We need new ideas in housing policy

Written by John McTernan on 29 April 2016 in Comment

A home is so much more than a house and Scotland needs a new narrative on housing policy, says former Labour strategist John McTernan

What’s the most important housing policy in Scotland in the last forty years? Right to Buy.

It changed the country from a land of tenants to one of homeowners. And with it, unleashed a tidal wave of aspiration that is still changing Scotland to this day.

Would Nicola Sturgeon be first minister without parents who had aspirations for their family, ones that started with buying their own council house but didn’t stop there?

It’s been a quiet social revolution and has underpinned the creation of a new Scottish economy.


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The middle-class economy of banking and bioscience, insurance and innovation is unimaginable if more than half of all Scots still lived in council housing.

This is said not in defence of Right to Buy – that transformative policy needs no boosting, its success speaks for itself – but to point out that housing policy is about more than houses.

The remarkable fact about modern Scottish politics is that there are no big ideas about housing, nor even little ones.

There are plenty of old ones, for sure: zombie policies, the undead that rise again and again.

The demand for more and more council housing when the greatest success of the last twenty years has been stock transfer and the growth of housing associations.

A massive devolution of power and control to tenants and communities fit to parallel the devolution of power to the Scottish Parliament.

But statism is the idea that won’t die – the state must own and control.

Of course, the other idea that won’t go away is hatred of the private sector, manifested in housing by the desire for rent control.

Landlords are vilified as if they were becaped, moustachioed Victorian villains forever evicting widows and orphans into the whirling snow. Yet they provide a vital service at their own financial risk.

But, the objection goes, they make a profit. And? No, really, and? What’s wrong with profit? Food is provided to  us at a profit, as is health – GPs don’t run their businesses out of the kindness of their hearts.

Again, this is not said in defence of markets – they don’t need my support, their victory since the seventies is irreversible. It is to mark the limitations of, and lack of imagination in, housing policy.

In the end we have a dishonest discourse about housing because we ignore the human factor. Politicians talk about housing but people live in homes.

From that gap, that chasm, arises almost all of our problems.

A home is the source of so much social good. The stability from which individuals and families can grow and thus communities can flourish.

A home is the site of development, both home improvement and personal growth. From its security springs the entrepreneurial drive that makes our world run.

Place and meaning, those are what should drive housing policy. Starting there is the key to new ideas with the scope and scale that are needed.

So, expanding social housing should be done through housing associations. Local control and community power are the guarantor of well managed space and that is the foundation of a liveable place.

Liveability consists of environmental capital: clean, crime and graffiti-free; social capital: a community at ease with itself, living, working and learning; and physical capital: well maintained and loved homes. That’s not just valuable in itself but creates value – land values.

And we need more private landlords, large and small, building for rent. On longer leases and with new forms of work/live property that suits the self-employed.

These are just sketches. We need big new ideas in housing. But it starts with killing the old ones – the twin obsessions of home ownership and council housing.

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