Sheila Gilmore: Cheap promises won’t help housing

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As the SNP reveals an end to right to buy, Sheila Gilmore says investment is needed now across Scotland

THE announcement from the Scottish Government that the right to buy council and housing association homes will end has been greeted as another sign that policy is diverging between Scotland and England, and of how much more radical the SNP claims to be.

But it’s a cheap promise, and will do little to help Scotland’s immediate housing crisis. As is often the case with the Scottish Government, what sounds attractive on the surface isn’t quite what it seems.

Changes in right to buy started in 2002 under the Labour/Lib Dem administration when discounts for new tenants – including existing tenants moving home – were substantially reduced. In the 2010 Housing Act, right to buy was ended for all new tenants.

Right to buy sales have fallen steadily since 2002-3 when 18,975 council and housing association homes were sold. In 2011-12, only 1520 homes were sold in the whole of Scotland. In Edinburgh, only 87 council homes were sold in 2010-11.

If none of those 1520 homes had been sold that doesn’t translate into homes available for rent to the many people seeking council or hosing association homes. Most people buy because they like and want to stay in their home. If unable to buy that home, very few will buy elsewhere and move on, not least because it is the discounts – especially the un-modernised pre-2002 discounts) – which, for most, make buying possible at all.

Now doubtless Scottish ministers will say that stemming the loss of properties has to start somewhere and that eventually stock will be retained in this way. But it won’t do much for those currently living in expensive private rented homes, with friends and family, or in temporary accommodation. And given it is supposed to be about helping those unable to get a council or housing association home, why the delay until 2017?

The vision of the Tories in the 1980s was that right to buy would create a “home-owning democracy”, which would be conservative too in its politics. The latter didn’t happen, at least it didn’t in Scotland nor in the north of England, but some of the initial effects of right to buy were quite positive for individuals, many of whom acquired a financial asset for the first time, and for communities. Most of those who bought wanted to stay, and took steps to improve their properties, and felt they had a strong stake in their 

However, the wheel has turned again, and although when ex-right to buy homes eventually come on the market they are sometimes bought by a new generation of first-time buyers, in the last ten years in particular there has been a rapid growth of private letting in these areas. In some ex-council estates there are individuals who have built up a considerable portfolio of 40 to 50 properties.

This is changing communities in a way people often feel is for the worse. Private tenancies are usually short term so people have less stake in the community. People feel they no longer know their neighbours. For would-be tenants it doesn’t come cheap. In Edinburgh, private lets were 22 per cent of all homes in 2009 compared with 11 per cent in 1991, and have grown even more in the last four years. This compares with 15 per cent being council or housing association homes in 2009.

The increasing size of the private rented sector has been an important factor in driving up the total size of the housing benefit budget because, for many people in low paid jobs or who are not in work, private lets would not be possible without the existence of housing benefit. If the SNP really wants to tackle the issue of housing shortage real investment is needed in new build and in buying ex-council stock to help find people affordable homes now – not in five to ten years’ time.

• Sheila Gilmore is Labour MP for Edinburgh East and a former housing convener on the city council.