Beware political posturing on housing crisis

Orbit Communications - Graeme Downie 03
By Graeme Downie @graemedownie

Housing is being setup as one of the key election issues in Scotland for May, as it rightly should.  Politicians, house-builders, landlords, academics and charities are all now agreeing about one thing – there are not enough homes in Scotland and the situation can safely be described as a “crisis.”

With such a grouping of people agreeing on a problem, you would think it would be relatively easy to find a solution for both the short and long term and that the solution should be equally simple – build more houses.  And, to some extent, everyone does agree that this is the solution but what no-one can agree upon is: Who pays? Where should new homes be built? What type of homes are needed? How quickly are these homes needed?

House-builders point out that they need planning permission in areas people want to live to make it economically viable to build new homes, but local authorities are struggling to grant permission in these areas due to the desired land being in a green belt or because of significant community opposition.  Charities argue for more affordable housing, often delivered as a condition of private housing developments but question if this is being delivered in a way which allows those on lower incomes onto the housing ladder.  Private landlords point out that they are able to provide high-quality homes now as well as in the future but feel they are being unfairly demonised, with many likely to scale back investment as a result.

As a result, politicians find themselves in a situation where the public realise there is a crisis and are demanding a solution but where there are no quick fixes available and a range of competing interests.  However, instead of presenting a reasonable plan for the long-term which seeks to balance those interests, the SNP and Scottish Labour have engaged in what appears to be a game of chicken with the numbers, constantly just upping the ante.  At their conference in Perth in October, Labour called for 12,000 affordable homes a year, a policy repeated just this morning with the aggregated figure of 60,000 such homes over the term of the next Scottish Parliament.  The SNP, meanwhile, have pledged 50,000 affordable homes.  Whilst this all might be effective politics and positioning, it is very one-dimensional and seems to imply there is a silver bullet solution to what is a complex and serious problem.

A comprehensive solution to a housing crisis surely needs more than just stating numbers which, even if implemented in full, would only address one part of the problem.  For example, it ignores the need to build mid-level homes to incentivise upgrading which would free up entry-homes and reduce prices lower down the scale.  There also doesn’t seem to be any detail provided by the parties about where these new homes should be built – if they should be in areas of high-demand increasing the overall cost, or in outlying areas to attempt to promote growth and reduce hot-spots.  There is also scant detail on how these homes will be paid for – will they be publicly funded through central construction and managed by local authorities or will additional requirements be placed on the private sector in exchange for a stream-lined planning system?

There have been some attempts at a long-term policy on these issues, particularly in the guise of the excellent report produced by the Commission on Housing and Wellbeing, chaired by former Auditor-General, Bob Black.  That report examined not only the complexity of solving Scotland’s long-term housing crisis but also the huge costs to the public purse through poor health and social problems that will result if action is not taken.

Most of all, the report emphasised the need to bring a whole range of different players to the table to agree a strategy and then stick to it for the generation it will take to deliver the desired results.  Sadly, it seems like political posturing will reign for the time being will win out for the time being but voters are smart enough to know when politicians are simply out-bidding each other rather seeking a proper solution.

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