With housing high on the Scottish political agenda at this election and tales of the housing crisis in the papers on a daily basis, Grayling attended a hustings on housing policy to find out what is likely to feature in the parties manifestos when they are launched in the coming days.
The hustings was organised by Shelter, SFHA, RICS and CIH Scotland. The panel featured Jim Eadie for the SNP, Patrick Harvie for the Greens, Jim Hume for the Lib Dems, Alex Johnstone for the Conservatives, and Ken Macintosh for Labour.
What became apparent very quickly is that although there may be disagreements between the political parties on precisely what the government should do to solve the housing crisis, all agreed that much more needs to be done, particularly around planning, increasing supply and tackling homelessness.
Given the predicted landslide SNP re-election, SNP candidates are at a disadvantage in these kinds of hustings. Most of the candidates were quite happy to make commitments that their parties would implement many of the policies and initiatives suggested by the audience of housing sector representatives. In a situation where his party is the only one likely to have to deliver on its election promises Jim Eadie was forced to give pragmatic responses. Often Eadie could only emphasise that while he might agree with policies in principle these would have to be costed and consulted on. Hardly crowd pleasing! Overall it was clear that the SNP are playing their cards close their chest ahead of their manifesto launch on April 14th.
In his opening statement Conservative Alex Johnstone said that there was an “obsession with social housing” in Scottish politics and argued consistently that the Government was spending too much public money on solving the housing crisis, and that more resources should be spent on finding innovative solutions to bring in private investment. It would be fair to say these arguments got a lukewarm reception from the audience of housing association and charity representatives. Similar to the SNP, the Conservatives have yet to publish manifesto commitments on housing and Johnstone did not reveal much in the way of detail.
Over the course of the evening Ken Macintosh came back repeatedly to the issue of taxation, the central focus of Labour’s campaign. Macintosh argued that raising taxation revenue through higher income tax and redesigned local taxes was crucial to funding the provision of temporary accommodation and increasing supply of new homes. On planning, he argued that part of reason there are so many difficulties and delays in the system is that local planning teams are severely under-resourced and in need of more staff.
Reformed taxation was also a key part of Scottish Greens co-convenor Patrick Harvie’s arguments. The Greens have already published their policy on a tax on derelict land aimed at discouraging developers from banking land to push up prices and are advocates of scrapping the Council Tax and replacing it with a local residential property tax. Labour and the Lib Dems are likely to have versions of these policies in their manifestos as well.
Labour and Greens both said would support national rent controls on initial rents, going beyond the provisions made in the Private Tenancies bill passed this session which included powers for local governments to set limits on rent increases in designated housing pressure zones. The Conservative and Liberal Democrat view is that increased supply is the solution.
The place of housing as central to the health and social care agenda was also highlighted, with several questions from the audience bringing up issues of fuel poverty and accessibility. More so than the other candidates this area was the focus of Lib Dem Jim Hume’s contributions to the evening. Safeguarding the budget for adaptations was something that Hume said he was most proud of having campaigned for in the last parliament and that he would have that budget increased. Hume also said that the Liberal Democrats would commit to a percentage of new social homes being purposely built with wheelchair users in mind.
On homelessness there was a broadly a consensus from the panel with all candidates agreeing that the government should publish a homelessness strategy and cross party support for the introduction of a rough sleeping count. Whether these policies appear in manifesto commitments however, we will have to wait and see.