Why has housing policy been such a marginal part of the land reform debate?

Written by Graeme Brown on 22 January 2015 in Comment

Director of Shelter Scotland Graeme Brown asks if housing improvement can be seen as the central driver of land reform

What is Scotland’s main use of land? Farming? Forestry? Renewable energy? [The answer is] none of these - important though they are to Scotland’s future. Scotland’s major land use is, of course, housing.

More people own land through homeownership than any other form of land use – 1.47m at the last census along with more than 900,000 tenants who have a stake in property even if they don’t have the title deeds.

By far the largest aspect of land value in Scotland is locked up in our homes – around £300bn - twice Scotland’s total current GDP at latest estimates. That’s why the volatility of the housing market leads to banking system crashes and entire economies in a tailspin.

So if the housing stock explains much of the country’s land value - and if housing is the land use in which most of us have a stake - why has housing policy been such a marginal part of the land reform debate over the last 20 years?

To a certain extent the housing sector only has itself to blame. We are often so besieged by the latest welfare reform agenda, the rise and fall of the national housing budget or the minutiae of the planning system that we fail to see how land ownership and the trading of land inhibit our country’s potential progress.

In particular, our development industry is trapped in a model which it knows is self-defeating. Like Sisyphus, pushing the rock up and down the slopes of boom and bust, hoarding land against competition from would be self-builders or co-operatives, producing a product which is the envy of no-one. That’s a broken system.

In most of our major towns and cities we have a fundamental problem in organising common repairs and improvements. In the past this fault-line was papered over by public sector grants for improvement work. These grants have now gone and our legal system seems all but helpless to intervene. That too is broken.

These are just some of the major consequences of the way we ‘do’ land here in Scotland. They are as pressing in Hamilton as on Harris, as relevant in Edinburgh as on Eigg.

So Shelter Scotland would welcome a radical land reform agenda as promised by our new First Minister. However, this needs to ask searching and even uncomfortable questions on whether the current structure of ownership and use best serves the nation’s housing needs.

Would a more evenly and fairly distributed form of ownership open up greater opportunities for land purchase and self-build? Would a more intelligent form of taxation help to stabilise house prices and discourage the spinning of property values on a roulette wheel? Would a planning system with real teeth be better able to bring land into productive use? Better use of empty property and more purposeful directed forms of land assembly both have a part to play. All of them, in my view, the legitimate stuff of a land reform programme.

The Scottish Government has already started consultation on a new Land Reform Bill and is seeking to bring together a Land Reform Commission to gather evidence for future reform. While it is probably too much to expect these alone to reverse centuries of entrenched interest and established ways of doing business, I believe that they may herald a new beginning in which land reform is seen as a movement in which we all have a share.

Graeme Brown is Director of Shelter Scotland

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