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Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Wednesday, May 15, 2024


Contents


Housing Emergency

The Presiding Officer (Alison Johnstone)

The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-13197, in the name of Mark Griffin, on Scotland’s housing emergency. I would be grateful if members who wish to speak in the debate would press their request-to-speak buttons.

16:09  

Mark Griffin (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests, which shows that I ceased to be the owner of a private rented property last summer.

Almost exactly six months ago, with the support of Shelter Scotland, I moved a motion for the Parliament to declare a housing emergency in Scotland, and will today move a similar motion in my name—again, supported by Shelter.

Six months ago, I warned of the estimated 700,000 people who are in housing need, the more than 9,000 children who are living in temporary accommodation and the two councils that had declared housing emergencies. At the time, the Government assured us that it would work to ensure that we have

“the right range and choice of homes to allow our communities to thrive.”—[Official Report, 22 November 2023; c 36.]

Six months ago, the Government refused to admit that there was a problem. The minister listened to the scale of the challenge, assessed the solutions, then sat by while his Government slashed the affordable housing supply budget by 26 per cent. That decision made a bad situation impossible.

Every 16 minutes, one household becomes homeless. Around 10,000 children are now in temporary accommodation. Three more councils have declared housing emergencies and more are likely to follow. The Scottish Housing Regulator has warned that 10 local authorities are at risk of systemic failure in homelessness services. House building is collapsing, with 24 per cent fewer new houses being built in Scotland this year. Housing associations are building fewer houses than at any point since 1998. West Dunbartonshire Council has told us that it is now highly unlikely to be able to approve any new social housing developments this year. Fife Council has predicted that the number of new social rented house starts there could be reduced by 50 per cent. That is a direct result of Scottish Government cuts.

I welcome the Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice’s comments in the media today. She is asking Parliament to “unite with one voice” and for work across all spheres of government to tackle the housing emergency, but the Government has lodged what is, to be frank, a self-congratulatory amendment that blames everyone and everything but the Government. The first step has to be to take responsibility for the facts that there are 10,000 children in temporary accommodation, that not enough homes are being built and that far too many homes are lying empty.

We need to start to come up with solutions; we have come to the chamber repeatedly with those solutions. Some have been adopted, but far more could be adopted. We asked the Government to increase council tax on second homes, to provide more support for people who are struggling with mortgages and to create a national acquisition programme to allow properties to be purchased with tenants in situ in order to prevent homelessness. The Government agreed and started progressing those, although not as quickly as we would have liked, but we have suggested so much more.

The Government should set an all-tenures house building target and reverse years of undersupply. The housing requirements in national planning framework 4 need to be revised and increased urgently. The planning system needs to be reformed and properly resourced, especially given the drain of planning expertise into the renewables sector and away from housing and council planning departments. We have suggested provision of additional national resource to support local authority teams in dealing with applications that are of national significance, which housing applications absolutely are.

Alongside council tax on second homes, council tax on empty homes should be increased, and the funding should be used to build more homes. Councils should have powers of compulsory sale and rental orders in order to force empty homes back into use, thereby removing blight from communities and giving families homes. We should look at the use of discounted homes for sale, with the price being permanently reduced in title deeds to create a positive cycle of affordable home ownership.

We have suggested looking at continental Europe and the innovative €1 houses model to encourage people to take on long-term empty homes and do the work to bring them back to life. We have talked about housing voids and the huge difficulties that councils and housing associations have in getting electricity supply connected to allow the houses to be allocated to families who need them.

We need all of that because Cyrenians and others are telling us that emergency accommodation is at full capacity every single night and that temporary accommodation is usually full by 8.30 in the morning, here in this city. When charities are saying that there is a housing emergency, when councils are saying that there is a housing emergency, when the private sector is saying that there is a housing emergency and when the public are telling us loud and clear that there is a housing emergency, there is no longer a debate: there is a housing emergency in Scotland.

I am pleased that the Government has finally come to terms with the reality that we are facing. It must now set out a clear plan of action to end the emergency that it helped to create. We are all living with the consequences of the economic illiteracy of our Tory Government. A Labour Government will sweep the Tories out of office and make better choices for this country, but we will need to take stock of the public finances and pick up the mess that we inherit. Now that the SNP has found the political will, within six months, to declare an emergency, it must use every available political and financial tool that it has at its disposal to end it.

I have been absolutely clear that we need to build more houses across all tenures. We have set out a range of policies on making homes affordable and helping those who are facing the mortgage time bomb.

I am glad that the Government has finally admitted that we have a problem. I look forward to seeing a Government action plan and, more crucially, a delivery plan that is developed in conjunction with Shelter and the other organisations that have contributed to the debate today, and that ends the housing emergency and gets kids into warm, safe and secure homes. The people who are at the sharp end of this Government-created crisis do not have any more time to wait.

I move,

That the Parliament believes that Scotland is in a housing emergency.

16:16  

The Minister for Housing (Paul McLennan)

I welcome this afternoon’s debate on housing. Before I get into the substance of my contribution, I will say that Mark Griffin knows that I meet him and Miles Briggs regularly and that I am happy to discuss any of the issues that he has talked about and any ideas that he has. I will touch on that in a little while.

Today’s debate offers us the chance to recognise the current housing emergency in Scotland, the reasons behind it and what we can do collectively to tackle it. In John Swinney’s first speech as First Minister last week, he remarked that this Parliament

“is not the collaborative place that it has been in the past”.—[Official Report, 7 May 2024; c 42.]

He is correct and he has committed his Government to working to create more agreement across the chamber. I would like to use today’s debate to reach out to colleagues. I already do, and that was touched on in yesterday’s debate on the Housing (Cladding Remediation) (Scotland) Bill. I intend to put all my energy into working collaboratively with members to deliver more social and affordable homes, to strengthen tenants’ rights and to end homelessness. I call on all members to join me on that mission.

I want to touch on some of the Government’s achievements, because context is really important. The Government is not afraid to challenge the status quo and to make bold decisions when they are needed. We abolished priority need in 2012. That was an immense milestone that really set Scotland apart. It provided a right to settled housing for homeless households and showed that Scotland was serious about ending homelessness.

In 2016, Scotland ended the right to buy, which was a UK Government policy that resulted in the sale of half a million social homes in Scotland. Half a million homes—let us look at that in context. As a result of that ambitious move, we estimate that up to 15,500 homes have been protected and will remain available to renters now and in the future.

In 2022, we changed local connection rules, giving people more choice in where they settle. We have taken firm action to reduce the use of unsuitable bed and breakfast accommodation and night shelters, and we are discussing that with local authorities as we speak.

We have embraced system change. The shift to rapid rehousing marked a cultural move away from the idea that prospective tenants have to be tenancy ready before being offered a settled home. We continue to fund the transition to rapid rehousing and the expansion of the housing first policy.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

I appreciate that the minister wants to defend the Government’s record, but has that not led us to the position that we are in today, in which the Government has conceded that there is a housing emergency? What new things is he going to do to reflect the emergency that he has now admitted?

Paul McLennan

Context and where we are is important. Interest rates are the highest they have been for a number of years, and that has impacted on the whole sector. Mark Griffin talked about the all-tenure approach, and I agree with him on that, but the rise in interest rates has impacted right across the sector. We have talked about construction costs, which have been very hard on the sector. Context is important. I will come on to some of the points that Willie Rennie has raised about what we are going to do next.

As I said, we have embraced system change, and the shift to rapid rehousing marked a cultural move away from the idea that tenants should be tenancy ready. I am proud of Scotland’s record on housing and homes, but we want to do much more. Of course we are proud of what we have done.

We want everyone to have a safe and affordable home that meets their needs. This year, we are making available nearly £600 million for the delivery of more affordable social homes.

Will the member take an intervention?

Paul McLennan

I am struggling for time—I have only five minutes—but I would be happy to pick up the issue with the member after the debate.

That includes a recent boost of £80 million over two years to facilitate the acquisition of existing properties and to help to reduce the number of households in temporary accommodation.

Since 2007, we have worked with partners to deliver more than 128,000 affordable homes, more than 90,500 of which were for social rent. There have been 40 per cent more affordable homes delivered in Scotland per head of population than have been delivered in England and more than 70 per cent more than have been delivered in Wales. However, we need to do more—of course we do, and I will not deny that.

We remain committed to delivering our target of 110,000 affordable homes by 2032, of which 70 per cent will be available for social rent and 10 per cent will be in our rural and island communities. We know that we need more social homes in order to end homelessness. We are taking action to increase housing supply, but some matters are beyond our control.

As I have mentioned, it is not just the Scottish Government that needs to play its part. The UK Government and the incoming UK Government need to play their part. Inflationary pressures, the impacts of Brexit and wider market conditions have contributed to rising construction costs and workforce challenges. We will keep working to mitigate those effects, but the UK Government’s policies continue to shape the housing market and are having lasting impacts. I have already discussed with Mark Griffin what we can do about that and how we can work together if the next UK Government is a Labour Government. He knows that I will continue that approach as we move forward.

Local government also needs to play its part. We know that local authorities are working extremely hard to deliver services for people who are experiencing homelessness, and we urge councils to continue working with us. I am meeting all local authorities in two weeks’ time to discuss the issues of voids, allocations and empty homes.

We have seen tremendously innovative practice in some councils where temporary homes are flipped to permanent tenancies. Others can learn from that. In certain areas, we are keen for local authorities to increase the pace of activity when it comes to empty homes and vacant council properties.

Although it will not completely solve our supply problems, making the best use of existing stock will help to meet local housing needs.

I must ask you to conclude, minister.

Paul McLennan

We will invite local authorities and associations to revisit their allocations policies and check that they remain fit for purpose during this housing emergency.

I am delighted to have been reappointed as housing minister. I commend the huge and important steps that have been taken in the past 25 years to improve housing policy and end homelessness. I do not want us to go backwards. We are facing major housing challenges, but this afternoon offers a chance to reflect—

You must conclude, minister.

Paul McLennan

—take stock of what has been achieved and agree what more can be done to tackle the housing emergency.

I move amendment S6M-13197.3, to insert at end:

“and that the housing emergency is more acutely felt in some parts of the country than others; acknowledges that the current situation is due to a combination of factors including those outwith the Scottish Government’s powers, including a decade of UK Government austerity, soaring inflation and an increasing cost of living, labour shortages linked to Brexit, and a freeze to local housing allowance (LHA) rates; calls on the UK Government to reverse the near 9% cut in Scotland’s capital funding settlement, commit to ensuring that LHA rates will permanently meet at least the 30th percentile of local rents, and provide adequate support to local authorities impacted by the increase in asylum support cessations; recognises the Scottish Government’s record on delivering affordable homes and action taken on rent rises; notes that in 2024-25, despite the UK Government imposing a cut to its capital budget, the Scottish Government will invest nearly £600 million in affordable housing and over £90 million for discretionary housing payments; welcomes the actions in the Housing (Scotland) Bill to tackle rising rent levels and the continued focus on the target of delivering 110,000 high-quality, energy efficient affordable homes, and agrees that the Scottish Government, UK Government and local authorities must work together to deliver a housing system that meets the needs of the people of Scotland.”

We are very tight for time this afternoon. I call Miles Briggs to speak to and move amendment S6M-13197.2.

16:22  

Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

I thank the Labour Party for bringing this debate to the chamber.

“The Scottish Government’s strategies for housing and homelessness are failing and any attempt to say otherwise is starting to feel like an attempt to gaslight the Scottish public.”

Those are not my words but those of Shelter Scotland’s director.

Last week, the First Minister stated that he wanted to be honest about where the Scottish Government has been going wrong. I welcome the acceptance that ministers are failing to deliver on housing in Scotland and that Scotland is in a housing emergency.

Sadly, however—we have seen this today—the Scottish Government does not seem to be acting with humility or accepting the policy failures on its watch. Instead, we have more deflection and the usual from the SNP’s playbook—that is, blaming everyone else and not taking responsibility.

The member is talking about taking responsibility. Does he accept that the 9 per cent cut in the capital budget impacts on what we can do in Scotland?

Miles Briggs

Housing policy in Scotland has been devolved for 25 years, and 17 of those years have been under this SNP Government. The Government’s motion desperately tries to suggest that a housing emergency is due to

“factors ... outwith the Scottish Government’s powers”.

However, there is no mention of the SNP-Green Government’s annual cuts to affordable housing budgets; no mention of the Scottish Government’s failing national planning framework, which is leading to land supply disappearing; no mention of the cuts to local government budgets; no mention that the City of Edinburgh Council, which now has some of the highest homeless rates in the country, has lost out on around £9.3 million in homelessness prevention funding under this Government; no mention of the rent controls policy, which, as ministers were warned, has led to rents soaring and landlords withdrawing properties from the market, housing associations scaling back their property investment portfolios and the complete loss of mid-market rent; and no mention of the fact that, under this SNP Government, 40,000 disabled people are on waiting lists for housing associations and council homes. That is the SNP and the Green Party’s record in office, and it is time that they accepted it. They have failed Scotland and they need to take responsibility.

Shelter Scotland has stated:

“It is a national scandal.”

I agree. Scotland is in the grip of a devastating housing emergency that damages lives every single day. Across the country, local authority homelessness services face systemic failure. Five councils have declared housing emergencies, and local authorities are routinely failing to even uphold legal housing rights. There is a failure to deliver the social homes that we urgently need, and there has been a significant slowdown in new social housing developments over the past year. The housing emergency is damaging people’s health, wellbeing and education, as well as our economy, and it leaves thousands of our fellow Scots without anywhere to call home.

Scottish Conservatives have repeatedly called for the Scottish Government to declare a national housing emergency, but those calls have fallen on deaf ears until now, so SNP ministers need to play catch-up. As Crisis says in its briefing, declaring a national housing emergency will be of benefit to Scotland only if success is clearly defined and if action targeted at the root causes is taken swiftly by the Scottish Government.

SNP ministers have had to be dragged kicking and screaming into accepting the reality that we face a housing emergency in Scotland. Ministers must now acknowledge where their policies have failed and reach out to charities and across the political divide for new ideas and fresh thinking. Ministers must act. They must urgently outline to the Parliament what will change across all Government portfolios and what fresh leadership will be brought to tackle the housing emergency, like what happened when the Government declared a public health emergency as a result of the drug deaths crisis. Scottish ministers also need to produce an urgent housing emergency plan. That is why, after this debate, I hope that there will be cross-party talks and that the Scottish Government will make an urgent statement on the national housing emergency in the coming weeks.

I move amendment S6M-13197.2, to insert at end:

“; notes that there are a record number of people in Scotland experiencing homelessness with almost 10,000 children stuck in temporary accommodation and 45 children becoming homeless in Scotland every day calls on the Scottish Ministers to bring forward an urgent housing emergency action plan to tackle the issues raised by the Scottish Government’s own expert Homelessness Prevention Task and Finish Group, including actions that will reduce the number of children stuck in temporary accommodation by the end of this parliamentary session; recognises the need to improve capacity in local government to prevent more local homelessness services falling into systemic failure, and the need to improve delivery for those with specific supported living needs, and calls on the Scottish Ministers to review how national government, local authorities and third sector partners are working together on the shared ambition to end homelessness.”

16:26  

Ariane Burgess (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

Circumstances have changed, with 10 local authorities covering nearly half the population either at or close to crisis point. Close to 10,000 children are stuck in the misery of temporary accommodation, with no safe home to grow up in. Declaring a housing emergency must lead to collective action and shared responsibility to tackle the crisis using all the means that are at our disposal.

Local authorities across the country are taking bold steps to respond to the housing emergency. In my region, Argyll and Bute Council is addressing the emergency through a collective commitment with partners, stakeholders, investors and communities to tackle housing shortages. The council has produced a robust housing plan through partnership working and is using all the tools that are available to it. It has doubled council tax on holiday homes and has introduced short-term let zones; it is rolling out housing in the Dunbeg corridor, with 300 houses nearing completion and more to follow; it has two empty homes officers and has used the devolution of empty property relief to incentivise property owners to get properties back in use in under a year; and it is supporting community-led housing on several islands and has enabled the use of rural housing burdens.

Despite that, a constituent told me recently that they would become homeless as no rental properties were available for them in their home of Tiree.

Will the member take an intervention?

Ariane Burgess

I am sorry, but I am really short on time and I have a lot to cover.

That constituent’s household includes people with key roles in social care, the local medical practice and the school. They also volunteer as coastguards and firefighters. The community in Tiree can ill afford to lose young islanders in that way, but, in just a few weeks, those people will have no option but to move to the mainland. There are 10 applicants for every social let in Tiree and neighbouring Coll.

There are key issues that councils cannot address alone and that require a national approach. The per-metre build cost is too high. Specifying the use of home-grown Scottish timber and a new microhousing building standard are part of the solution.

Across the country, planning departments see consented sites stalled. There needs to be momentum behind developers, so requiring annual progress reports is part of the solution.

There is a lack of small and medium-sized construction companies. Capacity needs to be built. Part of the solution involves moving to off-site construction, with regional factories for new builds, and incentivising retrofit start-ups.

Empty buildings that could be homes scar our town centres, so more needs to be done to transform them into places to live. Part of the solution involves building on best practice by providing a clear route for local authorities and communities to invest in town centre living, with at-scale support from the Scottish National Investment Bank.

Tens of thousands of empty homes could be brought back into use. Part of the solution involves using all our taxation and enforcement tools to incentivise the reuse of such homes, as well as increasing funding for empty homes officers.

However, even when we take all those actions, we will still face Scotland’s long-term challenges, such as lack of land. The Land Reform (Scotland) Bill must provide ways to bring forward appropriate land and buildings for housing. There is a proposed power for estates to be broken up at the point of sale, but we cannot wait for estates to come on the market. What about inheritance? What about urban land reform? We need a secure and appropriate supply of land for housing now.

As we have seen with the low numbers of properties supplied under the affordable housing for key workers schemes—all four of which are in Orkney—bringing empty homes back into use takes time. Creating new homes from scratch is even more expensive and challenging, especially in rural communities, where land and building costs are high and available skilled workers are few and far between.

In February, the then First Minister told the chamber that

“to reform and modernise the compulsory purchase order process is vital”.—[Official Report, 8 February 2024; c 23.]

It would be good to hear progress on that issue as well as on the case for compulsory sales orders and compulsory leasing.

At the UK level, we must address VAT thresholds, reverse the near 9 per cent cut in the Scottish budget and reconsider the freeze on local housing allowance rates. We cannot continue to peddle the fantasy that we can invest in rebuilding the country after nearly two decades of austerity and stagnation—

You must wind up, Ms Burgess.

—without taxing those who are most able to afford it.

16:30  

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

When I read the Government’s amendment this morning, I thought that we might be getting somewhere. However, I am sorry that the minister’s speech was almost exactly the same as the speech that was made last November. Except for the addition of words to accept the housing emergency, nothing else has changed. The minister’s contribution was one defence after another, and he then blamed Westminster, which is exactly what he did last year.

When John Swinney and Kate Forbes contributed to last year’s debate, they were very clear. John Swinney said:

“I respectfully say to Parliament that it is not enough just to”

declare a housing emergency.

“Substantial actions must be set out on how we will address the issue.”

Kate Forbes said that

“Real leadership is not just about accepting the scale of a challenge or explaining what is taking place; it is about stepping back and figuring out how to best solve the challenge and then getting stuck into delivering some of the solutions.”—[Official Report, 22 November 2023; c 54, 57.]

Those two people are now in charge, so I would have thought that we would hear from the minister about what the housing emergency actually means and that we would have a list of new measures—in addition to other measures that he is perfectly entitled to defend—to set out what is different from last November. Why has the Government accepted that there is a housing emergency?

I accept that there are post-recession financial restrictions, which have had an impact for some time; that the Liz Truss budget had a disastrous effect on inflation; and that, of course, Brexit has had an impact, too. However, the Government has a large, multibillion-pound budget and tax-raising powers, so it has choices. Its budget is not limited; it could do something different. However, those are its choices, which it will have to defend today.

One of those choices has been a dramatic cut in the more homes budget. The issue is not just the direct impact of that cut but the fact that housing associations lever extra private finance as a result of that funding, which will go down, too.

The problem has been building for years and will not be turned around overnight, but we need to start to reverse the damage. The acceptance of a housing emergency must mean something, but I am afraid that, from the minister, it means absolutely nothing.

Some of the rhetoric about and proposed measures for the private rented sector are deterring investment in that sector. We need the Government to change tack on two important measures. First, we need to accept that private landlords are partners, not the problem. They have come to believe that they are the problem and that the Government is out to get them. That needs to change, whatever the reality of the measures.

Will the member take an intervention?

Willie Rennie

I am afraid that I have only 50 seconds left.

That is the first thing that needs to be recognised. The second one is that we need to be cautious and take an evidence-based approach about any rent control measures that are introduced. There is evidence that they act as a floor rather than a ceiling, so we need to consider them carefully.

Finally—I said that there were two things, but there are three—the mid-market rent properties need to be excluded from any rent control measures, because they are a form of social housing.

I am frustrated at the Government’s response. It really needs to wake up and accept its responsibility for 17 years in government. However, so far, I have not been convinced that that is the case.

We move to the open debate.

16:34  

Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests, as I have a one-sixth share in a family home.

The lack of housing is the single biggest issue that faces rural Scotland. After 17 years, the Scottish Government now admits that we have a housing emergency, but that cannot be solved by a tick-box exercise. We hear of the £25 million scheme for key workers that has bought only four houses, all of which are in Orkney. Why is that the case? I know that NHS Highland has recruited staff only for them to withdraw their applications because they have not been able to find a place to live. Why has that fund not been used?

That is especially an issue in Skye. Last weekend, the accident and emergency in Portree was closed during Skye Live, and there were critical health incidents that had tragic consequences. How can it be that patients in Skye cannot march for health services because policing resources are being used in Inverness to police an Orange order march, but Skye Live can go ahead in Skye without adequate ambulance cover and when the local A and E is closed?

The lack of housing is the biggest economic damper that we face. Services cannot be delivered, and depopulation is rife. The shortage of housing is the biggest issue that we hear about from service providers, businesses and individuals. We need there to be a rural burden, especially on homes that are built with public funding. Those homes need to stay in the local housing market.

Can holiday home and second-home accommodation be restricted? Operators of such accommodation now need licences. Can councils set a ceiling—of 10 per cent, say—for a reasonable number of licences to grant? Although the legislation picks up B and Bs in people’s own homes and camping pods, they are not the problem. In fact, they boost the local economy, so we need to count them out of that. The big problem relates to family homes. Homes that are suitable for year-round accommodation are being taken out of the local housing market.

There is also a lack of social rented housing. Whatever the Government says, it has not overcome the costs barrier that the lack of economies of scale causes. In a small village, one or two houses will be required. We all know about the homes in Barra that cost a quarter of a million pounds each to build.

The issue is partly to do with urban planning restrictions. We need to have a rural planning system that reflects rural housing standards. There is an insistence on street lights, even though there is nowhere to go after dark. Pavements are considered essential, but there are no pavements to join on to. Rainwater collection systems that have been designed for built-up urban areas are specified in areas where there is a nearby river that collects the rainfall. In addition, the cost of connecting to services such as water, sewerage and telecoms, which are services that people need, is astronomical.

We need to find different ways of doing those things in rural areas, because jobs in renewables are—we hope—coming down the track in those areas, but people cannot currently be housed there. We need new houses. There is a housing emergency everywhere, but we are feeling it most in rural areas, which are always being left further behind. The Gaelic language is dying because of the dispersal of native Gaelic speakers. People want to remain in their own communities, but they cannot afford to buy a house and there are no social rented houses available.

The Scottish Government has now acknowledged that there is a problem. It needs to spell out what it is going to do, because depopulation is accelerating and we need answers now.

16:39  

Kevin Stewart (Aberdeen Central) (SNP)

This is one of those times when you stand up and give a completely different speech from the one that you had originally intended to give. However, the point that remains is that, if any individuals or families do not have a roof over their heads, that is an emergency and a crisis, and Governments—whether that is local government, the UK Government or the Scottish Government—should take cognisance of that.

Ariane Burgess made the most important point in the debate so far. It was about collective action and shared responsibility. The UK Government, local government and the Scottish Government have responsibility for getting this absolutely right. I do not agree with some of the speakers who have said that, if the Scottish Government used all the tools at its disposal, that would ensure that we did better, because we have to be realistic—we do not control all the political and financial tools that we need to resolve some of the difficulties.

We heard about the disastrous Liz Truss mini-budget.

Will the member take an intervention?

I will gladly give way to Mr Briggs.

Where does the member think that the Scottish Government has gone wrong?

Kevin Stewart

I think that the Scottish Government has largely done things right, but there are things that we should have pushed much more for. Let us look at what Rhoda Grant said only minutes ago about the cost of connection to services. Westminster retained power but we should have pushed harder to get the costs reduced.

That Liz Truss budget set us back dramatically.

Will the member take an intervention?

Kevin Stewart

No—I need to carry on.

That led to a huge rise in interest rates and a slashing of capital budgets. Let us look not at what I am saying or what any politician is saying but at the United Kingdom’s Competition and Markets Authority, which points the finger at high interest rates and lack of mortgage availability for the stopping of building and for people falling into difficulties. That free-market regulator made it clear that Governments need to fill the gap to get housing on the move again. For the Scottish Government to step in, Westminster needs to increase the UK’s capital investment spend, which it controls.

Scotland is not an independent country. Interest rates, monetary policy and capital investment are all controlled by the Westminster system. Scotland needs to end the economic mismanagement by the Westminster parties. We need interest rates to come down and capital investment to go up, and we need to build many more affordable homes. That is what will end the housing emergency.

We also need to look to our local government partners to ensure that they are as up to date as they can be on allocation policy. We need to talk to them more about what additional powers they require to bring homes back into use. Those are key things that we should be doing here and now, but we should not hold back on the fact that we do not have many of the levers of power. We should be pushing Westminster to make massive changes to house many more people in homes that are fit for them.

16:43  

Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

I whole-heartedly agree with the Scottish Labour motion. There is no getting around the fact that Scotland is in the grip of a housing crisis. There has been a 10 per cent increase in homelessness applications during the past year, and the number of people who have been assessed as homeless has risen by 4 per cent. According to the Office for National Statistics, the average rent in Edinburgh rose by 15.7 per cent between March last year and March this year. That problem has not just come out of nowhere. It is a direct result of the failures of this Government during the past 17 years.

The vandalism by the Scottish National Party on legislation has led to a dramatic lack of affordable housing in Scotland, and we have seen the expected skyrocketing of prices that basic economics tells us happens when there is lack of it. Make no mistake, that is what we are seeing here. The Scottish Government has neglected its duty to increase our housing stock over the past few years, which has led to a lack of affordable homes for people who need them.

Gordon MacDonald (Edinburgh Pentlands) (SNP)

Will you comment on the 11,500 council houses that are lying empty? There are 1,200 here in Edinburgh, which has a Labour-Tory-controlled council, and 400 in West Lothian, which also has a Labour-Tory-controlled council. The quickest way to get homes for people, especially when the capital budget has been slashed, is surely to bring those 11,500 empty council houses back into use.

Jeremy Balfour

I fully agree that we need to get them back into use. Let us look at history. Who has been in power in Edinburgh for most of the past 20 years? The SNP, which has failed locally as well as nationally.

Unfortunately, it does not seem that the SNP understands the mess that it has made of housing. It admits that it has no idea how many homes will be built in the coming years. It has slashed the housing budget, in a move that the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations has described as a

“hammer blow for tackling homelessness and poverty”.

What is more, many of the provisions in the Housing (Scotland) Bill promise to make the problem even worse. We have seen the impact of rent controls over the past year. As I said, the average rent in Edinburgh has increased by more than 15 per cent. Thanks to this Government, Scotland has joined the long line of countries that have tried their hand at price fixing, only to learn the same lesson that every other Administration has learned—if you meddle, it goes wrong.

[Made a request to intervene.]

Jeremy Balfour

I am sorry, but I do not have time to take an intervention.

However, the SNP plans to expand its rent controls through the bill. Does that not just sum up this Government? In the face of overwhelming evidence, it ploughs ahead with its ideological obsessions only to end up in exactly the same mess that we and others warned that it would make.

To add insult to injury, in its amendment, the SNP throws up its hands and says, “It wasnae me.” The SNP must think that the people of Scotland are fools. Housing has been devolved since the start of this Parliament. For its entire time in Government, housing has been the SNP’s responsibility, and it has neglected it. The people of Scotland are not going to accept the rubbish in the SNP amendment that deflects everything—the blame lies at the SNP’s doorstep.

There is no solution to the housing crisis that does not include building more homes. The Scottish Government must get its act together—

You must conclude, Mr Balfour.

It must ditch its planned rent controls and promote growth in the sector that is, in essence, holding back our society.

16:48  

Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

Scotland is in a housing emergency, and it is about not just houses but people. It is about the mum who contacted me who was placed by the council in a caravan with her kids because there was not enough temporary homeless accommodation, never mind a permanent home for her family.

It is about the pensioner whom I visited recently who has to sleep in a bed in a small kitchen because she is too frail to climb the stairs to her bedroom. She uses a commode and has not been able to go to her upstairs bathroom for months to properly bathe or shower. She is waiting and waiting to be rehomed.

It is about the young woman whom I spoke to at my surgery who is plagued by antisocial behaviour in the block of flats on her street. She is desperate to hold on to the security of social housing tenancy, but she has been told that it is not even worth applying to be rehomed.

It is about the young worker who asked me for help because he could not take up a job that he had been offered, as there was simply no affordable housing for him and his family in any village within miles of the new opportunity that he was desperate to take.

That is just a fraction—a very tiny number—of the struggles that I have tried to help people with in the past few months alone, but their stories are familiar, because this housing emergency is not new. The Government might only be waking up to it today, but it did not happen overnight. It did not happen because of the pandemic, and it did not just happen during this session of Parliament, but this Parliament needs to decide whether we want to end the housing emergency.

The starting point is the Government declaring a housing emergency, and I am pleased that, albeit at Labour’s second time of asking, it is now willing to do so. More importantly, it means the Government setting out what action it will take to deal with it, and we have heard very little on that from the minister. He should begin, but—

Will Colin Smyth take an intervention?

Yes.

Elena Whitham

In the spirit of consensus, does Colin Smyth agree that, given the reduction of 62 per cent in financial transaction receipts, which had given us a huge amount of flexibility in ramping up our social housing build, as we can see from the per capita build figures, we have to work collectively to figure out how we can unlock some of the money that we have so that we can invest it in social housing. Working across the chamber, we should be able to do that.

Colin Smyth

I think that the change in financial transactions and capital grants is an issue, but the Government still made a choice to reduce the housing budget by £196 million. That is a 26 per cent cut that is described by the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations as

“an absolute hammer blow for tackling homelessness”

and as “devastating” by Shelter and the Chartered Institute of Housing. If the Government does not make it a budget priority to begin to reverse the cut, the commitment that it is still making—including in its amendment today—to delivering 110,000 new homes will remain, in the words of the Glasgow and West of Scotland Forum of Housing Associations, absolutely “dead in the water”.

We need a more urgent target when it comes to the building of new homes in rural areas. In his amendment, the minister is right in saying that the housing emergency will affect different communities in different areas in different ways. At a time when rural Scotland accounts for 17 per cent of the Scottish population, a target of just 10 per cent of the planned affordable homes by 2032 for rural and island areas simply is not good enough. I still do not know how the Government came to that 10 per cent figure.

Ministers should give local authorities powers to introduce an escalating council tax surcharge on empty homes—a call that is supported in responses to the Government’s own consultation on council tax for second and empty homes—so that they can use that money to invest in new properties.

A warm, affordable home is a basic human right that everyone, whoever they are and wherever they live, is entitled to. For far too many of my constituents—and everyone else’s constituents—that right is being denied. Until we do not just accept that we have a housing emergency but actually meet it with an emergency response, the lives of far too many families will continue to be held back.

16:52  

Emma Roddick (Highlands and Islands) (SNP)

I have no issue with calling what we are in a housing emergency, a crisis, a boorach or whatever it is that people want to call it, because I do not think that it really makes a difference what term we use. What matters is what we do about it.

My experience of not having a home is the reason that I am in politics. I experienced a badly designed process and realised that, although I did not have the money to build houses, the power to ban bad landlords or the knowledge of where in the world people have done housing better and succeeded at it, I knew what could give others a better experience of seeking support to prevent homelessness.

I am proud to look at the SNP Government and see action that aligns with what I know is the right way to approach housing. That includes a recognition that it is not just about building homes but about making sure that the right homes are built in the right places and are accessible to those who really need them. It is about supporting people in insecure tenancies to access financial support, know their rights and be protected from unfair evictions. It is about making the best use of houses that already exist.

From the Private Housing (Tenancies) (Scotland) Act 2016 to the ending of the right to buy and the bedroom tax, Scotland has a good story to tell on housing, and that story is not finished yet. However, there are still too many people who are homeless. There are still villages in my region where the heart of the community is barely beating because more than half of the houses available have been bought up for second homes and short-term letting.

We need to address the housing emergency from all angles, accepting that many people and public sector services have a duty to prevent homelessness wherever they can. We need to look at why people who cannot pay their rent cannot do so: it is the cost of living crisis, which was inflicted on Scotland by the same UK Government that has just delivered an almost 9 per cent cut to the Scottish capital budget. It is about delivering a house-building scheme that reacts to the needs of people across the country who are on housing lists, of communities where employers are struggling to fill highly skilled vacancies and of people who cannot keep up with the cost of private rents and mortgages.

I was heartened to see a recognition in the Government amendment that the crisis is being felt by some places more than others. I know that the Government is aware of what Rhoda Grant has described: the higher cost of building materials and contractors in rural or island areas, which could double the cost of building a house or make it impossible.

I was recently in Eigg with the housing minister and we talked for two days about exactly that—the exorbitant cost of building a house in the isles compared with building a whole development in a city—but also about how critical one house can be for a community. It can be the difference between having a schoolteacher and not, having a healthcare worker and not and having a functioning community and not. It is the same story that Hjaltland Housing Association, Orkney Housing Association and community development trusts up and down the Highlands and Islands will tell you. In its grants and support for rural and island builders, the Scottish Government needs to recognise that. It also needs the money to do that.

I genuinely welcome the contributions from Labour today, and I hope that, in the spirit of consensus, Opposition members, while rightly keeping up the pressure on the Government to deliver change for people in insecure housing or no housing, will join SNP calls on the UK Government to undo that harsh cut to capital funding.

While we are not an independent country and while we cannot borrow money, we are sadly reliant on the UK Government to do the right thing. Therefore, let us speak with one voice, let us recognise what has got us into this situation and what can get us out, and let us all demand that the UK Government do the right thing.

We move to winding-up speeches. I call Patrick Harvie.

16:56  

Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green)

I welcome the fact that we are now all at the point of recognising the reality of the housing emergency. I regret that a few members seem uncomfortable when consensus breaks out on such an issue. As well as some very constructive and consensual contributions, we have, I am afraid, heard one or two contributions that seemed rather petulant.

A recognition of the causes of the housing emergency is absolutely critical, and it is silly for a few members to say simply that the Scottish Government has led us to where we are at the moment. I will disagree, as I have done in the past, with aspects of Scottish Government policy. I take responsibility for, in some cases, not being able to act as fast as I might have wished on some issues when I was part of the Scottish Government. However, the idea that we would discount the causal factors of the housing emergency that are outwith the Scottish Government’s control is absurd. Emma Roddick laid those factors out very clearly a few moments ago: the cost of living crisis, insecure work, extreme rents and UK Government welfare cuts. Those are the factors that lead so many more individuals into housing crisis. Brexit and inflation are significant structural aspects in relation to the housing system.

In addition to those factors, there are long-standing aspects of our housing system itself that we need to recognise, but the idea that the economic circumstances of the past few years do not create and shape the housing emergency is absurd.

I want to say something about supply because Mark Griffin, Miles Briggs and Kevin Stewart—and, I think, almost everybody else who spoke—said something about supply. The supply of housing is a big part of the picture, but it is not the whole picture, and there have been some simplistic arguments made, not just here but in the wider public debate on supply. The ratio of homes to people has not changed so dramatically in the past few years as to create this housing emergency. The distribution of housing is equally significant. Mark Griffin rightly spoke about empty and second homes, and action is being taken on that. The nature of new supply is also important. It is not just about the number of homes that are built; it is about what they are and where they are.

I hear people talking about the important role of build to rent, but many of the build-to-rent developments that I see being promoted are flats that cost two grand a month at the luxury high end of the market. With some housing developments, I hear the question, “Are we are risking losing investment in housing for sale?” when some of what is being built are homes that cost £250,000 to £300,000. Are those being built for social need or are they being built principally for the interests of investors? We need to ask those structural questions about the nature of our housing market.

Will the member take an intervention?

Patrick Harvie

I am afraid that I have very little time. Price also needs to be recognised. Rent control is a critical part of our coherent response to the climate emergency—housing emergency. That was a slip of the tongue; I beg your pardon.

I cannot accept that investment in housing must depend on extreme rent rises or that we should simply accept that ever more people will be stuck in the most expensive and least secure tenure. Supply is important, but it is about the nature of that supply.

The Greens will support both amendments. It would be implausible not to mention the context of the housing emergency, as the Government’s amendment does.

We will support the Conservative amendment with some caveats. For example, the homelessness prevention strategy group is leading on the actions that result from the task and finish group. That is where the leadership of that work should continue, notwithstanding what is in the amendment—there are aspects of the amendment that I would not want to lose.

It is also astonishing to ignore the role of the UK Government or the political parties that want to spend ever more on public services but will not recognise the need for the progressive taxation that has already put an extra £1.5 billion into the Scottish Government’s budget for public services. They oppose the taxation that raises the money to spend on the services that they want.

17:01  

Graham Simpson (Central Scotland) (Con)

When we debated housing in November, the minister was in denial about the existence of a housing emergency. There was an emergency then and it has got worse since. I thank Labour for bringing the debate to the chamber, because it has finally forced the minister to admit reality. However, it would have been helpful if he had thrown away the usual SNP script of blaming someone else and accepted some of the responsibility.

The SNP amendment paints a rosy picture of what it is doing but says that the emergency is all down to the UK Government. Here is the thing: if we did not have 1.5 million people being denied a safe, stable home and living in overcrowded, dangerous, unstable or unaffordable housing; if we did not have 15,600 households in temporary accommodation; if funding for affordable housing supply had not been cut by £196 million; if we did not have a record 9,500 children trapped in temporary accommodation; if 45 children were not becoming homeless every day; if a household was not becoming homeless every 16 minutes; if 16,263 children were not assessed as homeless or threatened with homelessness in 2022-23; if Scotland did not have the highest rent increases of anywhere in the UK; and if five councils—Argyll and Bute, Edinburgh, Fife, Glasgow and West Dunbartonshire—had not declared a housing emergency, you can bet your life that that much better picture would be nothing at all to do with Westminster and everything to do with the SNP in what is, after all, a devolved area.

Will the member give way?

Graham Simpson

No. The minister should be handing Shirley-Anne Somerville the record back and telling her to put something else on, because it is a boring tune and it is not helping.

Last month, the minister ran the gauntlet of property professionals at an event at the University of Strathclyde. To loud applause, property developer Chris Stewart told him:

“You have a market. There is £3bn of investment sitting there. You killed the market.”

He said that there was a

“massive disconnect between what the government is saying and what has happened.”

He added:

“The market was there, the tenant demand was there, along with responsible developers and institutional investors providing a product, and it has just stopped.”

I agree with Mr Stewart, but the guy he should have been directing his fire at was not there. It is not Paul McLennan who has killed the market—it is Patrick Harvie. Now that Mr Harvie is no longer in government, it is up to Mr McLennan to fix the mess. He could start by putting the Housing (Scotland) Bill on hold and getting rid of mad proposals for rent controls.

No doubt, when he was at that conference, the minister would have heard James Blakey, planning director at Moda Living, say that his company had £450 million of investment ready to be signed off but it will not happen because of the bill.

Miles Briggs revealed this week that the Government has no idea how many homes need to be built, but we know that NPF4 is already causing issues, with sites stalling and building rates slowing. Now that the minister admits that there is a housing emergency, he needs to take responsibility, own the problem and act on it.

17:05  

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

It is clear that the Scottish Government has recognised for some time that there is a real and genuine challenge in the housing sector. As my colleague Emma Roddick rightly put it, it is very important that we move past debating how we define a problem and move on to the solutions. That is why I am very happy that we do so today and that we all collectively declare that there is a housing emergency. The important point, as members right across the chamber have come to, is what we then do about it.

The aspects that we have laid out in the amendment are about setting the context. That is very important, because none of us, as we debate the solutions, can forget or simply imagine away the financial context that we are in. It is a fact that we have a decrease of 9 per cent in the capital budget that the UK Government gives to the Scottish Government. That is £1.3 billion being taken out of Scottish Government plans, which inevitably brings challenges to all of us as we move forward to see what can be done about it.

Will the cabinet secretary take an intervention?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

If the member will forgive me, I want to make a little bit more progress.

I am keen that we should look at the record, and of course we do that. However, I say to those who have suggested that the amendment is self-congratulating that I deliberately put it together to ensure that it is not. It states the context and the record, but it also states the challenge. I want us all collectively to get together and discuss and agree the fact that the capital budget has gone down, and then collectively demand that the UK Government reverse those cuts.

Miles Briggs

I have listened to the cabinet secretary and the minister. The problem that they have is that they need to look in the mirror. They need to look not just at Westminster but at what has gone wrong in Scotland. Earlier, members talked about the rural housing fund. In one year, the £25 million in that fund has delivered just four homes, which is a total failure. I think that the Government does not understand that it is part of the problem.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I will come on to how, collectively, we have responsibility and how we all need to raise our game. I point out that that fund is but one fund that deals with rural housing supply, and that more than 200 homes have been supplied by another fund that we have to assist with rural and island homes.

Willie Rennie challenged the Government on what has changed. What has changed since the previous debate on the issue is that, for example, there has been an £80 million uplift, particularly for acquisitions. That will deal quickly and directly with temporary accommodation and homelessness issues. There is the introduction of the Housing (Scotland) Bill, which introduces the ask and act homelessness duties—I really hope that Graham Simpson does not want the Government to ditch that, because that would be a wasted opportunity. That bill deals with the private rented sector as well.

Members have discussed rent controls, and I appreciate that there are differing views on that among members, including Willie Rennie and Graham Simpson. Just yesterday, Graham Simpson commended the Minister for Housing for how he took forward the Housing (Cladding Remediation) (Scotland) Bill. The minister will act in exactly the same way with the Housing (Scotland) Bill when people have different opinions, whether on rent controls or other aspects. Members have seen the way in which the Government takes through legislation and the way in which the Minister for Housing deals with it—his door is always open. I hope that Graham Simpson agrees that that is, indeed, the case.

It is important that we work together on the issue and that we recognise that there is much that the Scottish Government can do and much that the UK Government has to do. Yes, that includes the reversal of the 9 per cent cut. Local housing allowance rates have one of the biggest impacts on homelessness, and it is the asylum process that caused the housing crisis and emergency in Glasgow.

Councils also have to play their part. We have some councils whose policies are not up to date. How can we learn from the good practice of some to ensure that we are providing a tailored approach that is decided by councils, but after they have looked at all those aspects? How do we tackle the issue of voids, which are too high in some areas? Why is some money being handed back to the Scottish Government and not used by councils yet councils still say that there is an issue?

Of course, if we accept the Tory amendment, we are in danger of spending time doing another action plan. That is genuinely my only issue with the Tory amendment. I would rather focus on implementation delivery, not delivery of another action plan. If Parliament wants that, so be it—we will go forward with it. We have an opportunity for all arms of Government to work together. How do all parties work together? Ariane Burgess talked about collective action and shared responsibility—

You must conclude, cabinet secretary.

That is the way that this Government is determined to do it. It is a challenge for everyone across the chamber to rise to.

17:10  

Sarah Boyack (Lothian) (Lab)

I will kick off by drawing members’ attention to my entry in the register of members’ interests with regard to my former work with the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations.

I thank Shelter Scotland for its tireless campaign on this issue, and I thank all the homeless charities that work on preventing homelessness and on supporting people to recover from what is a horrific experience that no one should have to go through. I also thank the many constituents who have been in touch to share their experiences of the housing emergency that we are facing in Edinburgh and the Lothians.

Like many others around the room, I am getting a sense of déjà vu, because we are back in the chamber arguing that Scotland is in a housing emergency. What has changed in the past few months is that there is a little pot of money from the Scottish Government but also that there are more local authorities declaring a housing emergency and more worries about systemic failure happening—or at risk of happening—in our councils, so we need to act now.

If we can agree unanimously that we face a housing crisis and that there is an emergency, that will be a start, but we then need to look at the policies that we can work on across the whole of Scotland.

Will the member give way?

Sarah Boyack

Let me get started.

Let us think about those 10,000 children who do not have a safe and permanent home and how that impacts on their lives. It will look different in every local authority. There are key issues that need to be addressed. Several members—Rhoda Grant, Colin Smyth and Emma Roddick—talked about the rural challenge in relation to short-term accommodation and the lack of affordable housing, which means that people cannot afford to stay in their rural communities. There is the heartbreaking experience that Colin Smyth mentioned, and I think that we could all quote problems. I have a constituent who wrote to me to say:

“I simply don’t have an extra £200 a month in my already tight budget. I’m a single mother already cutting back on everything to provide for bills and food for my seven-year-old son and myself. If I don’t pay such a high rent, we will be evicted and end up homeless.”

It is a real problem. We do not have enough affordable social rented housing and the overall shortage of housing is pushing up the cost of private rented properties. We need more new housing and we need it right across the country—

Will the member give way?

Briefly, yes.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

If we are all now agreeing that there is a housing emergency, I take it that that includes the UK Government—both the current one and any incoming Labour Government. Will any incoming Labour Government recognise the housing emergency and its role in that, stop the 9 per cent cut and ensure that there are no freezes to local housing allowances and support for councils on asylum? If not, Labour is not taking responsibility for what it could do.

Sarah Boyack

A Labour Government could not come soon enough. After the economic crisis that we have seen, which was mentioned by Kevin Stewart and others, the Liz Truss budget is not funny. It felt funny in terms of the lettuce, but it has damaged our economy and led to people’s mortgages rocketing. Yes, we need a Labour Government, and we need it urgently. We need action.

Several people mentioned the fact that—

Will the member give way?

No, I will not. This is a debate. We are each allowed to speak.

Will the member give way?

Sarah Boyack

No, I will not.

We have 46,000 empty homes in Scotland—that was mentioned by Ariane Burgess. We need action. We do not need a small-scale approach. We need to work with our local authorities and support them so that they have the staff to pursue compulsory sale orders and to promote urban regeneration. In that way, we can bring empty homes back into use.

However, we must be much more ambitious. When the Housing (Scotland) Bill comes before us, we will work constructively. [Interruption.] I am responding to the debate. We need effective rent controls, but the bill will not lead to one new house being built. I hope that the Government will work constructively with members from all parties who have been giving practical solutions today, because we need action now.

I come back to the point that 10,000 children are in temporary accommodation, which is an increase of 138 per cent over the past decade. That is a national scandal. If the First Minister is serious when he says that he wants to tackle child poverty, we need to start with finding affordable housing and funding it across the country.

As we celebrate 25 years of devolution, it is important to remember that housing was baked into the devolution settlement from day 1. I agree with Shirley-Anne Somerville that we need the Scottish Government, the UK Government and every local council to work together.

We have seen 17 years of this SNP Government wasting huge amounts of money, with £196 million being wasted on failed ferry contracts alone. We need an effective Government. Eighty per cent of the people of Scotland agree that we are in a housing emergency, so let us take today as a starting point. In his speech, Mark Griffin gave a raft of potential solutions on which we are happy to work with the Scottish Government. [Interruption.]

I am down to my last 30 seconds, I think.

Ms Boyack is in her last minute.

Sarah Boyack

We need new houses being built. We need practical solutions. We need new homes across Scotland. Our constituents deserve nothing less. Emergencies demand responses. We are in an emergency and it is time to respond. It is time to build the new homes, bring back homes into use and tackle poor-quality housing. People deserve that, and they need those homes now.