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I was the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland until my retirement in September 2018. I now work on several policy development projects, so all views are very definitely my own. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Housing Commission shows how to tackle the housing emergency

There is a real housing emergency in many parts of Scotland, and we need the Government to recognise the scale of the problem and take radical action.

I was in the Scottish Parliament today at the launch of Scottish Labour’s Housing Commission report.  Chaired by Professor Stuart Gulliver it brought together a range of experts to agree realistic and practical proposals.

The report sets out a detailed ten-part plan based on the underlying principles of tackling inequality in housing and rebalancing the relationship between the private and public sector. 

The report starts with the need to increase the supply of housing. 60,000 social homes over 5 years from 2021 would mean a 70% increase in the supply of affordable homes compared to the Government’s current commitment. Social housing will once again be seen as a national asset like any other form of infrastructure.

I particularly liked the recognition that empty homes are a wasted resource when Scotland needs more homes. There are an estimated 40,000 Long Term Empty Properties in Scotland (empty for more than 6 months). The Commission proposes using the law to force sales in certain circumstances or a low-cost loan scheme to incentivise re-occupation, especially in rural areas.

The term' affordable housing’ is utterly misused by governments. Genuine affordability requires establishing the crucial links between rents and the ability of people to afford them. This means adjusting the capital subsidy to ensure rents are genuinely affordable, although as SFHA pointed out this morning, this might also require other types of grant funding.

On homelessness, there was a clear view that legislation is not enough. We have strong legislation, it is simply not being enforced. The Commission said the Labour Party should continue its cross-party support on homelessness and, in its own right, emphasise the need for sufficient, sustained long term funding and support to eradicate homelessness across the whole system.

The Private Rented Sector (PRS) is playing a much larger role in housing supply, although there are substantial regional variations. The Labour Party’s concern with PRS relates fundamentally to the need for the sector to treat its tenants fairly, honestly and with respect.  That means PRS should be subject to substantial regulation and control to protect tenants' rights, particularly those concerning security of tenure, the fairness of rent levels and their increases and the quality of accommodation being offered. 

Addressing the price of land is probably the single most crucial thing that the Government could do to improve the housing situation in Scotland. A key proposal is to allow public authorities to acquire land at, or very close to, existing use value. Part of the solution is to reform planning gain. For example, in a 2017 study, it was calculated that the 'planning gain' contributions received by Edinburgh City Region had a value of £32mn in 2015-16 while the actual land value uplift amounted to £350m. The Commission also recommends that land transferred between public bodies should be done at a nominal cost. This includes removing the duty on public bodies to maximise the receipts from land sales.

Finally, the Commission recommends strengthening the institutional framework with a new Land and Communities Development Agency in Scotland. It will sit between local and national Government, acting as a 'prime mover' to generate new mixed tenure housing communities and acquire derelict land.

The Commission rightly emphasised the importance of developing a cross-party consensus on housing. The solutions require long-term action over several parliaments. This report is a perfect place to start that work.

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