Ensuring everyone has access to a decent home should be the starting block in our mission to build a happier and more equitable society.
Labour’s ambitions for our future are matched by our absolute determination to ensure everyone in Scotland has the comfort and assurance of a safe, secure and warm home. It’s not an impossible dream and it’s not an unrealistic goal. All that is required is the political will.
Sadly, not a week has gone by this summer without further evidence or a new report highlighting the housing problems that are facing thousands of Scots. Just last month, the proportion of Scots who own their own home hit a 15-year low, while the number who rent privately hit a 15-year high. In fact, the amount that is paid in rent by tenants in private lets is at an all-time high. People are either paying too much, are living in inadequate accommodation, or both.
In June, the Commission on Housing and Wellbeing published their report ‘A blueprint for Scotland’s Future’. Set up in 2013 by Shelter Scotland and chaired by the former Auditor General, Robert Black, the principal goal of the commission was to look at the ways in which housing can and does impact on the wider wellbeing of the people of Scotland. This non-political, unbiased, independent commission examined the impact housing has had on people’s health, education, employability and life chances. It highlighted the links between poverty, inequality and housing and pointed to the wider gains in terms of educational attainment, care for older people and improved mental health secured by a decent home.
At the publication of their recommendations, Chair of the Commission, Robert Black said that the central focus of the report was about everyone in Scotland having a “safe, secure and suitable home which allows each and every one of us to live fulfilling lives and achieve our potential”.
Adding: “We are a long way short of this. There are about 150,500 households on waiting lists for social housing, 940,000 in fuel poverty and over 60,000 are overcrowded. With an averagely priced house now costing about five times the average annual income, owning your own home is becoming an unachievable pipedream for many people in Scotland, especially young adults and families.”
The message from the Commission is clear – Scotland is facing a housing crisis; a crisis which requires strong political leadership to solve it. We need to strike a bold new approach to housing in Scotland, building tens of thousands of homes, regulating on private lets, helping those living in cold damp houses whilst securing a sustainable future for the next generation, boosting the economy, reducing poverty and improving health.
The report also spells out some of the major challenges facing us in the next decade including reforming the council tax, dealing with rising levels of housing benefit and recognising the growing role of the private rented sector.
Regulating the private rented sector is something Scottish Labour has been calling on for some time. Since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, the proportion of people in private lets has almost trebled from 5% in 1999 to 13% today. As things stand, over 312,000 households are privately renting in Scotland – including some 80,000 families with children.
More than a year ago, Scottish Labour brought forward a number of amendments to the Housing Bill including proposals to control rapidly increasing private rents. They were not supported by the SNP nor by the Conservatives but it is worth pointing out that over this parliamentary session, limiting rent rises to the rate of inflation would have saved private renters an average of £200 per year. Rents in hotspots such as Aberdeen and Edinburgh which will be the focus of the Scottish Government’s still outline proposals have risen even more rapidly and tenants there would have saved even more.
Scottish Labour has deliberately chosen housing to be the subject of our first debate in this new Scottish Parliamentary session because we believe it needs to become a political priority. This is not just about the Scottish Government’s record, nor about drawing a comparison between this and previous administrations. It is about using the using the powers of the Parliament to tackle the problem before us, to improve people’s lives, and to ensure every Scot has a decent home.