Housing crisis caused by lack of homes being built

1st Dec 2023
David J Alexander

In his latest column for The Scotsman, David Alexander discusses potential causes of the housing crisis.

The Scottish parliament last week debated whether to announce a housing emergency for the whole of Scotland. This followed the decision by the City of Edinburgh council to declare an emergency a fortnight ago following on from Argyll and Butes announcement earlier in the year.

In the end the SNP/Green government amended the motion to state that it “recognises significant pressures with homelessness and temporary accommodation.” Shelter Scotland director, Alison Watson, accused the Scottish Government of being “in denial.”

The problem is that there is considerable deflection and obfuscation behind housing policy in Scotland. The obvious answer that there is a housing shortage because too few houses have been built is never accepted as the real reason we are in this situation. There is always another reason for the current crisis.

One of the other reasons often cited is the issue of empty and second homes which, we are often told, contribute to the current housing shortages. Indeed, recent research by Admiral Home Insurance revealed that almost 7,000 homes in Edinburgh were empty and that there were tens of thousands of vacant properties across the country.

These figures were subsequently contrasted with the recent housing emergency announced in the capital and the news that 23,000 tenants are on waiting lists with 200 bids for each socially rented property. The implication was that there was some causal link between these two statistics when the reality is considerably different.

The Scottish Empty Homes Partnership (SEHP) statistics show that in 2022 there were 6,904 homes in Edinburgh which were vacant for more than six months but that this figure drops to 2,349 for properties empty for more than 12 months. So, there may be nearly 7,000 homes vacant at any one time but there is a good reason for them being empty. They were never a possible option for those needing a home in Edinburgh.

The further argument is often made that second home ownership is part of the housing problem, but the latest Scottish Government figures show that between 2005 and 2022 the number of these fell from 39,842 to 24,287 which is a drop of 39.0%. In Edinburgh there has been an even greater fall over the same period declining from 3,031 to 1,660 over the 17-year period which is a reduction of 45.2%.

The concern is that by conflating the issue of a housing shortage in Edinburgh with almost 7,000 empty homes misses the point because even if all of these houses were somehow appropriated to fill the needs of those on the waiting list this would do little to alleviate the accumulated problems in the capital, and many other parts of Scotland, which are currently experiencing record numbers of homeless, and record numbers seeking homes in the social and private sector. A property being vacant for six months means almost nothing in this context as a property can be empty for multiple reasons as confirmed by SEHP themselves.

Estates can take a long time to be satisfied following a death and few are resolved within six months so many of these properties will be linked to these circumstances. People may be working abroad, they may be in hospital, in a care home, travelling, retired, and living elsewhere with relatives or a whole host of reasons which result in a property being left empty for a year or more.

Therefore, much of this is something of a red herring. Empty and second homes are not the answer to Scotland’s property problems. The real concern is whether focusing on empty homes is distracting from the larger issue of the need to build more houses in the social and private sectors.

Regenerating and reviving homes which have been empty for a substantial period of time can undoubtedly be beneficial for an area. But the notion that this is what is causing our current problems is ludicrous.

The answer is a prolonged programme of new home building in the private and social housing sectors. This will take ten years or more but must begin as soon as possible if the current housing problems are to be resolved. Targeting empty and second homes and holiday lets is simply an excuse from addressing the real housing issues.