Johnstone’s View - We have a responsibility

Last week, as part of its Housing Bill, the Scottish Government ended the right for tenants in social rented housing to buy their homes.

Members of the Scottish Parliament come from a diverse range of backgrounds and arrive with political priorities which differ greatly. Our responsibility is to serve those who put us here and to serve the Scottish people as a whole.

Political principles often mean that individuals or parties in the Parliament will hold to a philosophy that sets us out on a limb. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the Conservative Party’s steadfast support for the right to buy.

Many people in Scotland aspire to own property and we have a responsibility to understand and support that where appropriate. We all agree that a house is not just a house, but a home. It is, however, appropriate for Scots to aspire to own the home that they live in and we should be willing to support that.

Many of us are lucky enough to be in a position to be homeowners through choice. We are able to participate in the market and use the resources that are available to us to buy our homes and live in them.

That is a privilege and we should all consider ourselves lucky to have it. Should it be a privilege for only the most wealthy in our communities?

I believe that we should aspire to give the right to own their home to everyone in society who is willing to make the necessary sacrifice to achieve that objective.

The Scottish Government appears to understand that. It has gone some way towards introducing shared equity schemes and other opportunities that will allow people to become home owners. However, the problem is that, as yet, we have failed to find an alternative way to enable that objective to be achieved on the scale of the right to buy.

Giving tenants the right to buy their council houses was, without doubt, the greatest driver for social change in Scotland in last 50 years.

Nearly half a million Scots took up the offer, creating, all over Scotland, strong, stable, mixed-tenure communities which to this day remain positive examples of their kind.

The policy has also served to drive the aspiration to home ownership and has seen Scotland change from a nation of home renters in the 1960s, to a nation of home owners in the 21st century.

The pressure to end the right to buy has existed in Scotland for some time, largely predicated on the idea that the practice was somehow, reducing the number of socially rented houses becoming available for new tenancies.

There is no evidence to support the idea that this so-called loss of social housing is really happening. Of the 1500 houses that were sold during the last full year for which information is available, only 347 were sold under the modernised right to buy.

However, 1173 houses were sold under the pre-2001 preserved right to buy, to people who had been tenants in their properties for more than 12 years—many for significantly longer than that. It seems obvious that those who exercised their right to buy were long-term tenants who, had they not decided to buy, would have remained long-term tenants.

Houses will not be freed up by removing their right to buy. In fact, few, if any of these houses might be freed for new tenancies as a result of the proposed change.

Not even this Scottish Government, however, can strip its citizens of a legal right without due legal diligence. Provisions will include a two-year period in which people who are entitled to exercise their right to buy will be able to make up their minds whether to exercise that right.

The effect of removing the right to buy will, I believe, be a last minute feeding frenzy of council house sales in which the Government may well lose rather more houses than it expects to save.

I believe that it is a mistake to move forward with the abolition of the right to buy at this time, and I believe that doing so will prove to be counterproductive, by the Government’s own criteria.

It is an essential part of our responsibility to ensure that we enable people to aspire to property ownership. For many, the only opportunity to accrue wealth in a modern society is to borrow against the value of a house and then pay it up over time.

We need to make mortgages more affordable and make the opportunity to buy homes more available to those on lower incomes.

The Conservative Party, through its support for the right to buy, has changed the dynamic of Scottish housing, and by rewarding those who aspired to self-improvement, it changed Scottish society for the better.