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Going beyond the numbers

4th September 2017

Well done to Ruth Davidson for giving a speech concentrating on housing and a speech which went beyond the affordable housing numbers game. For too long, any discussion about Scotland’s housing problems has focussed on how many affordable houses are needed, foregoing a deeper analysis of how to resolve the myriad of housing needs for all Scots.

Davidson remains committed to her party’s 2016 Manifesto target of 100,000 houses over the lifetime of this parliament, but suggests a series of new ideas to help stimulate housing construction.

She seeks to go back to the future, to return to the policy of constructing new towns.  Her rationale being that the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors reckons between six and eight new communities are required across Scotland.

Davidson is proposing the creation of a Housing and Infrastructure Agency, while at the same time highlighting complaints by local residents about traffic generation from new housing developments,  so her dots are not quite joining up.  New housing should be built on existing or proposed public transport links. Take the Waverley Line: its reopening has encouraged housebuilding in existing communities along the line. Shawfair – a new town in all but name – is to be built around a new station, allowing residents to travel by train to Edinburgh city centre in a matter of minutes, rather than the hour long, and polluting, journey it might take to commute by car.

She might also need to address the issue of housing older Scots who are described as a ”property owning oligarchy”.  It is more complex than simply contrasting wealthy older Scots with the younger generation finding difficulty in making it on to the property ladder.   Clearly there are connections between the housing needs of both groups.

Literally thousands of older people would be happy to vacate their existing family homes, now much too large for them, if only more appropriately sized homes were available.   Research carried out by YouGov for McCarthy and Stone retirement house builders (August 2017) found that 38% of pensioners in Scotland – some 374,000 people – are considering moving to smaller homes.  Enabling older Scots to downsize would help to stimulate the housing chain.  Every retirement property purchased can create a cascade, with as many as six moves on the housing ladder, from families moving into the former home of the retired couple, right down to freeing up homes for first time buyers.

Of course an increase in housing supply would also result in an increase in Land and Buildings Transaction Tax for the government and increased council tax for the local authority.  And it not only stimulates employment through construction, it also creates jobs through the maintenance or modernisation of the new homes. From the perspective of an ever-growing Health and Social Care budget, expected to rise to £8bn by 2031, providing retirement housing keeps older folk in their own homes for longer, generally resulting in shorter hospital stays and allowing them to retain their social networks.

Nevertheless, Davidson’s contribution is commendable.  Particularly her belief that local councils should have powers to buy land at current use value and then keep the profit when that land value increases following planning approval.

Let’s hope that her fresh thinking will stimulate others to think more deeply about Scotland’s housing needs. As she says in her speech; “…we are not just building housing; we are in the job of creating homes, nurturing communities and adding to the beauty of our country.

These are the views of Keith Geddes, Policy Director at Pagoda Porter Novelli