SNP MSP questions Scottish Government priorities after manifesto pledge dropped

An SNP MSP has questioned the Scottish Government's priorities after it dropped a manifesto pledge to introduce compulsory sale orders (CSOs) to help councils deal with empty homes.

Thousands of privately owned homes lie empty in Scotland. Picture: John Devlin
Thousands of privately owned homes lie empty in Scotland. Picture: John Devlin

Kenny Gibson said the issue of properties lying empty long-term had "blighted" many of the communities he represented - and meant more to constituents than some of the items on the Programme for Government announced yesterday by Nicola Sturgeon.

The Nationalist, who represents Cunninghame North, hit out after housing minister Kevin Stewart told Holyrood's Local Government and Communities Committee today the commitment to give councils more powers to force sales of empty buildings will not be met during this parliament.

Fellow committee member and Greens MSP Andy Wightman claimed the Scottish Government was "going backwards on land reform".

There are more than 100,000 properties in Scotland which are either classed as empty or under-used, according to official records, with almost 25,000 vacant for 12 months or more.

The introduction of CSOs - which would allow local authorities to buy homes after other legal avenues were exhausted - is viewed as a key tool in fixing the problem.

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Mr Stewart blamed the pressures of Brexit on officials, and a lack of available space in the legislative programme, for the policy not coming to fruition before 2021 - but insisted the Scottish Government remained committed to it.

He pointed to the success of the Empty Homes Partnership - set-up in 2010 with housing charity Shelter - which last year returned more than 1,000 properties back into use.

But Mr Gibson said consultation on the CSO policy was undertaken four years ago. "I share the disappointment of other committee members in terms of the issue of CSOs," he added.

"Consultation was undertaken in 2015, there is a manifesto commitment, and while we recognise Brexit will occupy the minds of officers and officials, is there any reason why legislation can't perhaps be brought be forward to 2020/2021, when one assumes most of the Brexit fiasco will have subsided.

"For the communities that I represent, many of which are blighted by these empty properties, it's more of an issue of some of the things that were put forward at the Programme for Government yesterday.

"I think this is something that could make a major difference to so many people, so I ask why it is not higher up the list of Government priorities?"

Mr Stewart responded he was not convinced that the Brexit "fiasco" will have subsided by 2021. He added that he understood Mr Gibson's "frustrations" but that he could not make a commitment he could not deliver.

Greens housing spokesman and committee member Andy Wightman said: “Empty homes are a serious issue in Scotland. People are crying out for affordable housing, yet we have over 100,000 empty and under-used second homes across the country.

“The least we could expect is the SNP meet its own manifesto pledges, especially since they consulted on it in 2015. Meanwhile, there has only been nine successful compulsory purchase orders in three years.

“The policy to give councils more powers to bring empty homes and vacant land into use could have had a major impact, so it is disappointing to see it pushed off the legislative schedule. The minister admitted it was not a priority."