Interview: Housing Minister Margaret Burgess

Written by Kate Shannon on 8 October 2015 in Inside Politics

Housing Minister Margaret Burgess on the big issues affecting the sector

 

For Scotland’s Housing Minister, while the recent announcement that the Scottish Government is set to exceed its affordable home-building target by March 2016 is welcome news, she is clear more still needs to be done.

Figures to the end of June show 28,048 affordable homes have now been delivered – 93 per cent of the 30,000 target, including 19,205 homes for social rent. This is 96 per cent of the 20,000 social rent target.


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Speaking to Holyrood, Burgess said: “It was a target which we felt could realistically be achieved with a lot of work and effort, with our stakeholders and with the finances we had available, given our capital budget has been cut by Westminster. We set a target and worked to reach it but that’s not the limit of our ambition. We absolutely understand that housing supply is crucial and we need to increase that supply in Scotland, across all tenures.

“It’s not about saying ‘that’s it, we’ve done it’ and patting ourselves on the back. We set a target, it was a difficult and ambitious target at the time and we’re meeting and probably exceeding it. However, it’s a starting point for us to carry on as we look ahead.

“We have boosted housing supply budgets by investing £1.7 billion in affordable housing over the lifetime of this Parliament. Our house-building rates, per head, continue to outperform other parts of the UK.

“We will continue to work closely with the housing sector to support the construction of new homes across all tenures, supporting jobs in the construction industry and wider economy, and helping to strengthen communities, promote social justice and tackle inequality.”

This summer, the Commission on Housing and Wellbeing, set up by Shelter Scotland and chaired by former Auditor General of Scotland Robert Black, put forward a number of recommendations on the future of housing in Scotland. One was on the need for a dramatic increase in house building and it called for the construction of 23,000 new homes a year, including 9,000 affordable homes. 

Burgess, who recently announced she is standing down as MSP in next year’s election, added: “Our target was on what we could do with the Affordable Housing Supply budget but in addition to that, we had the Help to Buy scheme, helping the construction industry and recognising the impact the recession had on them. 

“Given the recession and given the cuts to our budget, across all completions, we have built more houses than previous administrations. Also, per head of 100,000 population, we’re building more houses in Scotland than in England. We need to do more and we know that but we’re actually outperforming the rest of the UK on this.”

The construction industry has faced a tough time in the recent recession but latest figures reveal a small rise in the number of homes built in Scotland in the past year. Statistics show the number of new homes completed across the private and social sector rose nine per cent to 16,281 between April 2014 and March 2015, compared to the same period in 2013/14. In addition, the overall supply of housing, which covers new builds, refurbishments and conversions, increased six per cent to 17,149 in 2014/15 compared to the previous year.

“It is a small increase but it is an increase and we would hope that it will continue to go in that direction,” said Burgess.

“We have helped the house-building sector in a number of ways, through Help to Buy but also our National Housing Trust scheme. All the houses that are being built in Scotland are being built by the construction industry, so whether it’s a social rental property or an owner-occupier home, we’re helping the industry with how we contribute to that. For example, we had the MI New Home scheme which helped not only first-time buyers but builders too. Also in the Programme for Government, the First Minister indicated that we would continue to support the industry and support affordable house building with a further £195 million over three years.”

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon also announced plans to introduce a Private Tenancies Bill to give tenants in the private rented sector increased security, while giving landlords, lenders and investors the confidence to continue investing in the sector. The Scottish Government hopes it will provide more predictable rents and protection for tenants against excessive rent increases, including the ability to introduce local rent controls for rent pressure areas.

Burgess said: “The private rented sector is a hugely important part of the housing system in Scotland. We’ve done a number of things in the previous Housing Bill and prior to that, to improve the sector to make it more attractive to people and in terms of what we’re doing in regulating the sector.

“[The Private Tenancies Bill] is another step and is quite transformative. The idea behind it is to give security, stability and predictability to tenants but also safeguard landlords, lenders and investors because we want to attract private landlords into the sector as well. We recognise that we have a diverse housing sector and we have to ensure every tenure is growing.

“Tenants will have a lot more security – this was something which we had heard, that tenants felt there was no security in the private rented sector. It will also give them some predictability in terms of rent increases. These increases would be once a year and given with 12 weeks’ notice to allow tenants to plan ahead. 

“This should allow people to look at how they will budget if there is an increase. There is also the right to go to the housing tribunal for repairs, without fear of losing their tenancy.

“There’s a recognition that the private rented sector has an important role to play within Scotland’s housing system. Most of the work we’ve carried out has been done alongside landlords’ associations and we would say to them that in terms of this bill, there’s nothing to fear either.

“The government has no vision that we should all aspire to be homeowners. Our vision is very much that there should be choice for people and families. Those who choose to rent should have the option available, whether that be social or private rent, but we also want to support those who do want to buy. 

“There are still people out there who want to purchase their own homes and we would not in any way discourage that. That’s why we’ve got a number of schemes to help people, we’ve got the shared equity scheme to help people onto the housing ladder, the Help to Buy scheme was doing that too. As we go forward, we are concentrating on affordable housing, to ensure that nobody who wants to buy is being excluded. It is important we see that as one part of the overall housing system, it’s not the case of one option being better than another.”

Asked about the importance of the planning system, Burgess told Holyrood: “The recently announced review of the planning system is in addition to the modernisation we’ve already done in the planning system because there have been considerable improvements. We’ve got to ensure it’s focused on delivery and I’m talking about housing developments and whether the system encourages the delivery of good places. We have to ask a number of questions, is it quick enough? Is it effective enough? And is it accessible enough? Could we improve things to make the delivery of housing developments better?

“It’s not about starting again; it’s looking at the resourcing of the planning system and the infrastructure. In doing all of that, we’ve got to remember communities have to be involved in planning.”
In terms of homelessness, Burgess said she is never complacent. 

“I would never say that everything has been resolved in terms of homelessness,” she added.

It was recently reported that Scottish councils received around 8,500 applications for homelessness assistance in April to June 2015, seven per cent lower than in the same period in 2014. 

However, the number of children in temporary accommodation increased by 626 (15 per cent), when comparing numbers for 30 June 2015 to one year ago. 

According to the figures from Scotland’s Chief Statistician, overall there were 10,666 households in temporary homelessness accommodation as of 30 June 2015 – an increase of 472 households compared to the same period in 2014. Over a quarter (2,805) were households with children - an increase of 272 (11 per cent). 

In addition to the fall in applications, the number of people assessed as homeless, or likely to become homeless within two months, fell by around 1,100 to 6,600. 

Burgess said: “We’re on the right track and homelessness prevention is key. The support for individuals who are homeless is very important and that’s why we still have our homelessness prevention strategy group which I attend because I think homelessness is something we should never take our eye off. 

“We need to work with our stakeholders because we’re now looking at hard-to-reach homeless people and how we can ensure they are aware of the services which are available. Everyone is entitled to a roof over their heads if they are unintentionally homeless and we want to ensure that we get the support and the services available to them. That’s why we need to work with our partner organisations to reach some of the homeless people who are not necessarily presenting.

“Rough sleeping in Scotland has dropped dramatically but there are still some people who are and we want to reach them. Homelessness overall is dropping. We’ve got a good story there. From the inception of the Scottish Parliament homelessness has been tackled head on but we should not have people sleeping in the streets. Homelessness is about a lot more than that and we’re never going to be able to eradicate it completely but what we have to do is ensure that we’ve got procedures and policies in place to ensure no one is homeless for any length of time.”

Scotland’s historic 2012 homelessness commitment was met and in force from 31 December 2012. This meant that all councils across Scotland had to provide settled accommodation to anyone who is unintentionally homelessness. Before December 2012, that right only applied to certain groups identified as being in priority need, such as families with dependent children.

The intentionality criteria allowed local authorities to distinguish between the case of a person who has become homeless through no fault of their own, and that of someone who through deliberate action or inaction, has contributed to their homelessness. 

Whether or not someone is found to be intentionally homeless, the local authority should seek to find solutions to their homelessness and offer support to address any difficulties that they face.
Meanwhile, a new fuel poverty scheme, backed by up to £224m from the Scottish Government and designed to help as many as 28,000 Scots heat their homes, was announced recently. Over the next seven years, Warmer Homes Scotland will action measures such as insulation, heating and domestic renewables in households identified as fuel poor.

Burgess said: “We are committed to tackling fuel poverty, having a warm, comfortable home has implications on health and wellbeing. Some of the work we’re doing in support of energy-efficiency measures are also helping to regenerate a community. They are helping people to lower their fuel bills inside the home but also improving the overall look of the area. That’s significant because it gives people pride in their area.

“There is a significant amount of money going into energy-efficiency measures in people’s homes and tackling fuel poverty.”

She continued: “There is a massive amount happening in housing in Scotland. For me, it is about knowing the challenges facing housing. However, we’ve taken them head on already and we will continue to take them on.

“There is a lot of innovative work going on and there is a lot we should be proud of. When I’m out and about speaking to people, the difference it makes to them when they get a home which suits their needs is very important. 

“That’s what it’s all about and we will continue to do that and to look innovatively at how we can increase supply of housing to ensure that that opportunity is available to everyone.”

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