There is a lot of media attention surrounding the housing crisis currently facing Scotland. By its nature a crisis is something that needs urgent attention and is a time when important decisions have to be made.
As a spectator on the debates being had by politicians, practitioners and other relevant professionals, what strikes me is that there is no obvious strategy evolving. There doesn’t even seem to be an organised dialogue taking place.
We have been warned about the “worst housing crisis since the end of WWII” which is apparently just around the corner. There is predicted to be a 160,000 home shortfall in coming decades, based on the current downwards trend in housing completions. The rate of delivery of affordable housing hit its lowest since WWII in 2013 and has only marginally recovered since then.
All over Scotland, indeed the UK, there seems to be excellent debate and discussion going on about how best to increase output of new homes. I have become particularly engaged in the discussion around planning reform and green belt land releases. Many house builders will argue that the planning system itself is a barrier to delivering homes more quickly. It is argued that the recent reforms need to be more radical if a real benefit is to be felt. The idea of releasing more green belt land is thorny and there are valid views on both sides of the debate. This is further highlighted by the “Garden Cities” debate going on south of the border.
Brownfield sites should be prioritised and green belt land left out of future development plans according to those who want to protect the green belt. Whilst others argue that not all brownfield land is suitable for use in construction of homes (contamination, infrastructure challenges etc.). Furthermore, that the supply of brownfield land is not always in appropriate locations.
Another fascinating debate is about the role of Housing Associations and whether it’s right that they are becoming more commercial in their approach to delivering new affordable homes. I have met HAs who use housing for sale as a way to cross subsidise affordable homes and HAs who are looking to diversify into the PRS.
Clive Betts, a Labour MP, warned that the social housing sector was in “danger of losing sight of it’s social purpose and needed to do more to secure more government support”. Whilst it’s important that Housing Associations remain clear about their core social purpose and continue to put pressure on the government to fund affordable housing programmes, there’s validity in the view that Housing Associations, like all businesses, need to move with the times and adapt to their operating environment.
It seems clear that there’s lots of positive, progressive and valuable discussion going on about how best to resolve the housing issues being faced in Scotland. However, there appears to be a lack of focus and no clear direction of travel. If politicians are going to label this a crisis, then it has to be given the status and profile required for proper crisis management and resolution.