Glasgow Housing Association : Johann's speech in the Scottish Parliament 26/09/07

Johann Lamont : There is no doubt that housing always generates strong feelings and, in certain people, an excessive amount of hyperventilation.

It is a genuinely serious issue for the Parliament and I want to address the issues that are highlighted in the Labour amendment.

The amendment attempts to make a genuine contribution to finding a way forward.

I make no apology for emphasising the significance of the range of housing issues, sometimes conflicting, that matter to communities across Scotland.

Those issues are critical and we expect the Executive to deal with them in a reasonable timescale.

There is a balance to be struck between what we spend on social rented housing and the needs of owner-occupiers.

We must consider how we address low-cost home ownership; the balance of need between rural and urban areas; the challenge of homelessness; and the balance between our spending on bricks and mortar and our support for homeless people.

What do we do about meeting the needs of those who choose to buy a house inappropriately because the way in which we define need, in terms of social rented housing, means that they cannot apply for those houses?

As a consequence of that, too much of our social rented housing has become residual and is not used by mixed communities.

There is something for this Parliament to celebrate in relation to housing, because there has been consensus on a broad range of issues, including the work of the housing improvement task force and the homelessness task force.

We welcomed the creation of the housing supply task force, but I am disappointed that the Local Government and Communities Committee was informed this morning that the task force will not be consulted on the forthcoming green paper, will not comment on the future of Communities Scotland, and will have no opportunity to influence or shape the comprehensive spending review, which will be critical to the delivery of policies.

I ask the Minister for Communities and Sport, in summing up, to commit at least to continue with the previous Executive's proportion of spending on housing—a spending commitment in the 2004 comprehensive spending review that was recognised by the housing coalition that now lobbies on affordable housing as representing significant progress.

We need action on housing.

Some people might be concerned about the debate's narrow focus on the inspection report on GHA.

Tricia Marwick (Central Fife) (SNP): Will the member take an intervention?

Johann Lamont: The member should let me make some progress.

I acknowledge that wholesale stock transfer has been a controversial topic.

There are serious and legitimate concerns, especially in Glasgow, about the inspection report by Communities Scotland.

Indeed, some people have remarked to me that they were surprised that GHA was graded as a C and not as a D.

There has been action by Communities Scotland to appoint on to the board.

The report is challenging and it highlights serious issues, which concern all of us, about the needs and concerns of the tenants and communities of Glasgow. I do not underestimate the challenge that the report presents.

At the stage of transfer, there were evident tensions and anxieties about the future.

On the one hand, there were those in communities such as the one that I represent who knew that the community-based housing association movement and co-operatives had the power to transform their areas and wanted them to do that.

On the other hand, there were those who had not seen that happen and were anxious about it.

Indeed, one argument for wholesale stock transfer was that it would ensure that nobody was left behind. Partial stock transfer depended on individual communities' capacity to be strong enough to take it forward.

Alex Neil (Central Scotland) (SNP): Does the member still agree with her statement, which she made on 25 May 2006 as the Deputy Minister for Communities, that there is no financial black hole in relation to second-stage transfer?

Johann Lamont: I absolutely agree with that.

There is a challenge for Government back benchers who believe that there is a financial black hole.

The solution is not to say, "There is one, and we're not going to do anything about it." They have to address the matter.

Second-stage transfer was part of the core business of GHA that was identified in the ballot.

When Communities Scotland, GHA and the accountable officer of the Scottish Executive signed off the transfer, they understood that funding had been provided for second-stage transfer.

I do not doubt that Nicola Sturgeon will now understand the power of the official advice—not ministerial direction, but official recognised sign-off—that the finances were correct in that case. That is a significant safeguard.

Nicola Sturgeon: Will Johann Lamont respond directly to the comment in Communities Scotland's report that the previous Government "did not fully consider the practical implications" of second-stage transfer?

Johann Lamont: I do not accept that.

The point that I am trying to make is that, at the stage of transfer, it was important to go at the pace of tenants, to build confidence, and to move on. No one was in any doubt that the finances were in place to deliver second-stage transfer.

What is critical now is the action that is taken in response to the report.

There is a clear message that GHA is failing in its basic responsibilities.

Those who say that there is a choice to fund either refurbishment or changes to local structures, as Alex Neil has said, are entirely missing the point.

The message that has arisen from Glasgow's housing for a long time, which is reinforced by the report, is that investment on its own is not enough.

GHA has huge resources, but it is failing in its core services to tenants and owners.

Indeed, the community-based housing association approach shows that local, rational decision making meets local communities' needs and breaks the cycle of investment in failure that has made Glasgow's tenants suffer for too long.

That cycle is characterised by centralised decision making that meets the needs of the body rather than the people whom it serves.

It was broken by the community-based housing association movement, which has many friends in the Parliament.

That is why second-stage transfer is integral to making investment work throughout Glasgow and is not an added extra.

Otherwise, the absence of second-stage transfer from GHA's current programme would have meant that its other services were being delivered.

We know that that is not the case.

I must ask the minister to rise to the challenge.

In our amendment to the motion, we have given reasonable options for what the minister might want to do. It is not enough to say that it is up to GHA when she is faced by the chief executive of GHA who I understand has said that she is in principle opposed to second-stage transfer; by a report from the Government regulatory body highlighting serious failures in GHA; and by tenants and housing association members across Glasgow who have told me that their needs should not become a cheap political football but should drive the approach in the Parliament.

I understand the temptation of an incoming Administration to blame the outgoing Administration for any problems that it faces.

I know that Government back benchers will be under pressure to disregard the critical issues that are highlighted in our amendment on a way forward in order to secure the entirely partisan political benefit of attacking their political opponents.

I understand that—perhaps I would have done it myself.

However, all members on the Government benches who raised concerns about GHA and who promised tenants, owners and communities that they would do something when they were in power should be mindful of the consequence of supporting the motion.

In effect, the motion lets GHA off the hook, saying that it is not its problem.

It would sign away the opportunity for the 39 local housing organisations that have developed credible cases for transfer, which are now with GHA.

Those cases would be written away with the new model of shared services, which has been around for a long time.

We owe it to those tenants to ensure that the cases are considered.

In particular, I urge those who style themselves friends of the housing association movement—many of whom belong in the Government party, as well as in mine—to reflect on what we have identified as a way forward.

As I said to Alex Neil, if they think that there is a black hole, they need to address it as a Government.

If they recognise, as we do, that there is not a black hole but a failure of commitment, perhaps they can address that.

The amendment is deliberately non-controversial, and I urge the minister first to reconvene the ministerial progress group.

Nicola Sturgeon: It is time to stop setting up groups to talk about progress—it is time to start making progress. One reason why I propose reviewing the grant agreement is that the agreement that Johann Lamont's Government put in place does not give the Government adequate levers to hold GHA to account. That is what needs to be addressed with real action.

The Deputy Presiding Officer: Johann Lamont is in her last minute.

Johann Lamont: The ministerial progress group was not a talking shop.

It brought together every bit of expertise and commitment throughout Glasgow to deliver.

It brought together a programme of joint action of a staggered series of proposed transfers across Glasgow. Members should read the joint action report, because it gives us a road map.

Critically, the group brings together people to make a difference—not just a discussion or warm words from the minister.

Secondly, I urge the minister to consider the role of Audit Scotland in exploring the financial issues of concern in the report.

That would include offering Audit Scotland the opportunity to investigate GHA's home improvement programme and its impact on owners.

Again, I was disappointed by the minister's lukewarm words on that.

Thirdly, I urge the minister to explore other legislative and creative options to use a mechanism of community right to buy to allow those who currently manage properties to see how they could take control.

We urge the minister to explore all those options: be creative and think positively about how matters can be taken forward.

There is a challenge in our amendment for the Government, and there are suggestions for action that it cannot justify refusing to consider.

The Deputy Presiding Officer: The member must finish.

Johann Lamont: The Government motion allows GHA off the hook.

I urge members on the Government back benches and others to consider the options in our amendment and to support it at 5 o'clock.

I move amendment S3M-539.1, to leave out from "notes" to end and insert:
"agrees that housing is an important priority and calls on the Scottish Executive to come forward with proposals for implementing its housing policy within this session of the Parliament; further notes the Communities Scotland inspection report on Glasgow Housing Association (GHA) and believes that the Executive should act to ensure that GHA meets its responsibilities to its tenants and to owners in the services it provides; further agrees that the Executive should intervene to drive forward progress of second stage transfer in Glasgow, given the critical role of community engagement and ownership in ensuring that the significant investment available to the GHA secures real and lasting improvements to Glasgow's housing, and believes that progress should be based around the following: (1) re-establishing the ministerial progress group, bringing together the broad spectrum of interests and expertise across Glasgow's communities, along with other key stakeholders, to explore the options available to deliver community ownership, (2) exploring the role of Audit Scotland in tackling the issues identified in the Communities Scotland inspection report and (3) exploring possibilities of community right to buy as a means of delivering community ownership."