Johnstone’s View - Record not to be proud of

This week, the Scottish Government decided to debate its ‘ambitious housebuilding programme’ in the Scottish Parliament.

It is a debate that occurs with regularity, and invariably involves a huge amount of self-congratulation from Ministers, ably supported by well-trained back-benchers giving their vocal approbation.

Sadly, especially for those languishing on housing waiting lists, or unable to get on the housing ladder across the Mearns, the Scottish Government’s record on housing is not really one to be proud of, and does not stand up to scrutiny.

For example, their original commitment was to build thirty thousand socially rented homes by March 2016. When it became apparent that this was unachievable, they changed the terminology so that it would be thirty thousand ‘affordable’ homes.

The obligation to deliver these homes for social rent was always going to be a challenge when it is placed against the backdrop of disproportionate cuts to the housing budget, that the Cabinet Secretary for Finance chose to make. By the time the housing budget was topped up again, progress had been lost, homes had not been built, and confidence among construction firms had evaporated.

To put this into perspective, it is widely recognised that we need to construct twenty five thousand homes every year across all tenures, for example, for sale, social rent, mid-market rent etc in order to keep pace with demand.

And herein lies another issue. Housing is an area of complex policy making, it is not enough to simply focus on one tenure and hope that somehow other housing sectors will magically resolve the overall shortfall in demand. It has not happened in the past, and it is ludicrous to suggest that it will happen now.

The Housing Minister makes great play about innovative funding mechanisms to encourage construction, but there is a significant point to be made here. The substantial sums of money that the Scottish Government use for schemes such as ‘Help to Buy’ and others, were actually allocated to Scotland from the Treasury of the Westminster Government; it has not been secured by careful negotiation with private investors.

And here lies another problem. On one hand the SNP wish to court the private sector to fund housing construction, but on the other hand they bring forward legislation which includes rent controls. Of course, in areas of high rent such as the north east, this might seem like a welcome move, but the real way to tackle high rents is not to hit the private sector with a legislative cosh, but to build more houses, give people more choice and let the landlords compete for business with lower rents and higher standards.

As it stands, the kind of legislation proposed by the Scottish Government is going to drive outside investment away from Scotland and towards other parts of the UK where outdated and simplistic policy ideas are being abandoned in favour of new and radical ways of drawing in private investment to the rented housing sector.

If home seekers are going to meet their housing needs and their aspirations for their tenure of choice, and statistics show that home ownership remains by far the preferred option, then Government can, and should play a role in that.

However, that would take the kind of sophisticated understanding of housing that the Scottish Government has failed to demonstrate.

It means ensuring that the planning system is fit for purpose and that applications are not bogged down for weeks, months and even years in a process where the outcome is too often deeply uncertain.

It means encouraging investment in construction across all tenures, and that means securing inward investment by demonstrating that Scotland is a good place to do business; a place that offers a safe trading environment for the long term and not somewhere that simply pays lip service to the private sector and then promotes legislation which makes the private sector too nervous to invest.

It also means that the Scottish Government cannot simply indulge in playing the numbers game for the headlines. There is no point in building the kind of houses people do not want to live in, simply to try and meet the numbers that appear to simply have been plucked out of the air.

When the SNP promised thirty thousand homes for social rent, they were never going to achieve it. Now they are promising to surpass that on a grand scale and deliver fifty thousand affordable homes.

They do not tell us just how they are going to achieve that when they failed previously, but it should sound a note of caution that building houses in manifestos is an entirely different thing to building houses in our communities. People need places to live, not excuses.