Housing Speech in the Scottish Parliament 12 February 2009

It is important for members to discuss housing and to end the Government's obsession with assertion over action.
If ever there was an example of government by alibi, it was Nicola Sturgeon's speech.
She talked about what everybody else's responsibilities are and wilfully refused to reflect on her own policy, "Firm Foundations".
I hope that she listened to what Ross Finnie said about the six council houses, particularly as her Government has emphasised the continuing and critical role of housing associations in its policy.
The power of the threat of a Labour debate on housing is remarkable: there has been half a U-turn on a key policy on HAG spending.
Given the absolute certainty about previous HAG assumptions, perhaps the minister could clarify what consultation took place with the housing sector on the new assumptions.
I fear that they may have been plucked out of the air in a panic. Two Mondays ago, the then housing minister, Stewart Maxwell—to whom I pay tribute; I have enjoyed debating with him—stated that the grant formula was costing housing associations an extra £10,000 per house, but that that could be tackled by using reserves or borrowing.
Four days later, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing announced that the issue was being revisited.
Poor Mr Maxwell.
He gallantly defended the Scottish National Party's policy while both the policy's demise and his own were being plotted.
The Parliament has already agreed that the Scottish Government's housing policy is seriously flawed.
Despite that, the Scottish Government persists with it.
Cuts in HAG levels will lead to rent increases or increased borrowing at the worst possible time, and the introduction of a lead developer model can be seen as undermining entirely the critical role of community-based housing associations.
Are we to assume that the cabinet secretary, in supporting our motion and agreeing that there should be flexibility on procurement, is finally burying the lead developer role?
Will she confirm that, given the GHA's role as a transitional body, its aspiration to be a lead developer will simply not be allowed to be fulfilled?
The problem with the firm foundations approach is that if the Scottish Government persists with it, it will seriously undermine the role of community-controlled housing associations.
The approach is predicated on an assumption that housing associations have been feather-bedded in some ways. Reserves are talked about, but the reality is that they are used to plan not two years ahead, but five, 10, 15 and 20 years in advance.
The very thing that sustained housing associations at a time when council houses were falling into disrepair because they had been starved of investment is now being used inappropriately.
There is talk of economies of scale.
We know the pressures of diseconomies of scale.
A big organisation spends without thinking.
We need to reassert the importance of housing associations in community regeneration and in sustaining local communities.
The Scottish Government must listen to those who tell it that such an approach will strengthen the role of the national housing associations at the expense of local housing associations.
The cabinet secretary must back off.
In particular, in summing up, she should address a key point about the implications of the lead developer role that has been raised with me.
The lead developer proposals would not allow charities—which the vast majority of the housing associations are—to undertake such a role.
Things would need to be changed to allow subsidiaries to do that.
Subsidiaries will not be registered social landlords, so they will not be able to receive HAG, which will then go to end users.
The reason for the proposal in the first place—to give all the resources to a one-stop shop of regional experts—would be undermined, European procurement rules would apply to the procurement of the lead developer and things would have to be opened up to the private sector.
Surely that is not the Government's intention.
We should apply the Swinney test to that policy, bearing it in mind that destroying community-controlled housing associations was not in the SNP's manifesto.
The Parliament has voted against the policy and times have changed.
The worrying conclusion that we have to draw is that the reason why we shall not get the cabinet secretary to admit that she is wrong—and she is—and the reason why she will not dump the policy along with the local income tax, is that it does not require parliamentary endorsement.
The Scottish Government will persist with the policy not because it is right, but because it can.
That is the approach of the pre-1999 Scottish Office and its administrative devolution for ministers, rather than that of a Scottish Government that is accountable to Parliament and, through it, to all those who are highly exercised and concerned about the current approach.
We all agree that we are in challenging, fast-changing and difficult times, but the test of Government is whether it makes the situation better or worse.
This Scottish Government currently fails that test in relation to housing and the sustainability of social rented housing at community level.
It is time for the cabinet secretary to recognise that graciously, think again, dump the "Firm Foundations" document and policy—which the Parliament has opposed—and work with housing associations, MSPs and those in the housing sector to develop a housing policy that will make a difference to our communities.