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Patrick Harvie: Housing policy seen as 'sticking plaster' for unequal economy

Photo by Anna Moffat

Patrick Harvie: Housing policy seen as 'sticking plaster' for unequal economy

The minister for zero carbon buildings, tenants’ rights and active travel enjoys getting “geeky” about efforts to decarbonise heating systems. He is “delighted” when he hears tenants and homeowners have benefited from energy efficiency investment. But what really gets Patrick Harvie out of bed in a morning is his love of cycling.

“The thing that gives me the most joy is seeing the liberating power of people getting on a bike – whether it’s young people getting access to a bike for the first time or older people who maybe haven’t cycled since they were a kid and didn’t think it was right for them anymore suddenly discovering or rediscovering the joy of being able to travel actively. And seeing really good quality infrastructure going into parts of Scotland, that’s the bit of the job that gives me the most personal joy.”

His enthusiasm for cycling is perhaps what saw investment in active travel emphasised in the Bute House Agreement between his party, the Scottish Greens, and the SNP. That document committed the Scottish Government to allocating “at least £320m” to it in the 2024-25 budget.

Yet two and a half years later, and with that budget having just gone through, that target hasn’t been met. Just £196m was allocated to active travel this year. But Harvie says he’s “quite relaxed” about that given the cost-of-living crisis, a Scottish budget under pressure and, he admits, a small dose of reality when it comes to government spending.

“Even if it wasn’t for the financial situation of the Scottish Government and the cuts to capital spending from the UK settlement, I think we probably bit off a bit more than we could chew with the idea of getting to that £320m figure so quickly.

Anything that results in houses being taken out of that fundamental purpose is harmful to society

“If we had that in the budget for the coming financial year, I would have real worries that we were going to get that spent effectively on good-value-for-money projects. We’re still on that trajectory, that is still the aspiration of where we want to get to, it’s just taking a little bit of extra time to get there.”

Having been in government since September 2021, he says he’s “learned firsthand what it’s like trying to deliver a change programme within government”. And with the slower timescale, “we’re probably going to get better value for money and better results”.

It’s one of many lessons for the first-time minister, and he openly admits that it would be “bizarre if we hadn’t learned anything” from the experience.

Credit: Alamy

As part of the deal which saw him and fellow Scottish Green co-leader Lorna Slater enter government – a first for any Green party in the UK – Harvie also took on the mammoth task of decarbonising Scotland’s heating system. This is vital if climate change targets are to be met.

Yet shortly before we speak, Audit Scotland warned of “significant risk” to the government’s plans. And not long after our interview, the Climate Change Committee published a report saying 2030 climate targets – including those on heating – won’t be met.

Neither report came as a surprise to ministers. Towards the end of last year, Harvie had already been forced to ditch the target to decarbonise a million homes by the end of the decade. This was in part due to delays to bringing forward the legislation, which means homeowners won’t be required to make changes until 2028 at the earliest.

Harvie explains: “We had to acknowledge that getting to that million homes, that’s going to be in the early 2030s, not by 2030. That doesn’t mean, though, that we don’t still need rapid acceleration. The Audit Scotland report is quite right. It’s telling us what we’ve been saying ourselves.”

If we don’t continue to see that rapid acceleration, then we won’t be able to see heat and buildings pulling its weight in terms of the climate response

His eyes remain on the ultimate 2045 net zero goal. “I think it’s going to be clearly achievable to decarbonise and to do it in a way that builds confidence and capacity – confidence for consumers and capacity in the supply chain,” he says.

“We’ve got confidence that we are accelerating. It’s quite right that if we don’t continue to see that rapid acceleration, then we won’t be able to see heat and buildings pulling its weight in terms of the climate response from the Scottish Government and from Scotland generally.”

Part of what gives him certainty that Scotland will get there is increasing demand for low-carbon heating systems from both homeowners and those who manage business premises. While he accepts that building confidence among consumers remains a challenge, he says that “people agree that that’s something that we should be doing”.

How much the public understands about what decarbonisation actually looks like is mixed. Harvie says some people are already involved in discussions and have good knowledge about it, but others “do need more information”. “And they need that information presented to them in a way that’s accessible, not patronising, but not overly technical. That’s sometimes a tricky balance to strike.

“Energy companies have a really, really important role to play here. Some of the progressive ones, some of the ones that are genuinely innovating, are not exactly hand-holding people through but they’re guiding people, they’re providing their customers with the information that they need to make decisions that are in the interests of reducing their bills, as well as reducing their emissions. That relationship with the energy companies and billpayers is going to be a really important conduit for the information that people need.”

But he’s also aware that for some types of housing – for example older tenements – the solutions “don’t exist at the moment”. “As a regional MSP, I get constituents getting in touch with me saying, ‘I’m really frustrated, I want solutions for my tenement,’ and you have to be clear that these solutions are coming, but in many places they are not there yet.”

Harvie himself lives in one such pre-1919 tenement in Glasgow, though he has done some experimenting in recent months. “I’ve been experimenting over this last winter with an infrared panel, putting in an infrared heating panel in one room, switching off the radiator to that room and keeping the door closed…. But yeah, to be honest, that is the kind of thing that somebody who’s a little bit geeky about the subject would do. Most consumers, most households, are not going to look to do something like that.”

Aside from the technical challenges, there are also huge financial challenges. The Scottish Government estimates it will cost £33bn to decarbonise buildings across the country. This parliament it has committed £1.8bn. Harvie says: “There’s never been a view that the government [or] the taxpayer can pay for the entire cost of it. There is going to have to be some of that that comes from industry, there’s going to have to be some of this that comes from the energy companies… There’s going to be a range of different sources of investment, and yes, some of it will inevitably involve individual homeowners and building owners.”

He talks up the prospect of “green mortgages” which he says have been an “underdeveloped” idea in the UK. These would take account of the energy performance of homes as part of the financial products available to support buying a home. “Few people would buy a car and think about how they’re going to finance the purchase of it without also thinking about its fuel consumption… It’s inevitably part of the costs of owning and running that car.

“I think, over time, we’re going to see a move towards a far more default expectation that the financial product attached to your home has some kind of connection – and there’ll be a range of different ways this can work – to the energy performance or the energy efficiency of that home.”

Housing policy can sometimes be seen as a sticking plaster for what is fundamentally an unequal economic model in the UK

Away from net zero buildings, Harvie is also preparing for a heated debate on his New Deal for Tenants. That is being brought forward by the recently published Housing Bill.

The proposed legislation is a huge bill, covering everything from a new homelessness prevention duty, to rent controls, to allowing tenants to decorate and own pets. That latter part Harvie calls the “warm and fluffy” stuff, though he hastens to add: “It’s important not to dismiss those things. Those are some of the things that actually turn a house into a home, and are really, really important for people’s wellbeing and quality of life.”

But Harvie’s biggest battle is likely to be around empowering ministers to designate certain areas, on the advice of local authorities, rent control areas. On the day the bill was published, the Scottish Association of Landlords warned attempts to limit rents would have the opposite effect because landlords would withdraw from the market, thus reducing supply. Meanwhile, tenants union Living Rent – who have long been campaigning for rent controls – have expressed concern about the workability of the bill and the lengthy process councils will have to go through.

Photo by Anna Moffat

Speaking to Holyrood before the bill was published, Harvie says: “I’ve no doubt that it’ll provoke a reaction from some saying this is nowhere near enough and we need to go much further, and some saying we shouldn’t do anything in this area at all.

“But I think the experience of some people over the last few years, both during the cost of living crisis where we took that emergency measure [to freeze rents] and in the years running up to that, really does demonstrate very clearly that a system in which some people and some landlords are doing their best to provide affordable good quality housing at a decent price while others are simply price gouging isn’t enough. We can’t expect that system to meet the human right to adequate, affordable housing.”

Asked about warnings landlords could leave the rental sector altogether, the minister says he doesn’t think that’s “hugely likely”. He says the private rental market has continued to grow over the past two decades, despite more regulations coming into force over the same period. He also points to measures put in place to make owning empty or second homes unattractive (such as a higher rate of council tax) and the regulation of the short-term let market.

“Homes should be homes – that’s their fundamental purpose, it’s for people to make a home and to make a life in them. Anything that results in houses being taken out of that fundamental purpose is harmful to society,” Harvie adds.

I wonder if implicit in efforts to strengthen tenant rights is a recognition of the fact that some people will never own a home. Harvie admits to having “mixed feelings” on this.

“I don’t think many people would want us to be in a position where we just have to accept that a whole generation of people won’t ever get to own their own home. It is something that a lot of people aspire to, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Photo by Anna Moffat

“One of the things we should be uncomfortable with is the idea that owner-occupation is the only tenure of choice, that it’s the only thing people should aspire to. People should have a right to expect decent, secure, high quality homes that are affordable to live in, in whichever tenure they’re in: owner-occupation, social rent, private rent.”

He says there is a need to challenge the legacy of the 1980s, when home-ownership became the ultimate marker of success. “That’s not to say that it isn’t a legitimate aspiration for a lot of people, and we shouldn’t accept the idea that the state of our economy or the structure of our housing market is just going to close that off for an entire generation of people.”

He continues: “Part of the frustration, I think, sometimes, is that housing policy can sometimes be seen as a sticking plaster for what is fundamentally an unequal economic model in the UK. There’s a lot that we can do in the way of ameliorating some of the effects of fundamental inequality, but I don’t think we can expect housing policy in itself to solve all of that any more than we can expect education policy in itself to solve all of the educational effects of economic inequality and poverty and the nature of our economy.”

Scottish ministers should be constantly challenging themselves to do more and better in devolved areas, he says. But it’s also necessary for them to “challenge some of the issues around the structure of our economy” which have led to increased inequality and, in particular, a “generational gulf” between those who were able to buy a home early in life and the young people of today who are struggling.

“The [difference between the] expectations of that generation and the expectation of today’s young generation, that’s not something that we should be calm about. That’s not something we should be relaxed about. We should be willing to challenge it and to acknowledge that we can do what we can with devolved policy, but there are big structural economic questions as well here that need to be addressed differently and at the moment sit with the UK Government.

“Whether we change that by changing the UK Government or by changing where those powers sit is one of those traditional issues that Scottish politics keeps returning to.”

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