SNP left turn as right to buy is ditched

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THE SNP gave a clear signal yesterday of its intention to roll Scotland back to the left, as it closed its party conference unveiling new policies boosting the power and scope of the state.

In her closing speech to conference in Inverness, Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon sounded the death knell of the "right-to-buy", the emblematic policy of the Thatcher revolution, which allowed council tenants to buy their homes.

She also revealed that Stracathro hospital, which the previous Labour-Liberal executive had handed over to an independent operator, would now be returning to full NHS control.

Together, the moves will further widen the gap in public service provision between Scotland and England, with ministers south of the Border opting to keep right-to-buy, and use the independent sector in health and education. Under the SNP, the private sector has already been barred from providing GP services, hospital cleaning and catering.

Echoing party leader Alex Salmond a day earlier, Ms Sturgeon used her speech to claim that Labour and the Conservatives had a joint agenda to cut and privatise public services. She said she would never allow private profit to come before the public sector.

But critics said last night that the SNP's "public sector good, private sector bad" mentality was "misguided", warning that Scotland could miss out on improvements to efficiency and higher standards as a result.

The main announcement in Ms Sturgeon's speech was on the right-to-buy, which has been available to council tenants across the UK for nearly 30 years.

However, new tenants and those coming back into the social rented sector will no longer be able to take advantage of the scheme. People entering newly built homes have already had their right to buy removed. Only those tenants already in homes will still be able to buy them.

Ms Sturgeon told delegates: "Home ownership is an aspiration this government supports. But we also have a responsibility to provide homes for those who can't afford to buy."

She added: "We're building record numbers of houses, but our ambition to substantially increase the supply of homes for rent will be frustrated if we then sell them off under the right-to-buy. That is why I believe that the right-to-buy has had its day. Over the next decade, these proposals will safeguard up to 18,000 houses."

The SNP will now press ahead with a new bill early next year to change the legislation on housing. There are currently 600,000 households in council homes in Scotland but once the people currently living in the socially rented sector die, buy their home or move into the private sector, the policy will cease to exist. In England, council house dwellers will keep the right.

The Conservatives hit out yesterday, saying the plans amounted to "political vandalism".

Mary Scanlon, Conservative spokeswoman for health and housing said: "The SNP is wrong. Under the Conservatives, tens of thousands of homes were bought and tens of thousands of affordable homes for rent were built. In fact, over 400,000 families across Scotland have now fulfilled their aspiration of home ownership as a result of the Conservative policy of right-to-buy."

She added: "It is a sad day for many people who hope that one day their status will change from tenant to owner."

For Labour, shadow health secretary Cathy Jamieson said that Ms Sturgeon had "completely missed the point". She said that housing associations were now warning that waiting lists for homes were likely to soar because of cuts in the housing budget. She went on: "To tinker with the right-to-buy completely misses the point. The best way to deal with homelessness is to build more homes."

Ms Sturgeon's announcement comes almost exactly 29 years after the 1980 Housing Act, enshrining the right-to-buy, was introduced by the Thatcher government. By 1982, many council tenants had exercised their right, with more than 400,000 people buying their council homes at reduced prices.

It was then subsequently extended to tenants in leasehold properties, becoming one of the Conservatives' most successful policies, proving a vote winner for the party in both 1979 and 1983.

Since its introduction, almost half a million homes for rent in Scotland have been sold at a discount. However, in recent years, the policy has been blamed for causing a shortfall in council housing stock, leading to huge waiting lists for people wanting to get a council house.

Later in the speech, Ms Sturgeon confirmed that Stracathro hospital near Brechin would be returning to full NHS control, just four years after it was set up as a joint venture between the NHS and an independent treatment provider. The centre has been operated privately and paid for by the NHS.

Ms Sturgeon said: "This is the only private contract of its kind in Scotland and it comes to an end on January 3rd next year. From January, it will be delivered in and by the NHS. Stracathro is coming home to the NHS."

She added: "I am proud that this government has stopped in its tracks the Labour privatisation of the NHS."

Her announcement was met with cheers by SNP activists, but business chiefs criticised the decision. David Lonsdale, assistant director of the CBI in Scotland said: "This is the latest in a series of announcements designed to squeeze out the independent sector from providing public services, following earlier bans on firms from providing GP services, hospital catering and cleaning, and prisons."

He added: "This 'public sector good, private sector bad' mentality is unfortunate and misguided. Shutting the door on independent providers means Scotland missing out on an opportunity to attract external investment, expand capacity, and ensure services become more innovative, accessible and responsive to patients' needs.

"Instead of banning commercial providers, ministers ought to be doing everything they can to encourage them, particularly in light of the need to deliver value for money services given the looming squeeze on the public finances."

'Going it alone' gets whole new meaning

THE SNP's Westminster campaign team was nearly wiped out yesterday. Party organisers arranged for all their 59 candidates to pose on a foot bridge over the swollen River Ness. With the weight of so many nationalists on board, however, the bridge began to sway alarmingly, prompting some of the more fearty candidates to dash for the shore.

Transport Minister always on the move

TRANSPORT Minister Stewart Stevenson makes a great play of his slightly eccentric geekiness.

Reporting to delegates, he recounted how he had so far attended 2,500 meetings, answered 3,500 parliamentary questions, and written 4,000 letters. Soon, Stevenson boasted, he would undertake his 1,000th train or bus journey. "And I've walked 500 miles," he added.

Where's the beef? Welcome Nicola …

THERE'S one problem with having what had been – until Nicola Sturgeon's meaty speech yesterday afternoon – a largely policy-free conference.

"Without any policies, there's nothing to do apart from bitch about each other," said one SNP stalwart over lunch yesterday. Good to see that even in the modern SNP, some things don't change.