Sheila Gilmore says in many instances the homes we need to help resolve chronic housing shortages already exist, and we are already paying for them. It’s time we looked seriously at buying them. 

 

We have a chronic shortage of council and housing association homes in Scotland. In the last week there has been coverage of the acute problems caused by a shortage of temporary housing, and the length of time people wait in temporary housing.

One contribution to relieving the problem may be to purchase properties.

I would urge politicians of all parties to take such an idea very seriously and act upon it, as one part of an overall strategy.

Many of those who need low rent homes currently live in the private rented sector, paying high rents and never knowing how long they will be able to stay.  Quite often they will be living literally next door to a council tenant paying much less for the same type of house.

One third of Edinburgh households now live in the private rented sector.  This has shot up from around 11% at the turn of the century.  No longer is it just for students and young professionals but is increasingly the only thing available for low income families.  It has spread out well beyond the city centre and traditional tenements. Many landlords have been buying up what were once public-sector properties as they come on the market.

So to a substantial extent the properties needed are already in existence, and those seeking council or housing association homes are actually living in them.  This ‘system’ is underpinned by the availability of housing benefit for those on the lowest incomes.  This is at a high cost to public funds – being paid to private landlords not building additional homes.

So there are homes there but in the high rent private sector. If a council purchased properties coming on the market (provided they did not cost more than new build) there would be many advantages. In some parts of our towns and cities space for new build is limited and buying properties in these areas could enable people to get a low rent home in an area where they would like to live for work or family reasons.  Purchase could be faster than the time spent identifying land, getting planning permission and building.

This isn’t a panacea, or a substitute for new build, but it could play a part.  Some councils have done this on a small scale, but the scale needs increased. So I was dismayed to see both Labour and Green MSPs attacking the Scottish Government for going back on a pledge to ‘build’ 50,000 affordable homes, by suggesting that some could be secured by purchase of existing properties.  I am particularly surprised to hear the Greens (who are generally cautious about over development onto green belt and green field sites) take this line. Admittedly new build has positive impact on jobs and the economy, but there are also local economic boosts from improving existing homes. As politicians we should be wary of opposing something just because our opponents are suggesting it.

Whether building or buying there is an urgent need to increase the overall levels of investment, and to increase the proportion of low rent homes.

The Scottish Government prefers the term ‘affordable’ which covers a number of different types of home – low cost home ownership of various types, mid-market rent, as well as more traditional council and housing association low rent home.  The first two types are in reality unaffordable to many on housing waiting lists. But low rent homes are the most expensive in terms of public ‘subsidy’ to build or acquire.  In some recent regeneration projects in Edinburgh only 25% of the new homes built have been low rent.

There is definitely a need for low cost home ownership and mid market rent, but in many places the greatest need is for low rent homes.  The housing needs survey for Edinburgh calculated that 70% of the city’s total housing need was for affordable housing.  Two thirds of the affordable ‘need’ was for low rent homes. Despite this in some recent regeneration projects in Edinburgh only 25% of the new homes were low rent.

This is why in our Edinburgh Labour manifesto for the May council elections we didn’t just pledge to increase the affordable housing stock by 20,000, we committed to campaigning for increased resources to increase the proportion which would be council or housing association low rent homes. We also had a pledge to buy properties, as well as build, to help us achieve out targets.

Unless this is tackled the numbers on waiting lists will remain long. For some that means living longer with family or friends.  For others it means remaining in a private let. When crises occur (relationship breakdown, families no longer able to cope, landlords wanting to sell up) they may approach the council for temporary accommodation. Some people have been in ‘temporary’ housing leased by the council from private landlords for 6 or 7 years.

Whether homes are newly built or purchased, the government needs to increase the level of subsidy to ensure that enough of the additional homes are low rent. And total investment in affordable homes need to be increased, otherwise the increase in subsidy needed to create ‘low rent’ homes will come at the expense of overall numbers.