Housing policy ‘on the hoof’ will not seriously address issues - David Alexander
As featured in The Scotsman.
The recent announcement by Boris Johnson that he would extend the 1980s Right to Buy policy to apply to housing associations whilst also encouraging those on housing benefits to more easily access the house buying market was probably intended to boost the Prime Minister’s popularity rather than seriously address the issues the housing sector faces.
Such announcements, along with too many housing policies are often developed “on the hoof” without fully considering the long-term impact on the sector. There is often a lack of long-term planning and strategic thinking regarding housing policy, and it is the reason the problems facing the sector are getting worse rather than better.
We need a housing policy which is designed for decades rather than months or years. Because governments operate in four to five year cycles, housing is something that exceeds those time frames and hence any policy is often devised solely for the benefit it can bring to a government within a single electoral cycle.
The result is policies which really don’t successfully address the needs of society for any prolonged period. While Right to Buy was a hugely successful policy for Margaret Thatcher at the time it sowed the seeds of our subsequent housing problems. While it enabled hundreds of thousands to buy their own home it failed to replace the sold properties with new social housing resulting in the shortages we’ve subsequently experienced.
If the Thatcher government had used the funds raised from sales to contribute to new social housing, then this single idea could have produced a self-funding system which enabled people to both get on the housing ladder while still providing essential social housing for the next generation.
In any debate on housing the issue that never seems to be understood at Holyrood or Westminster is that the fundamental problem in the market is demand exceeding supply. If you don’t want constantly rising house prices, if you want to ensure people have a choice of homes in areas where they want to live, and if you want to have homes that cater for people throughout all periods of their lives then you must have a steady flow of housing stock across all sectors.
Unfortunately, this is nowhere near the case. In Scotland, the Government has promised 110,000 new social housing properties by 2032. This is roughly 10,000 homes built per year and yet this target has never been reached. Just 1,539 new social housing homes were built last year which was obviously impacted by the pandemic but even before that there were fewer than 6,000 new social housing homes built. Scotland has 214,000 (equivalent to a reduction of 26 per cent) fewer social housing properties now than it did in 1993.
The problem is that even if the Scottish Government’s 10,000 annual target was reached this is nowhere near enough homes to meet demand. There are currently 132,000 people on the social housing waiting list, the number of people needing a home increases each year, and the combined social housing, private rented sector, and availability of properties for homeowners is not meeting the rising demand in Scotland. The result is rising prices, increasing rents, and many thousands of frustrated people who find that their living needs are not being met.
The solution is complex but essential. We need to develop a strategy for housing which fulfils the needs of everyone whether they are buying or renting, and which accurately reflects and meets their needs at various stages in their lives and in the widely differing geographic areas of Scotland.
We need policies that listen to everyone involved in the housing sector whether that is housebuilders, landlords, tenants, investors, and the social housing providers who all need to have their voice heard. Only in this way will we create a housing sector which is fit for purpose, which is responsive to the changing needs of Scottish society, and which is strategically planned and developed to be relevant for the next thirty to forty years.