The SNP and Labour tinker round the edges on the housing crisis
Poor housing now affects a broader spectrum of society than just the marginalised poor. That makes it a potent electoral issue
A housing crisis isn’t about bricks and mortar or wallpaper and paint – it’s about people without homes. And people without homes is a national scandal that no party in the Scottish Parliament can find absolution from.
The consequence of just two policies – buy-to-let and right-to-buy – coupled with a longstanding failure to invest in social housing have contributed to a situation where 5,000 Scottish children and their families spent this Christmas in temporary accommodation. That’s living in a B&B, a hostel, a hotel or even on someone else’s sofa.
In a country of just over five million, we have 150,500 families on council waiting lists and 10,600 households living in temporary accommodation. There are others sleeping on friends’ floors, cramped into the homes of relatives or even on the streets. And those numbers are rising.
At the same time as we have people desperately trying to access social housing, we have others who aspire to own their own homes but can’t afford to get on the first rung of the property ladder because prices are simply beyond their reach.
They are trapped in a burgeoning private rented sector where excessive rents mean they can’t save for the deposit that would secure them a mortgage that would then give them the key to their own front door. It’s a Catch 22.
Soaring property prices, exorbitant rents and a short supply of social housing have led to a rise in homelessness, overcrowding and millions suffering from living in sub-standard homes which they can’t afford to heat.
Poor housing conditions in 21st century Scotland is now an issue that affects a broader spectrum of society than just the marginalised poor. And that makes it a potent political issue in the run-up to an election.
The slums might have gone but people are still slumming it.
So while in an interview with BBC’s Newsnight last week Ruth Davidson dismissed the toxicity of Margaret Thatcher on the current state of her party, saying her name meant as much to young Scots now as Disraeli or Gladstone, she was wrong. Thatcher may be history but her legacy lives on.
In 1980, a year after taking office, and in one of two major housing acts during her time in office, Thatcher introduced the right to buy for council tenants. Her government then went on a programme of slash and burn with regard to construction of new social housing, radically loosened mortgage lending restrictions and became the friend of the private landlord.
Thatcher fundamentally changed the UK’s approach to housing. She helped set in motion an out of control property market that not only sowed the seeds for the 2008 financial crisis but contributed towards a cultural acceptance of a whole generation of ‘amateur landlords’ that have institutionalised the idea of owning property as a guaranteed pension pot through buy-to-let.
Housing, and the lack of, has become emblematic of the searing inequality that exists in modern-day Britain and, shamefully, no government since Thatcher has dramatically altered that course.
In 2008 Iain Gray, the then leader of Scottish Labour, told me that his party was often not quick enough to ask themselves what was the next big thing. As an illustration of that, he said his party in government – during the early years of devolution – had passed the best homelessness legislation in the world but then didn’t build the houses to make it work and so set one person’s housing need against another’s.
Earlier this month the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, reminded the former leader of those words along with those of the current shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, who said in an interview with Holyrood in December that Labour had inherited a housing crisis in 1997 and then made it worse by not building. He told me that the communities in his own constituency in London had been laid to ruin by buy-to-let landlords and the lack of affordable rented housing.
He painted a vivid but familiar picture of kids hardwired for trauma, unable to lay down roots because of short tenancies and temporary housing. He talked of their health, their education and their mental wellbeing all being affected because of the lack of a house to call their home. And he described beds in sheds, with Londoners, literally, living in shanties.
McDonnell’s London seems far removed from a Scotland where the SNP Government has made the grand gesture of halting right-to-buy and boasting of building 30,000 homes during their time in office, compared with Labour’s six. But gestures are not enough.
In the run-up to an election when promises are a plenty and as the parties try to outbid each other on housing policy claims, the one question to ask is – what took them so long?
Housing is at the very heart of many of Scotland’s ills. Life chances are set by postcodes. Health, literacy, numeracy, crime – statistics that can all relate back to where someone was born or brought up. So the financial, social and policy implications of not addressing what is a national shame makes no sense at all.
Politicians of all parties have singularly failed to deal with the fundamental and deep-rooted economic inequity which lies at the heart of the housing crisis.
They tinker round the edges blaming lack of powers, Westminster or global market forces. But unless they take brave steps to underpin Scotland’s economy in such a way that allows those who aspire to owning their own home the financial wherewithal and long-term security to see that as an aspiration within reach, then the gulf between the haves and have-nots just gets wider.
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