Johnstone’s View - Housing shortage

Recently, the Scottish Government brought forward a debate on housing. I always welcome the opportunity to discuss housing, as it is one of the main issues that affect Aberdeen and Shire.

I do feel however that is ironic for the SNP to debate housing when their own record on the subject is frankly lamentable.

In August, housing statistics were released and they speak for themselves. Housing Association construction has fallen year on year since 2009. Between 2012 and 2013 alone, Housing Association construction fell by an astonishing 743 units.

With an ageing demographic in Scotland, we might have expected a more sophisticated housing response. Instead we see a fall in the number of sheltered houses, and only a marginal increase in the number of very sheltered housing.

Gone are the days when no newspaper was complete without a picture of the then Housing Minister Alex Neil, resplendent in his hard hat and hi vis jacket breaking turf or cutting ribbon.

The fact is that it’s all going wrong. The Independence debate might have taken attention away from the day to day issues that are so important to the lives of the Scottish people, but the facts are chiels that winna ding; and no matter how the Housing Minister and the well-whipped cheerleaders behind her spin this record as some kind of success story, the reality is that the Scottish Government have failed at one of the most important portfolios in its jurisdiction, and it is those languishing on housing waiting lists across the Mearns that are paying the price for it.

That is not to say that efforts haven’t been made. We have the National Housing Trust for example. But according to the NHT website, less than one third of local authorities, and just 15 developers have opted to take part in NHT. The Scottish Government optimistically suggested that phase one alone of NHT would deliver 1000 houses, yet here we are much further down the line, and we are informed via the NHT website that jut 675 units have been completed.

Perhaps we should look to an earlier report by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities on NHT to find out why its’ performance has been so disappointing.

The report states that “The NHT model is contradictory……does not meet a number of councils’ Affordable Housing Policies or Local Housing Strategy requirements.” It goes on to say “Some councils regarded the NHT as a short-term fix and could lead to difficulties when the developer decides to sell the units and the tenant does not exercise their right to buy.”

The last comment should sound a warning to the Scottish Government. The fact is that those who enter into a tenancy agreement for an NHT home, will have it in some cases for just five years. What happens to them after that? Will they become just another homeless statistic?

More recently we say the belated introduction of Help to Buy, but it was hit with a highly publicised shortage of bricks.

This no doubt helped deflect attention from the real story which was of course that the scheme had run out of money, leaving some would be home owners in what must have been a deeply distressing limbo part of the way through their house purchase.

While Help to Buy may be a sound scheme in principle, it seems clear to me that the danger of a sudden cash shortage, with the disappointment that this brought to buyers, and the associated knock-on effect on builders who may then find it harder to sell the homes they are building was easily foreseeable.

The Minister ignores all of this though and yet again myopically drags MSPs into the chamber, not to discuss solutions, but to air simplistic and frankly vacuous grievances in a bid to explain away her Government’s failures.

Of course it’s easy to spin failure as success, use ‘the big boy did it and ran away’ defence and finish the debate with a ‘whas like us? It’s easy to do that, but it’s not good enough.

The Scottish Government blames Westminster for a shortage of funds, but money is out there. Pension funds, and investors are, I know for a fact, keen to invest in affordable housing, and I commend Aberdeen City Council for actively moving towards utilising this kind of investment to deliver affordable homes.

The Minister knows I have made mention of this several times, but regrettably, the Scottish Government is failing to deliver the kind of leadership that would see these investments progress.

The SNP should acknowledge the plain truth, and that is that this housing shortage will not be remedied by Government funding alone, and it must look outside its narrow socialist parameters at the opportunities and solutions that exist.