Kenny MacAskill: Provide homes for people, not just a return on investment

The number of people sleeping rough on Scotlands streets is on the increase. Picture: John Devlin
The number of people sleeping rough on Scotlands streets is on the increase. Picture: John Devlin
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The appalling tragedy of Grenfell Tower has put housing back on the political agenda. Safety is an issue but so is availability and affordability. While people want to feel safe in their own beds, many would just long for their own home, whether it be let or bought.

There’s now a crisis in housing with homelessness on the rise, a lack of affordable accommodation to rent and home ownership becoming an unobtainable dream for a generation. It’s at its most acute in London where pressures and prices are greatest.

Actions by the Scottish Government in building public housing, ending the sale of council houses and ensuring proper building regulations have lessened the problem north of the Border. However, both urban and rural Scotland are still affected, individuals and communities are suffering, and action needs taken.

Obviously, safety has to be paramount and people need assurances on that. Resolving that speedily in England is essential. In Scotland, the regulations have been tighter and it is sprinklers that are lacking. That needs to be considered, though the cost is significant and there may both be other options and better use for the significant cost.

It’s a problem that has been a long time in the making. The great council housing sell-off that started under Thatcher has wiped out the available stock for many. Compounding that it was sold at a discount leaving the council with a historic debt to service but no accommodation to provide.

Buy to let has boomed as the private letting sector grew, now compounded by AirBnB in many parts. The potential profits to be made price not just tenants but ordinary purchasers out of the market. A tightening lending market and higher sale price has meant that unless there’s parental support a house will be beyond the hopes of many youngsters.

It didn’t come about by accident but by design and is the consequence of political decisions over many years. After the First World War there was a desire for slum clearance and mass council house building started. Enormous credit goes to Labour’s John Wheatley but there was also agreement across the parties that for the good of our society, our health and our economy it needed to be done. There was a drive for quality and affordable homes for all. That continued after the Second World War as the political consensus continued.

However, under Thatcher there was a desire to break what was seen as a Labour fiefdom and create an increased middle class. Housing was sold off and councils weakened. Housing moved from being a home to an asset, something to be traded or invested in rather than being a home, whether bought or let. That culture has seen the devil take the hindmost with some left without and others with many. Moreover, that’s been compounded by a drive to reduce costs, whether in cladding or maintenance. As a consequence, both street homelessness and hidden homelessness have risen. The deaths of poor people on the streets is nothing short of a national disgrace. Not all can be laid at the door of drugs or alcohol though often they will sadly follow, in the desperation that living rough brings.

Moreover, the number of people requiring to couch surf or bunk up with friends or relatives is mounting. For many the prospect of obtaining a council or housing association tenancy is either forlorn hope or a lifelong wait.

Before the Scottish Parliament was established I was a lawyer and could advise clients there was still sufficient available housing. It mightn’t have been the accommodation they wanted or in an area that was desirable – but it was still a roof over their head. When I became an MSP even those areas were gone. Now, it’s private lets where often the rent charged can’t be fully covered by wages or benefits. Food bank use has multiplied as people choose between paying rent or eating.

It’s not just hurting individuals but entire communities. At one stage, it was rural Scotland where affordable accommodation disappeared for locals. Holiday homes proliferated and residents couldn’t match the purchase price or pay the chargeable rent. Caravans were required to provide for vital incoming workers. Now it’s also afflicting our towns and cities. Buy-to-let for a student market is pricing low-paid workers out and AirBnB is equally excluding locals and incoming labour. For sure, it wasn’t all halcyon days before. The road to hell is paved with good intentions and slums were cleared but the new homes proved to be equally poor. The ‘deserts wi’ windaes’ as Billy Connolly described them, scarred many parts of Scotland.

However, now once vibrant rural communities are devoid of housing for local people and in urban areas communal stairs have become passageways for holidaymakers staying in AirBnBs. They may not be the blight that party flats have been in many urban areas but they are still abnormal for what was a vibrant local close. Of course, buy-to-let and AirBnB are both a part of modern life and are welcomed by many. It’s not their existence but the number and regulation of them that’s needed. It changes the make-up of our communities and also affects our economy with vital workers unable to work or move there.

Exactly as we didn’t get into this situation overnight, it won’t be resolved speedily. It will take time but some steps can be immediate. A start has been made by the Scottish Government but there’s more to do and Westminster needs to follow suit. Ensuring appropriate building regulations not just on safety but quality is needed. A public house-building programme is needed to provide affordable available stock for those who can’t or don’t want to buy. Rent controls to stop exploitation and restrictions on AirBnB are all carried in cities such as Berlin or Barcelona. They should be done here to protect individuals and communities.

Housing needs to provide homes for all our people, not just a return on an investment for some.