David Alexander comment: Housing politics – north and south of the Border

So far, so good at national government level, but what of local authorities? Picture: Contributed.
So far, so good at national government level, but what of local authorities? Picture: Contributed.
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So the choice of replacement for the recently-departed Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, turned out to be the housing minister, Sajid Javid, a millionaire banker as well as a politician but who nevertheless frequently reminds us that his father was a bus driver.

Mr Javid became minister for communities (which includes responsibility for housing) after Theresa May’s elevation to Prime Minister less than two years ago, having previously been business secretary.

This is a big promotion (he’s the first politician from an ethnic minority in the role) but given the problems facing first-time buyers and the cost of renting in many parts of England, a change in minister after a mere two years seems to be less than helpful for those affected.

Thankfully the situation in Scotland (where housing is a devolved issue) is less volatile. The current housing minister Kevin Stewart has been in the job no longer than Mr Javid held the same role at Westminster, but he has certainly been an improvement on his predecessor.

The Private Residential Tenancy Agreement (PRTA), which replaced the Westminster-inspired Short Assured Tenancy system in November, has worked better than expected, although we still have an issue with the “no fault” clause which – presumably through accident rather than design – gives too much leeway to anti-social tenants and/or rent-refuseniks who play the system (as refusing to pay rent for no good reason is basically theft why is it not covered by criminal law?).

Nevertheless, Mr Stewart appears to have recognised that the majority of landlords are responsible citizens and has steered a middle course that has, with a few exceptions, balanced the interests of property-owners and their tenants.

Therefore, so far, so good at national government level, but what of local authorities, which once held such great sway over housing tenure in Scotland?

Recently, North Lanarkshire Council announced that it intended to buy privately-owned houses and flats and then let them out, presumably at what is usually called a “social rent”. This council is now Scotland’s largest local authority landlord since Glasgow City Council’s housing stock became the responsibility of a city-wide housing association.

The stated aim is to purchase up to 100 properties a year, setting a cap of £150,000 each and concentrating on former council houses, especially in “hard to sell” areas.

I am in two minds about this. I have no doubt that North Lanarkshire is, indeed, deficient in the supply of affordable rented housing, so the council will be servicing a basic need for certain members of the local population. Also, buying properties in “difficult to sell” areas could improve the overall environment in these locations.

But some reservations remain. Almost 40 years on from the original legislation, the “right to buy” one’s council house (no longer a “right” in Scotland, of course) still elicits fierce criticism, especially the discounts forced on councils by Westminster and the fact that they were not allowed to use the receipts to build more houses for rent.

However, the way council housing had developed across the UK made it somewhat easy for Mrs Thatcher to make her bold move. In addition to the desire of many tenants to own their homes, she was able to point to various deficiencies that had become embedded in the system, such as excessively-subsidised rents and personal abuse (eg nepotism in the allocation of properties).

On balance, the North Lanarkshire initiative should be welcomed, and I doubt if local letting agents view it as “competition”; handled efficiently the scheme should work, especially as the council will not be seeking an annual yield or long-term capital growth, which is the motivation for investment in rented homes. But every effort must be made to ensure the scheme does not become a political football.

David Alexander is MD of DJ Alexander