Speech on Housing Scottish Parliament 20 March 2008

It is a privilege to lead this housing debate on behalf of the Labour Party.

We in the Labour Party are proud of what was achieved in the first eight years in the Parliament.

Much of that work was recognised as groundbreaking, but we acknowledge that there is much more to do.

It would be foolish for anyone to say that everything that we did was perfect, but it is equally foolish for the current Administration to say that there was no consensus and no agreement and that what we did was a complete disaster, because that is simply not true.

Labour's charge against the Government is that the running thread of our experience of it is that it overclaims and underdelivers, favours spin over substance and, at its very best, produces more broken promises.

If the minister has been effective at anything, it has been at creating the impression of action and perhaps securing some positive headlines.

However, the truth behind the headlines is a little less substantial.

The much heralded housing supply task force will not produce a report or recommendations for action; it was not involved in shaping the budget; it was not part of developing the document "Firm Foundations: The Future of Housing in Scotland"; and at least one member of the minister's group has expressed grave concerns about the budget allocations in relation to the social rented sector.

The Government is consulting on Scottish planning policy 3 on affordable housing at the same time that it has set up a body to consider how to unblock the planning system.

The "Firm Foundations" document does not even mention Scottish planning policy 14, which looks at setting a benchmark for 25 per cent of units in a new development to be affordable housing.

The minister wants the world—or at least his own back benchers—to think that the right to buy has ended, but of course the change that he has introduced has been so narrowly defined that it will affect very few people.

It undermines the balance that was struck in the modernised right to buy, which was supported by the Chartered Institute of Housing in Scotland, which recognised the need for flexibility in regeneration communities, where ownership can make a difference, and suspension of the right to buy in hot spots where there is pressure.

The Minister for Communities and Sport (Stewart Maxwell): Is the member saying that the Labour Party's position is that it is opposed to the abolition of the right to buy on new-build properties?

Johann Lamont: The Labour Party's position is that we recognise the strength of the right to buy and we want to see the difference that the modernised right to buy has made.

That position is supported by the Chartered Institute of Housing in Scotland.

We are told that local authorities will build council houses, but the reality is that very few of them will be able to do that.

On the other hand, the Administration is completely silent on how it will support those local authorities that have debt and voted against stock transfer on the advice of the Scottish National Party.

On low-cost home ownership, the Administration is following what has already been done, but with no sense that action is needed in areas other than economic hot spots or that there needs to be equitable access to first-time-buyer support.

On what else is the minister silent?

On homelessness, he asserts that he supports the target, but he removes certainty by outsourcing all responsibility to local authorities.

Given that tax cuts are this Administration's one key priority, what pressure will there be on local authorities to provide the bricks and mortar, where possible, while removing or reducing the advice, support and specialist provision that helps prevent homelessness?

What will be demanded of single outcome agreements in relation to homelessness?

The Administration says nothing about the needs of areas of regeneration.

Indeed, Communities Scotland's expertise is to be removed from the community planning partnership table altogether.

There will be no access to community regeneration funding and the wider action budget will be flat-lined—those are the very things on which community housing associations have built their credibility.

The minister is silent on the Scottish housing quality standard when community organisations are telling us that they will have to deliver it by increasing rents.

Then there are the two big ideas of this Administration. Its first target is, "We will build more houses than the last lot did."

Secondly, it claims that it will drive efficiencies into the affordable housing market by opening it to competition.

If there is a spine on the Government back benches, it should prepare to feel a shiver down it now. On 28 November 2007, the minister said:

"My intention is not to be nice to one particular part of the sector or another; it is to ensure that we deliver more homes for people. That is the fundamental point. ... That is why we have suggested some changes and why I think that competition is important. I think that who eventually owns and manages properties is of less importance than the fact that we have them."—[Official Report, Local Government and Communities Committee, 28 November 2007; c 300.]

That flies in the face of every lesson of housing history in Scotland.

Given that we know that community ownership has delivered changes in our communities, it is not credible to say that ownership does not matter.

At a time of turbulence in the housing market and a credit squeeze, is it wise for the Administration to be vague on the proportion of houses for social rent?

Given that the Administration's own figures show that construction inflation has increased by 35 per cent, is it credible to pretend that its target of building 35,000 houses a year by the middle of the next decade is achievable?

The challenge for SNP back benchers is to confront their front-bench's agenda.

The Administration has a strategy on efficiencies—who could be against that—but it is predicated on higher rents, and on the presumptions that bigger is better, that competition delivers change and that building houses is the same as having a housing strategy.

We know from experience that that is not the case.

We know that the Administration is undermining community-controlled housing associations.

Would it not be an irony if the legacy of the SNP was to lure cross-border raids from big, asset-rich, English housing associations to take over the work that local housing organisations have done?

History shows that the disastrous consequence of national building programmes that distribute funding from the centre with no priority for wider action is houses that no one wants to live in and which we have to demolish.

The minister has to understand that asserting his love of the housing association and co-operative movement is not the same as delivering for it and that asserting his commitment on homelessness is not the same as delivering on it.

I turn finally to the first-time buyers grant of £2,000—the great promise.

The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing, Nicola Sturgeon, is non-committal on it and would like us to be her alibi for not delivering it.

If she believes in it, she should argue for it. If she does not, she should say why not. The First Minister said:

"The SNP is going to work through all of its manifesto commitments over the four-year term of this Administration."—[Official Report, 6 September 2007; c 1493.]

The Administration should stop dodging and tell us whether the first-time buyers grant of £2,000 is a broken promise, a promise yet to come or a cynical election promise made with the collective fingers of the SNP firmly crossed behind their backs?

We deserve to know. That is why the motion includes a demand for a statement.

The fundamental charge against the Administration is that it spins, rather than recognises, our history.

It should come clean, understand that a housing strategy is about more than building houses and begin to talk about targets for social renting, the needs of the homeless and the role of community organisations as partners in change.

I move,

That the Parliament regrets the SNP government's lack of a coherent housing strategy; notes that the Housing Supply Task Force has no timetable or remit to produce recommendations for action; notes in particular the absence of robust evidence on funding and efficiencies in delivering its housing targets; further notes concerns about the impact of a single regional developer model, as outlined in the Firm Foundations consultation, on community-controlled housing associations and housing co-operatives; agrees that the Scottish Government should make a statement to the Parliament as soon as possible, clarifying its plans for the clear SNP manifesto commitment on a £2,000 first-time buyers' grant, and urges the Scottish Government to act to secure long-term improvements in housing rather than the short-term appearance of change.