Speech on Fuel Poverty, Scottish Parliament 22nd. May 2008

Will the cabinet secretary confirm that her statement represents a significant shift in the Scottish Government's approach?
I suspect that a civil servant somewhere might even have described it as "brave".
It appears to fly in the face of the First Minister's commitment when he was challenged last year over whether the universal central heating programme was going to end.
He said that it was not going to end, and that it was going to be enhanced.
Will the cabinet secretary confirm that the Government's position is now that the central heating programme and its availability to all pensioners are now at an end?
Although I welcome the establishment of the fuel poverty forum under the wise chairmanship of Graham Blount, will the minister confirm that the forum's job is to consider how to target, that it is for her Government to decide whether it should target, and that that decision has already been made?
The statement tells us about a lot of things that the Government cannot do, but I want to ask about the things that it can do.
Given the difficult circumstances with rising fuel prices, why has the Government flatlined the budget for the central heating and warm deal programmes rather than increasing it?
The Government hands out £165 million per year to small businesses without attaching one condition, so why has it taken the view that the only way to target those who are in fuel poverty is to remove the entitlement from pensioners in general?
Finally, I have to ask about an issue of detail.
Will the cabinet secretary clarify two small points about what happens now with the programme?
What is the difference between a pensioner who is currently on the list and someone whose application is in the post and will be received tomorrow?
What is the difference between a tenant who lives in a private sector flat whose central heating system has finally conked out and someone who does not have a central heating system at all, and what is the difference between how cold those two pensioners will feel?

Speech on Housing Needs, Scottish Parliament 8 May 2008

As ever, it is a privilege for me to open the debate on behalf of the Labour Party.
It follows on from last week's woeful performance by members on the Government front and back benches.
That housing debate was marked by their refusal to answer any of the key questions or to give any indication that they had any awareness of the range and importance of the issues that need to be addressed. [Laughter.]
If the Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change finds that amusing, I suspect that he will not find anybody from the housing sector to join him.
The lack of time for that previous debate allowed ministers to equivocate.
It was evident to us that the Government was unwilling to address the issues.
It would not even provide any time to debate the matter, despite the empty, stretching prairie of time—peppered by stopgap debates and marginal issues—that forms the Government's business programme.
We have had three Government debates or statements on housing.
On 21 June 2007, the announcement of the housing supply task force came with a huge fanfare, only for us to discover later that the body will not report; that it was not being consulted on the budget; that, remarkably, it would not even shape planning policy, which is designed to address the relationship between planning and the provision of affordable housing; and that it was not being consulted on the revision of Scottish planning policy 3.
On 26 September 2007, a debate on the Glasgow Housing Association was initiated and important issues about the inspection report were addressed.

The Government indicated that it would progress second-stage transfer.

Nicola Sturgeon said that ministers would
"review the current suite of grant agreements that are in place".—[Official Report, 26 September 2007; c 2089.]
Will the minister say, in summing up, when we will get a report on that?

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing (Nicola Sturgeon): Will Johann Lamont join me in welcoming the fact that, after one year of this Scottish National Party Government, there has been more progress towards second-stage transfer than there was during the entire time when she was housing minister?

Johann Lamont: I hope that the cabinet secretary does not live to regret that.
The issue is really difficult.
I do not support the SNP amendment—although I will be interested to hear the Minister for Communities and Sport speak to it—but I welcome its commitment to scrutinise the Mazars report using an independent process.
I urge that that should be done by people with expertise in valuation and adjudication in order for confidence to be restored.
I am delighted that rent-a-quote Alex Neil's notion of a black hole is refuted by the report.
It is incumbent on ministers to ensure that such issues are scrutinised properly.
On 31 October 2007, we had the spectacle of the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing being refused the option of sharing with the Parliament her approach on "Firm Foundations" because, unhappily, she had already shared it with the press.
That has been the Government's approach in a nutshell.
It overclaims and underdelivers; it seeks headlines rather than solutions; and, rather than engaging in consensus building on the big issues, it settles for either silence or playing games.
It is impossible for me to cover the huge number of issues that have been raised, but I will touch on some that I think are significant.
I thank all those people who have taken the time to treat the debate on this subject sufficiently seriously and to provide us with briefings, particularly on the issues around the specialist provision of housing, which I believe merit a debate on their own.
The motion seeks to capture the challenge of any strategy on housing.
Indeed, it could have included more on energy efficiency and building standards.
For me, however, the key lesson that even laying out those issues confirms is that, although housing policy must be about bricks and mortar, it cannot only be about that.
That is why many people are anxious about the Government's approach.
In effect, the Government has boiled down its aspirations to building 35,000 houses without thinking through the range of needs that must be met, with no target for social renting and not even a commitment to build as many homes as we did in the past eight years; with no thought on how to sustain that investment by putting in place and supporting community regeneration; with nothing to say about meeting housing need in a way that goes beyond the house itself—with support for the elderly in the community, for people leaving care, and for those who wish to move on from women's refuges; and with nothing to say about funding decisions, which creates uncertainty at best for those who wish to support, for example, adults with learning disabilities to live independently.
Our history tells us that, although national house building programmes might provide houses, they do not necessarily do the rest.
How will the Government support the delivery of the homelessness target?
How will it protect programmes to prevent homelessness?
What expectations does the Minister for Communities and Sport have of the single outcome agreements?
Are there any compulsory elements in meeting special and particular housing needs and in supporting progress towards the homelessness target?
How will the Government act if there is evidence that supported accommodation, such as that for adults with disabilities, has to end because of the end of ring fencing for supporting people?

Members: Oh!

Johann Lamont: I only ask the question.
The minister has said in the past that, if there were problems, we could always resume ring fencing. How is that being monitored? What action will he take?
We understand the pressure to support first-time buyers, although we are no clearer about what support will be available.
What does the minister have to say not just about new build, but about the raising of standards through the Scottish housing quality standard?
What does he have to say about the need to support people who might face repossession and about emphasising the target for social rent?
What does he have to say about programmes such as ours that were introduced for mortgage to rent?
How will the Government support councils with high levels of debt, which will not be able to take advantage of their tiny share of the tiny £25 million for council house building?
The figure for the money that is being released through stock transfer to housing associations is staggering.
The GHA's investment programme for 2006-07 was £137 million, which is about one third of the total affordable investment programme that the SNP projects for the whole of Scotland for the year ahead.
The provision of GHA new build—6,000 new homes over the next five years—makes a stark comparison with Ms Sturgeon's announcement, which would mean at most 50 houses for Glasgow in the next five years.
Members: In addition.
Johann Lamont: The money is top-sliced off housing association grant, so it is not additional.
It takes a particular kind of cowardice and recklessness for people to encourage others to vote against their own interests when they do not have to live with the consequences.
That is compounded by a Government that refuses to accept its responsibility to find solutions. For the absence of doubt, the Stewart Maxwell solution is to raise rents, sell off assets and seek efficiencies, which could be the very expenditure that protects effective housing management.
I urge the minister to look to his Cabinet colleague John Swinney for guidance on how he should fulfil his responsibilities.
John Swinney, in discussing his decision to be pragmatic in relation to the collection of rates in the context of local loop unbundling—members really do not want to know the detail—said that ministers were operating within a framework in which the Government was constrained in the policy areas that it was able to take forward.
He explained that his pragmatism was justified, because the Government's priority is to maximise the resources that are available to local authorities for delivering front-line services. How much pragmatism should we expect from the Government in acting creatively to access the funding that stock transfer would deliver, when the only other option on offer to tenants is a shrug of the ministerial shoulders?
The Government's only big idea, "Firm Foundations", is significantly flawed, and the objections to it—as argued by a range of organisations—are not so easily silenced as by deleting part of a parliamentary motion.
I urge the minister not to dig himself into a trench on the issue.
There are genuine anxieties that the only real outcome of his approach will be to bring to an end the very things that made our housing policy so effective. [Laughter.]
Does that reaction mean that ministers are mocking the housing associations' record?
They might be interested to know that.
Such an outcome would put at risk the innovative approaches in estate management, the support for tenants and the specialist provision that has been developed by those who need it.
It must be an anxiety for the Government that equality groups did not even respond to its consultation.
The problem with "Firm Foundations" is compounded by the consultation document, "Better value from Housing Association Grant".
The documents reveal a lack of understanding about effective housing provision going beyond build; they lack evidence on efficiencies; and they are predicated on a process that will squeeze out community-based housing associations to the advantage of the asset-rich big boys.
They are also predicated on rent rises, a claim that the minister has denied in the past, although his own documents indicate that the policy depends on rent increases at the level of the retail prices index plus 1 per cent every year for the next 30 years, and that the private finance factor in development must increase from 18.14 per cent to 21.76 per cent, which is a push to the private market at a time of credit crunch.
That is further compounded by the flat-lining of funding on wider action that might support tenants as they go into training or provide money advice, and by the flat-lining of—if not a cut in—community regeneration funding.
It is significant that there was overwhelming support for a national specialist housing function to provide expert support on the range of housing needs.
The peremptory decision to abolish Communities Scotland to meet other political commitments seems to have been counterintuitive and against the addressing of housing need.
On "Firm Foundations", I urge the minister to have the grace to listen to those who understand what needs to be done.
On stock transfer, I urge the minister to stop being in denial and instead to be creative in how that money can be released to transform local communities.
On meeting homelessness and housing needs, I urge him to take responsibility.
The minister should stop outsourcing his responsibilities and tell us what he will do to ensure that the target is met and that the resources are available, not just to ensure supply but to provide the kind of softer-end supports that prevent homelessness in the first place—the kind of things that support people when they come out of care or are in crisis.
Above all, I urge the minister to shift from his year-zero approach and to acknowledge the significance of what has already been achieved—not by the previous Executive alone, but by it being willing to work with people in our communities and in the housing sector who understand how one can transform communities and make real change.
I seek support to secure continuing investment in change—rather than settling for the easy headline that will make no difference to the lives of people across Scotland who deserve to have their needs met.
That should be part of a serious debate on housing and a broader housing strategy.
Last week, we heard the reiteration of marginal, tokenistic—symbolic perhaps for some members—and dishonest claims about what the Government is doing in respect of council housing and right to buy.
Now is the time for the Government to take responsibility and work with members throughout the chamber and beyond to develop a proper housing policy that will bring about change rather than simply make headlines.

I move,

That the Parliament recognises the broad range of issues that must be tackled in meeting the diverse housing needs of people across Scotland; confirms that the Scottish Government must act to address these issues, including continued work to prevent and reduce homelessness, the further development of housing to meet particular and specialist need, dealing with the blockages to the supply of housing, providing affordable housing to buy and within the socially rented sector, ensuring higher quality and better managed housing for rent in the private sector, seeking solutions to the problems facing local authorities where tenants voted against stock transfer and recognising the distinctive challenges in rural areas, regeneration areas and areas of high demand; notes that the consultation responses to the Firm Foundations document exposed significant flaws in the Scottish Government's approach; urges the Scottish Government to address these flaws and bring forward a coherent strategy for all of Scotland's housing needs and, in particular, agrees that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing should ensure that the Mazars report into second stage transfer issues in Glasgow Housing Association is subject to open, transparent and independent scrutiny.