a property that is too big for them.

It is fundamentally flawed that this situation exists, and vital that families living in large properties too big for their needs are encouraged to move into more suitably sized accommodation to free up bigger houses for those who need them. Until the Scottish Government gets its act together and gets the construction industry moving again, then mechanisms such as the under occupancy charge are necessary to maximise the use of our existing stock.

The bottom line is that we need to build more houses, yet the Scottish Government chooses to nibble at the edge of the problem, because its focus remains on constitutional change, despite the clear will of the Scottish electorate.

The Scottish Government has it in its power to deliver the houses we need. The fact that these houses are not being delivered isn’t the fault of Westminster, it isn’t the fault of local councils, and it isn’t the fault of the housing associations who make such a substantial contribution to addressing the housing shortage. The blame lies firmly at the feet of the Scottish Government, and it’s families in the Mearns and across Scotland who are paying the price, as they languish on housing waiting lists.