Home truths for new First Minister

In today’s Edinburgh Evening News I’ve called on Nicola Sturgeon to use the Scottish Government’s new borrowing powers to boost investment in building affordable housing. The article is available on the paper’s website but I’ve reproduced it in full below.

Scotland’s Housing Crisis should be Nicola Sturgeon’s top priority.

When people hear the phrase housing crisis, they often think of beggars and rough sleeping. However the reality is often less dramatic but much more long-lasting.

Take my constituent John. In his 50s, he’s lived in the private rented sector since his marriage broke down ten years ago. He has neither central heating nor double glazing. His flat was built by the council but was sold off under the right to buy. After changing hands several times, the current landlord now charges double the rent of a similar flat in the same block that remains in council hands.

John’s wages from short-term agency work in the construction industry don’t cover his rent, so he depends on Housing Benefit to make up the shortfall.

He knows he could pay his own way in a council or housing association let but he has next to no chance of being awarded one as he already has a tenancy.

Across Edinburgh, this is an increasingly common problem. Vacancies in the council and housing association sector have halved over the last year or two. Since the summer there have been fewer than 50 available most weeks. And while the council and housing associations completed 1,285 units last year, half were mid-market rent – where a 2-bed property would cost around £600 per month compared with council rent of £400 – and a further quarter low-cost home ownership.

By attempting to get the most out of much-reduced Scottish Government funding, Edinburgh has ended up building affordable housing that, for many, simply isn’t affordable. As a result, waiting times for those who need low-rent homes are growing.

Tackling this issue should be Nicola Sturgeon’s top priority.

The Scottish Government will gain more borrowing and tax-varying powers as a result of the Scotland Act 2012, and these are set to be enhanced once the recommendations of the Smith Commission are put into law after the next General Election.

If these were used to channel extra funds into low-rent affordable house building, this would put downward pressure on rents and push down the Housing Benefit bill.

Unfortunately there was not a mention of this issue in Nicola Sturgeon’s programme for government. And there was next to no increase for affordable housing in John Swinney’s pre-budget statement for 2015/16 – the first year the new borrowing powers could be used.

During the referendum the SNP argued that they needed independence to create a fairer and more equal society. Now that Scottish voters have rejected this option, they should now use the powers of a strengthened Scottish Parliament to invest in affordable housing, so that people like John can pay their own way while living in decent quality homes.

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What did Labour do in the Scottish Parliament?

I spend time every week knocking on doors somewhere in the constituency and I had a conversation with someone who claimed Labour did nothing during our time in Government at Holyrood. Obviously I took a different view and I’ve reproduced my response in full below.

Thank you for talking to me when I was door knocking in your area recently. We will have to continue to ‘agree to disagree’ on whether independence is the best option for Scotland. However you stated that Labour had done ‘nothing’ in the Scottish Parliament, and I felt I could not let this go unchallenged.

Labour delivered on its devolution promise in 1997 and moved quickly to establish the Scottish Parliament. In the first eight years of the Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition a considerable amount of legislation was passed that led to positive social change. For example:

  • It was this administration that introduced Scotland-wide concessionary travel and free personal care.
  • The Housing Act of 2001 introduced a single secure tenancy across council and housing association tenancies, set in place the homelessness changes which led to the ending of the distinction between priority and non-priority need homeless applicants (a process complete by 2012), and substantially reduced Right to Buy discounts (resulting in sales dropping sharply).
  • The Housing Act of 2006 made important changes in communal repairs in flatted property particularly.
  • Land reform enabled community buy-outs in islands and rural areas.
  • The Tenement Act and Title Conditions Act modernised aspects of property ownership.
  • The Anti-Social Behaviour Act of 2004 tackled problems high on the agenda of many of my constituents, and introduced landlord registration.

Away from legislation the need for infrastructural investment was recognised and councils were invited to submit proposals for using additional investment funding to help grow the economy. These included the extension to the M74, the trams and the borders railway. Edinburgh saw, with Scottish Government support, its largest school building programme in decades.

Government support also made possible the demolition and rebuilding of substandard housing in Oxgangs and Moredun/Hyvots. Significantly the new housing was nearly all for social rent – unlike the later superficially similar developments at Gracemount and Sighthill, where only around one quarter of the replacement homes have been for social rent.

I have concentrated on the areas of policy which I know best, but there are many other examples. Whether you agree with all of the measures or not is another matter. Many people, for example, are in retrospect against the trams, or at least the implementation of that project, but the funding for a range of transport projects was a bold attempt to improve Scotland’s infrastructure. I have my own views on which measures have worked and which may now require further attention or change.

I would not seek to suggest that the SNP Scottish Government has done ‘nothing’ since 2007, although I might not agree with all their actions. I simply make the point that I cannot accept your proposition that Scottish Labour did nothing during its years in government.

Best wishes

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Press release: Rent rise vote shows SNP put independence ahead of Scottish families

Commenting on the SNP’s decision to vote against Scottish Labour’s proposals to reform the private rented sector to protect tenants across Scotland, Edinburgh East MP Sheila Gilmore said:

The SNP are afraid to admit that the Scottish Parliament already has the power to change Scotland for the better. This is why they voted against Scottish Labour’s plans to limit increases in rent today. By doing so they have put their obsession with independence ahead of the interests of thousands of Scottish families.

ENDS

Notes to Editors:

  • Scottish Labour’s Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure, Investment and Cities Strategy, James Kelly MSP, lodged amendments to the Housing (Scotland) Bill to end unfair rises in rent and offer greater security to tenants.
  • Under Scottish Labour plans, Ministers would have had until 1 January 2015 to bring forward regulations to limit rent reviews to once a year and to cap rent increases.
  • SNP members voted against Labour proposals at the Stage 2 Committee debate earlier today.
  • For more information please contact Matt Brennan, Parliamentary Assistant to Sheila Gilmore MP, on 020 7219 7062, 07742 986 513 or matthew.brennan@parliament.uk.
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Evening News article: Age brings wisdom

Today I’ve written in the Evening News about the benefits of councils and housing associations being able to let certain properties to specific age groups. You can read my piece here, but I’ve also reproduced it in full below.

FOR years many of Edinburgh’s high-rise blocks were plagued by a vicious cycle of antisocial behaviour, residents leaving, more unstable communities, and yet more antisocial behaviour. Vulnerable residents, who are often the least able to move, would suffer most.

However, of late, a number of blocks, including Citadel and Persevere Court in Leith and the three blocks at Hailesland Park, have been transformed into sought-after places to live.

598tenementsThis has in part been down to the council’s policy of only letting properties to people who are over 35 and don’t have any children, which has produced more stable communities. In turn, these have helped sustain the extensive and expensive refurbishment work that has gone on in these properties.

Unfortunately, the Scottish Housing Regulator told the council that this policy was illegal in 2010. This meant the policy couldn’t be extended to other types of housing where it could have been of use. For example “pensioner housing” – rows or small groups of cottages for example – are a good option for tenants wanting to downsize from family homes they are now finding hard to manage. However, unless these properties are sufficiently adapted to be classified as sheltered housing, the existing law means that they cannot be allocated only to older applicants.

In response, the Scottish Government announced that its Housing Bill would enable councils and housing associations to allocate certain types of properties to specific age groups. But on Monday housing minister Margaret Burgess announced that she would seek to remove this clause following a campaign by Shelter claiming that this would disadvantage young applicants and those who are homeless.

While I’ve been a strong supporter of Shelter’s work for many years, I’m afraid their claims aren’t backed up by the facts.

An analysis concluded that homeless applicants did not lose out while the council’s age-restricted lettings policy was in place. In addition, safeguards could be built into the legislation, such as requiring councils that use this flexibility to demonstrate that younger or homeless applicants don’t lose out overall.

It has also been suggested that demand for affordable homes isn’t particularly high amongst older people, but in Edinburgh 41 per cent of applicants for social housing are aged 35 to 60, and they were 37 per cent of new tenants in 2011-12.

The Scottish Government talks a lot about the need for tenant consultation and participation. Age-restricted lettings policies were popular with tenants and applicants alike, so why are their views now being ignored?

There is a sound argument for allowing for age-restricted lettings policies on the basis of housing management and sustainability. In addition, there is a need to be fulfilled, and such policies have the support of tenants. I hope all MSPs of all parties vote to retain provision for flexible allocations of this type.

• Sheila Gilmore is the Labour MP for Edinburgh East

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Press Release: Housing plans show we can change Scotland for better as part of UK

Edinburgh East MP Sheila Gilmore today welcomed Scottish Labour’s plans to reform the private rented sector to protect tenants across Scotland.

Sheila Gilmore said:

I welcome Scottish Labour’s plans to limit increases in rent and encourage longer tenancies – changes that can be made using powers the Scottish Parliament already has.

This demonstrates that we can change Scotland for the better while retaining all the benefits of the United Kingdom, and without the need for independence.

ENDS

Notes to Editors:

  • Scottish Labour’s Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure, Investment and Cities Strategy, James Kelly MSP, will lodge amendments to the Housing (Scotland) Bill to end unfair rises in rent and offer greater security to tenants.
  • Under Scottish Labour plans, Ministers will have until 1 January 2015 to bring forward regulations to limit rent reviews to once a year and to cap rent increases. The party is also demanding that 3 year tenancies become the market standard in Scotland.
  • For more information please contact Matt Brennan, Parliamentary Assistant to Sheila Gilmore MP, on 020 7219 7062, 07742 986 513 or matthew.brennan@parliament.uk.
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