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February 13, 2008

Criticism of Housing Green Paper – Firm Foundations

Douglas Robertson of Stirling University writes ‘How ironic would it be for an SNP government to preside over the destruction of the only truly significant innovation in Scottish urban policy – community based housing associations and their locally focused regeneration activity.’


The Scottish Government’s housing policy consultation closed last month. Stewart Maxwell, the minister, has had some publicity for his oddly titled Firm foundations document. He made headlines when it was launched by suggesting the right to buy would be ended for council housing.

There was a further flurry about giving first-time buyers a leg up in ‘pressured’ housing markets. But what else has been squeezed into, or out of, this policy document has not been so readily revealed.

Start loosening the strings and no end of bits and bobs pop out. There is the ambition to increase housing output from 25,000 to 35,000 homes per annum in just over a decade. This target covers all housing tenures, not just social renting, so much use is made of the weasel word ‘affordable’.

What is quite remarkable about this ambition is that not only will there be more houses, but they will be built to a much higher environmental standard and be cheaper. How will this be achieved? Well, it’s not by throwing more public money at housing, as the recent tight spending round revealed.

The first solution is to free up the planning system -release more green belt. In case this does not appear very environmentally conscious, there is an odd reference to developing eco-villages. Perhaps the controversial developments by Donald Trump in Aberdeenshire and Donald Macdonald in Aviemore will be packaged in this way, but it’s a safe bet that any social housing will be omitted

The second approach is to bring local authorities in from the cold, by letting them build new houses. Hence, the ending of right to buy, but only for any new houses built. In the past, councils funded development from their own borrowing. Few could do that now, given the scale of outstanding debt. Extinguishing debt was why councils as diverse as Glasgow and the Borders transferred stock to housing associations. Those that could develop without subsidy are mainly north-east authorities, where the SNP is strong, but overall numbers would not be significant But why give authorities capital subsidies when most have no development experience? Better to leave it to housing associations.

But here’s where matters begin to unravel. Government is concerned that the cost of new rented housing by associations has risen some 20% in recent years. So rather than sticking with a large number of small local suppliers in distinct geographic or community localities, the SNP is proposing a Tescoisation of development, with only one housing association developer operating within one housing market area. Existing suppliers would not be funded, because they don’t cover such large areas and might fail to make the price offered, The gap would be filled by a handful of very large, asset-rich England based housing associations interested in expansion for its own sake. These organisations operate at a UK level, delivering a standard housing product, from Dagenham to Dundee.

Throwing the entire procurement system that is baby, bathwater and bath out the window is bold, but reveals a complete lack of understanding of the development process, and what is driving costs up. A senior civil servant, in addressing a recent angry meeting in Glasgow, put the savings expected at 3%, But the true cost will be the destruction of the world-renowned community- based cornerstone of Scottish housing renewal policy. How ironic would it be for an SNP government to preside over the destruction of the only truly significant innovation in Scottish urban policy, community-based housing associations and their locally focused regeneration activity?

If this was not bad enough, Firm foundations focuses overwhelmingly on the problems of housing supply in ‘pressured areas’, Yet in places such as Glasgow the problem remains one of quality. Previous attempts that focused solely on the procurement of cheap housing failed and in fact quickly became the focus of so much Scottish regeneration activity for the last 20 years. This agenda has been jettisoned, the ‘wider action’ elements of renewal forgotten, and a housing supply only agenda is put on the table.

More houses, and especially more rented housing. are needed but Maxwell does not have the money, nor I suspect the political commitment, to make this a priority. Providing a bung for a homebuyer in Stirling might get you a headline, opening the first newly built council house certainly will, but housing policy should be more than that. It’s about convincing sceptical colleagues that providing good quality housing for the poor, in a locally accountable way, is a priority. Supporting Scotland’s successful community- based housing association movement is a prerequisite. And it should also be about building on the successes of community-based regeneration.

Little wonder there are such homelessness, health and crime problems in certain parts of Glasgow and the west of Scotland given the quite atrocious housing and social conditions that persist. Is tackling this scandal not to be on the agenda of a new Scotland?