In the week that the Scottish Government issues its white paper on independence it’s good to reflect on what they are already doing differently in housing, given that’s it been devolved to the Scottish Parliament for more than a decade.
First of all, while Whitehall cut housing investment by almost two-thirds after the 2010 spending review, Holyrood made rather smaller cuts. Initially housing suffered more than other capital spending, but the SG has been putting money back into the housing pot. The original three-year affordable housing budget for 2012/13-2014/15 was £630m, but it now totals just over £972m. For the final year of the current programme, 2015/16, a total spend of £391m has been allocated, an increase of about 21 per cent on the average for the previous three years.
Scotland built over 8,000 affordable homes in 2009/10 but the figure slipped downwards to just over 6,000 in 2012/13. The fall was less steep than England’s, though: from its peak in 2010/11 English affordable output fell by almost a third in only two years. And Scotland has been meeting its target of building at least 6,000 affordable units annually.
Most remarkable is the continued emphasis on council building, which reached a recent record of 1,116 completions last year. This not only exceeded the programme’s target but was the highest level of council completions since the mid-1990s. It also brings Scotland’s total very close to England’s – a country ten times as big. One reason is of course that Scottish councils suffer no restrictions on their borrowing, and prudential loans are a major source of funding (alongside grants and contributions from revenue).
The issue of cuts in grant rates has been a contentious one in Scotland, but the response has been very different. The SG set up a joint working party with social landlords to advise on grant rates, which recommended in July that they be raised across the board by £16,000 per unit. Remarkably, the Scottish Government accepted the recommendations in full. Grants have been raised, and some extra money put into the programme to keep it on target.
Of course, there is plenty still to criticise in Scotland: for example, housing association output has fallen steadily and Scottish associations are more vulnerable to welfare cuts and changes in the funding environment. The Scottish Housing Regulator had to rescue three from near-insolvency in the past year. Nevertheless, the minimum grant rate for associations is now higher at £58,000, or nearly three times English levels. This reflects much greater government concern in Scotland about keeping rents at affordable levels.
What else is progressive about Scotland? Well, the housing bill which will end right to buy in three years time is now before the Scottish Parliament. Critics have said this is the wrong way to do it, that the delay will only encourage sales in the interim. But of course in Scotland the right to buy has already been ended for new tenants, and by 2017 at the latest it should be gone completely. The SG says it is doing this to ‘safeguard social housing stock for future generations’, a wholly admirable motive.
Finally, of course, Scotland abolished the ‘priority need’ categories for homeless households at the end of last year. Even so, homelessness has been going down in Scotland, albeit slowly, but the trend is opposite to that in England.
What more is promised if Scotland becomes independent? The white paper says that the bedroom tax will be scrapped and the roll out of universal credit will be halted. Benefits will rise in line with inflation. It says that ‘social housing remains an essential part of our system’. It makes rather vague promises of ‘greater integration between our policies on housing supply and housing benefit support’. There’s not much detail, but I must admit that if I lived in Scotland I know which way I’d be tempted to vote.