Scottish Government's emergency rent freeze will end up costing tenants more and making homelessness worse – Murdo Fraser MSP

It takes a particular type of government to identify a problem affecting hundreds of thousands of Scots, and then actively propose a change in the law which will make matters worse for them. A particular type of government minister to put forward a policy which evidence suggests will exacerbate the problem he is claiming to solve.

Nicola Sturgeon and housing minister Patrick Harvie, front, are set to make Scotland's housing problems worse by introducing rent controls (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Nicola Sturgeon and housing minister Patrick Harvie, front, are set to make Scotland's housing problems worse by introducing rent controls (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

But Patrick Harvie MSP, housing minister from the gardening wing of the SNP, is a very particular sort of person. This week Holyrood will be debating his emergency Bill to bring in a six-month rent freeze for all residential tenancies in the private rented and social housing sectors. We will have just three days to examine and debate this significant and wide-reaching piece of legislation.

There are significant issues in the provision of rented accommodation across Scotland, particularly in our cities. Rents have been rising, fuelled by a shortage of available accommodation.

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Two weeks ago, the University of Glasgow advised students that they might have to consider either suspending their studies or withdrawing from courses, due to the chronic lack of rented accommodation within the city. Just last week, we heard that students in Edinburgh were being offered beds in dormitory-style accommodation because there was simply nowhere else to stay.

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Letting agents report that there has been significant and ongoing reduction in the number of private sector tenancies coming on the market.

Private landlords, frustrated by changes in tax and tenant legislation are withdrawing properties from the market and either selling up or putting them to other use. Those properties which are still available are likely to see a bidding war for higher rents.

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I can understand why the Scottish Government, in response to the rising cost of living, thought it was clever politics to bring in a six-month rent freeze to apply until the end of March next year.

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What they did not consider, it seems, was that it would exacerbate the difficulties we already see in the private rented sector. John Blackwood, chief executive of the Scottish Association of Landlords, said he had been “inundated by landlords saying they will be removing their vacant properties from the rental market”.

The consequence of this legislation will be to reduce still further the availability of properties in the private rented sector, leaving students and others in an increasingly desperate situation. It seems simply unbelievable that we have a Scottish Government and a minister so arrogant and stupid that they cannot see what the outcomes of their actions will be. But this is Patrick Harvie, a man frequently blinded by his own virtue signalling that could take anyone’s eye out at any moment.

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It is not just in the private rented sector that there are concerns about what is being proposed.

The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations, representing the providers of social housing across the country, has warned that this policy will threaten both the Scottish Government’s ambitions on affordable house building and climate change, and their members’ ability to provide their tenants with exactly the kind of targeted support that is required in these times.

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Several of their members, they say, have already been forced to cancel plans for kitchen and bathroom renovations for the next several years, due to the projected loss of income.

Whilst the Bill being considered this week will only introduce a rent freeze for six months, there are real concerns that there are plans to introduce rent controls in the longer term, a move which can only make the situation much worse.

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All the international evidence shows that rent controls cause housing shortages. We have seen that in Ireland, where following the introduction of rent control zones, only 716 homes were available for rent as of August 1 in the entire country.

There are similar issues elsewhere. The average waiting time to lease a rent-controlled property in Stockholm currently stands at nine years.

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In Berlin, we have seen the emergence of a “grey market” in rent-controlled premises, where landlords demand tenants pay ridiculous prices for furniture, kitchen appliances and other basic amenities as a condition of renting.

Yet rather than look at the international evidence, it seems that Patrick Harvie and his chums in the Scottish Government believe that Scottish exceptionalism is such that we can buck the trend and somehow introduce rent controls without the adverse impacts seen elsewhere.

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There are serious issues in terms of the cost of living which need to be addressed. The UK Government’s substantial intervention to cap the cost of energy will deliver real benefits, particularly for those on low incomes who spend a high proportion of them on heating costs. Perhaps the Scottish Government could look at supporting tenants with helping them to pay rents as an alternative to a rent freeze with all its damaging unintended consequences.

Once again, we see a SNP/Green Scottish Government totally disconnected from the business community, pushing ahead with a policy without discussion or consultation, railroading it through parliament as an emergency Bill in just three days without proper scope for scrutiny and amendment, and failing to properly consider what the consequences of its actions will be.

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The only person Mr Harvie seems to have spoken to about his measures is his own conscience which turns out to be his imaginary friend.

When those seeking rented accommodation in future find there is simply nowhere for them to live, at whatever level of rent they might be able to afford, it is very clear who will have to take the blame. Patrick Harvie’s legacy as a minister will have been to drive up homelessness in Scotland.

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A legend in his own living room no doubt – who in truth left others with no room at all.

Murdo Fraser is a Scottish Conservative MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife

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