Time to party: Scotland’s political conferences get into full swing

 

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Managing Director, Alex Orr, @Alex_M_Orr

As Scottish Labour gears up for its Spring Conference in Perth on Friday, we look at what to expect from the political parties as party season begins in full swing.

With Council elections on 4th May, this will be seen as a platform for the parties to inject some much-needed energy into that contest, as well as constitutional shenanigans naturally taking centre stage.

Scottish Labour

Scottish Labour will be gathering in Perth (24th to 26th February). With Jeremy Corbyn in attendance, the results of by-elections in the Labour heartland seats of Stoke-On-Trent Central and Copeland on Thursday will clearly have an impact on the conference mood.

It should be remembered – but don’t expect this to be said at the conference – that Scotland was the only part of the UK where Owen Smith beat Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election in September 2016.

The party, which is expected to lose heavily at the Council elections in May and dropped to third in the Scottish Parliament elections will be reinforcing its pro-Union credentials (with a dose of federalism). Attacks will be made by leader, Kezia Dugdale, on the Tories for “endangering the Union” through Brexit and the SNP for, well, doing exactly the same.

Expect the impact of Council budget cuts, as well as the state of the education and health systems to also be very much centre stage.

Scottish Conservatives

The Scottish Conservatives gather in Glasgow (3rd to 4th March) and while it is not yet confirmed whether Theresa May will be in attendance, all eyes will be on Ruth Davidson who steered her party to second place in the Scottish Parliament elections, leapfrogging Labour.

The constitutional situation will, of course, be very much to the fore, with the Tories positioning themselves as the only true “defenders of the Union”, a platform that brought them success in the Scottish Parliament elections

However, there will be some focus, with an eye to the Council elections, to Scotland being the “highest tax part of the UK”, as well as rises in Council tax and business rates.

That other constitutional matter will of course have to rear its head, that of Brexit. And while conference speeches of the past were very much aligned to the pro-Remain side, this time the line will be very much of making Brexit ‘work’, while attacking the SNP for exploiting this as an excuse to ‘break-up’ the UK.

Scottish Liberal Democrats

Like Scottish Labour the Scottish Lib Dems gather in Perth and not only Willie Rennie, but former UK party leader, Nick Clegg, will also be in attendance.

The constitution will be the main topic of debate, with a call for a “Brexit deal referendum”, playing up to both pro-EU and pro-UK credentials.

Buoyed up by some recent by-elections wins the Lib Dems will be talking up their chances in the Council elections.

Scottish Greens

Like the Scottish Conservatives, the Scottish Greens gather in Glasgow. Their event is a day conference on 11th March. Leader, Patrick Harvie, will bask in his roles as ‘kingmaker’ over the issue of the budget deal with the SNP, but there will be concerns over the inclusion of the air departure tax in the budget and its environmental impact.

There will also be talk of taking forward their success from the Scottish Parliament elections into the Council elections.

SNP

The SNP head to Aberdeen for their conference (17th to 18th March). While Nicola Sturgeon and Angus Robertson will be the main speakers, there will undoubtedly be appearances from conference favourites John Swinney, Alex Salmond and Mhairi Black.

Independence, naturally, will take centre stage, especially in the context of Brexit and an ‘almost inevitable’ second independence referendum.

Will the announcement be made to hold another independence referendum? I think not but, this will all depend on whether Article 50 has been triggered by then. There may well be a pledge to pursue a Section 30 order, to allow the vote to take place.

The announcement of some preliminary findings of Andrew Wilson’s long-awaited Growth Commission may also be on the cards.

The mood will be high in expectation of sweeping gains in the Council elections, as well as a staunch defence of the SNP’s decade in power.

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We can build as many homes as we want, but Private Rented Sector tax changes could crush the home owning dream for millennials

 

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Amanda Wiewiorka, Managing Director, Wardhaugh Property 

With the release last week (7th February) of the UK Government’s long awaited housing white paper, Scotland’s own problems in the area were propelled into the limelight. The simple fact is, not enough houses are being built to meet increasing and changing demand, making homeownership an unaffordable dream for many millennials.

‘Modular homes’ or ‘off-site’ construction could offer part of a solution to this crisis. The process of constructing ‘modules’ complete with everything from electrics to plumbing at a factory away from the development site has already been identified by the Scottish Government as a way of addressing the housing shortage.

The concept is widely used around the world to provide strong, energy efficient homes.  Here in Angus, the first six houses of a new development on the site of the old Inverpark Hotel in Arbroath were built in complete units at a factory in Dunfermline before being delivered to the site last week.

It was Theresa May’s proclamation that the UK would take a different stance to homeownership, supporting long term renting as a viable alternative, which struck me. If she does indeed wish to move towards equal perceptions in Britain between renting and homeownership, then she must echo that sentiment in her policies.

Even if we increase the number of ‘modular’ homes and increase the levels of traditional house building to keep up with demand, the UK Government’s disastrous ‘tenant tax’, which comes into effect in April this year could undermine the entire effort.

The Government has decided that landlords, unlike every other business, will be taxed on their income rather than their profits.  This tax raid will only succeed in driving up rent levels in order for landlords to meet their costs.

With saving for a deposit noted as one of the biggest hurdles to homeownership, how will tenants who rent a property ever be able to save up enough money when they are forced to pay sky-high rents by a Government policy that is, in reality, detrimental to the very people the recent white paper aims to help.

Similarly, if the government truly wishes to achieve parity of perception between renting and buying a house, making it a much clearer choice for people rather than something they have no choice on, they will require the investment of professional landlords and letting agents.  Yet, the very tax changes being implemented will drive those same people out of the market and rob the country of that investment.

The UK Government has to make up its mind, is it trying to drive landlords out to increase the supply of housing available to buy, or does it need landlords to increase the supply of quality properties available to rent to achieve balance?

So whilst innovations such as modular housing can help supply at the edges, both the UK and Scottish governments must begin to make consistent policy decisions if we are to seriously tackle the country’s housing problems.

Landlords and others must be part of benefits solution

 

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John Blackwood, Chief Executive, Scottish Association of Landlords @Scotlandlord

When it comes to improving social conditions for those on the lowest income in society, those in the private sector are often ignored when it comes to finding practical, effective solutions.  This is no more true than when it comes to ensuring there is a proper supply of high-quality affordable housing.

 

Traditionally, finding housing for low income individuals and families, such as those on benefits, was considered to be the role of government, either nationally or locally.  However, with budgets reduced and the long-term challenges of councils investing in new housing stock, they are unlikely to be able to meet this challenge alone.

Yet the private rented sector has a large number of well-maintained, quality properties available at rates which would be affordable for those on benefits.  The challenge in releasing these properties for rent has been an understandable reluctance by landlords to rent to those on benefits because of the delay in receiving rent each month.  Most landlords are small businesses working on tight margins and who rely on steady cashflow.  As a result, they are naturally cautious about the delays that can be caused in these circumstances despite many wishing to do so.

SAL has been campaigning for a number of years to find a way to overcome this barrier and release this stock for rent by low income households.  We were therefore delighted by the announcement at the start of the year that the Scottish Government will use its new powers to increase the frequency of Universal Credit payments and give recipients the choice of having the housing cost element of their benefits paid direct to the landlords, as already happens in the social rented sector.

This move will encourage more landlords to rent to those on benefits, increasing the supply of available housing across Scotland.  As well as having clear benefits for tenants, this will reduce the financial burden on local authorities who have to provide emergency accommodation at very high cost.

This represents a win/win/win situation for tenants, government and landlords.  We hope that in future, landlords can do more to help the most vulnerable in our society by working with different partners to deliver homes for those in need.

A version of this blog first appeared in the Edinburgh Evening News on February 13th 2017.