Fresh ideas to solve Scotland’s housing crisis

1 Sep 2017

Below is the text of Ruth’s speech to the IPPR on how best to tackle Scotland’s housing crisis:

“No matter which party you support, we can ever have enough ideas in politics.

It is only through the exchange and debate of those ideas that we can, as a country, hope to progress.

So while it’s fair to say that the IPPR and the Conservatives may have the odd, minor disagreement about politics in the UK

…it is indisputably a good thing that, under Russell’s stewardship, the IPPR has decided to set itself up in Scotland.

I only hope that other  think-tanks which, I know, are considering following suit, take note and act.

Because the more of you, the better our national debate will be.

So, we meet today just a few days before the start of the new Parliamentary session.

A time when, as is traditional, parties are asked about their plans for the coming year and how they intend to progress.

This year, there’s also the added significance – in just two weeks – of the 20th anniversary of the devolution referendum in 1997.

Now, for many of us, this anniversary will be little more than a reminder that time flies far too quickly – and that we all getting a little older at an alarming rate of knots.

I also see this anniversary as a potential pivot point in Scotland’s political story.

In these twenty years since that referendum, so much – of course – has been done.

Indeed, the opening of the new Queensferry Crossing on Monday next week will be a tangible reminder of that – of decisions made here, debated here, and followed through here in Edinburgh.

But, I would contend, it would be hard to argue that much of Scotland’s debate since 1997 hasn’t been so much about physical infrastructure as about political architecture instead.

Two further Scotland Acts have borne out the truth of Donald Dewar’s observation in 1999 that devolution was a process not an event.

Indeed, the increase in the powers now available to MSPs at the Scottish Parliament would have been unimaginable twenty years ago.

And the referendum on independence in 2014, followed by the Brexit vote last year, has ensured that Scotland’s constitutional status has been the prime focus.

No-one, I think, would argue that we have not been discussing the big issues in Scotland.

Sovereignty, nationality, our place in the world – they don’t get much bigger.

The question for all of us, however, is whether we have allowed enough room for anything else.

As we’ve fought over the mighty Oak of our national question, has any sunlight managed to get down to the forest floor – allowing other, less dominant issues, to grow and flourish?

Certainly the last year at the Scottish Parliament has suggested not.

Only a handful of bills of note passed.

Brexit and the constitution dominating our debating time – with a grand total of 46 hours spent going over the issue at the Scottish Parliament.

These issues will, of course, continue to be a huge part of our public debate over the coming period.

And if indeed the SNP continue with a campaign for that second referendum during this period, I remain as committed as ever to defending the Union if need be.

However, my resolution over the coming 12 months, as leader of the main opposition party in Scotland, is to try and turn a page.

Because there is an opportunity to allow some saplings to get some light.

This coming year is the first in Scotland since 2013 when we have not been fighting an election or a referendum.

Indeed, this coming political spell in Scotland – with no elections due until 2021 – is the first such period since the middle part of the last decade.

That is an opportunity.

Seven campaigns in the last four years have been of huge benefit to the Edinburgh branch of Clarks’ shoes….

…but it is fair to say they have not been conducive to considered policy analysis.

Criticism that the political class in Scotland has focussed too heavily on the constitution is justified.

All over Scotland this summer, I’ve been speaking to people and getting a pretty clear message.

Everyone accepts that Brexit is going to dominate for the coming few months as the negotiations with Europe continue in earnest.

But there is also a yearning among many to see a political debate in Scotland focus more heavily on the bread and butter issues that matter to us here at home.

So while we in the Scottish Conservatives have rightly complained that the SNP has failed to focus on the day job.

…we need to demonstrate our wish to set our sights on that task too.

And that is my broad priority as we begin a new parliament next week.

…and for political reasons too.

The Scottish Conservatives fought the last Holyrood election on the basis we would be a strong opposition to the SNP.

That remains the task in hand at the Scottish Parliament – but it is not a message that should – or should be desired – to be reused.

Next time round, we have to demonstrate we are a party of government.

And the work towards that needs to start now.

To that end, prior to the start of the summer break, I appointed a new policy co-ordinator in Donald Cameron, one of the new cohort of Conservative MSPs elected last year – with think tank experience himself.

His job will be to set out our policy priorities over the coming months.

We want to start grappling with some of the key issues that require urgent attention in Scotland as soon as we return to parliament next week.

We don’t intend to write a manifesto for 2021 in the next few weeks.

What we do want to do is to examine some of the major challenges that we face in Scotland and the UK.

I’ve spelled out some of my own thoughts on this over the summer.

In particular, I’ve focussed on what I see as perhaps the biggest challenge those of us on the centre-right of politics face right now..

..how to maintain a consensus in our societies supporting free markets and liberal values.

A consensus which is becoming increasingly fragile.

Economists can tell us that this is the best time to be alive – but nearly ten years on from the financial crash, that is not how people feel.

One statistic I have used lays it our starkly: in the UK, a mere 19% of people agree that the next generation will probably be richer, safer and healthier than the last.

The figure falls to 15% of Germans and 14% of Americans.

The reality is that we are living in a time of great technological, social and economic change…

… and it feels to many that these changes are not working for them – and they are increasingly sceptical about the future as a result.

Political leaders who believe in markets and who believe in liberal values are therefore facing a major challenge.

Either to defend the status quo, complacently insist that all the alternatives are worse, and – in so doing – leave the path clear for populists to capitalise on public discontent.

Or to respond, to use the power of government to correct failing markets and bring about a fairer economic order.

In Scotland, there is no reason why this debate should be ‘reserved’ – as if such big questions are somehow not a devolved matter.

We need to challenge these issues too.

So today, I’d like to set out my own views on just one particular area which is particularly relevant to this discussion – and that is the question of housing and planning.

Because there is no other way of putting this – market failure is in the process of depriving thousands of young people one of the most basic opportunities in society: the ability to buy and own your home.

This is something Conservatives simply cannot ignore. It is a bedrock of Conservative belief that we should encourage a property-owning democracy.

Yet, increasingly, we now have something more akin to a property-owning oligarchy:

Made up of lucky, mainly older, people who – by dint of having scaled the housing ladder – are now the ones who now control the country’s economic purse strings.

Our mailbags as MSPs are full of concerns about housing: from people on the waiting list for social housing, to couples unable to afford a starter home.

We need to do something about it.

As to what, let me begin by reading out a quote which, I think sums up both the importance of housing, and the problem we face in Scotland.

“Our wellbeing, as individuals and families and as a society, depends heavily on our ability to find a decent home that we can afford in a place where we want to live. Far too many people in Scotland are unable to satisfy that basic aspiration.”

I could not agree more.

The only pity is that this was written almost exactly ten years ago in the foreword to the new SNP Government’s first housing strategy, written by the then health secretary Nicola Sturgeon in 2007.

That was right then – and that’s still right now. And that sums up the problem.

Because far from having improved since 2007, the housing crisis in Scotland has got worse.

Let me be clear: I do not seek to lay all the blame for this at the door of the SNP – there was the small matter of a global economic crash a few months after Nicola Sturgeon put her name to those words.

But, right now– a decade on from that crash – here is where we are.

Instead of the 35,000 new homes a year being built that the SNP Government proposed back in 2007, the figure in Scotland is stuck at around 16,000, almost half the figure of ten years ago.

The latest figures show that major development decisions were slower by an average of six weeks per application last year, compared to the year before.

This lack of supply has reduced the number of available properties to buy while pushing prices up.

It means that, on average, first-time buyers can forget about getting on the housing ladder in their twenties.

And those that do manage to buy now require and an average deposit of £21,000 in order to do so.

Too often, it is only those who can call upon the Bank of Mum and Dad who can afford such a huge upfront sum.

With the consequence is that the number of people in their thirties now living in private rented accommodation has tripled since the birth of the Scottish Parliament in 1999.


In short, the lack of housing supply in Scotland and the UK is now one of the biggest challenges of our time.

And at the same time – there is growing evidence that large swathes of our existing housing stock is falling into disrepair.

The consequence is felt by everyone – from first time buyers to homeless people who have to wait for social housing because the housing ladder is jammed.

We set out some detailed plans in our manifesto last year on the way forward.

To build 100,000 new homes over the course of this parliament – with half of them affordable housing.

We believe it’s vital that the Scottish Government engages with the private sector in delivering that.

We believe – for example – that grants could be given to individuals to build new affordable homes in exchange for letting the property out at an affordable rent for a set period of time.

That would be especially useful in rural areas, where the private rented sector is ready to play a larger role in developing affordable homes.

Our manifesto also set out ideas to refurbish the nearly 30,000 empty properties in Scotland to bring them back into use.

But it’s clear we need to go further.

We should be clear about this: the last time we had a housing crisis on this scale was in the aftermath of World War 2.

Back then, politicians had the courage to act in order to get building.

We now need to find the same courage to address a crisis of similar proportions.

So I’d like today to set out a few ideas that the Scottish Conservatives will advance over the coming year as we seek to contribute to this debate.

First of all, we must face up to the mess that is the planning system.

Here’s the situation we see too often over Scotland.

Housebuilders complain that there isn’t enough land available to build and are being deterred from doing so by a planning system that is almost designed to thwart investment.

Communities are distrustful of new developments, fearing they will only add to congestion, put added pressure on local services, and damage the local environment.

Local politicians are stuck in the middle, aware they need to boost supply but wary of a public backlash.

And, to be blunt, nobody in central government in Edinburgh is offering strategic direction.

Instead, it appears increasingly the case that the new Planning Bill will fail to be sufficiently radical in making it easier to build private sector housing.

What is required is a commitment to take on vested interests where necessary and do the right thing: putting power closer to communities, delivering infrastructure for developers and direct government intervention to procure more land.

So – to begin with – we would support the creation a new national Housing and Infrastructure Agency to be tasked with delivering the basic infrastructure – the roads and public services – around which new housing can be built.

I don’t think most people are natural Nimbys.

Most often, people’s concern about new housing is the concern that, if a thousand new homes are built nearby, then that’s a thousand more cars clogging up the drive to work, and more pressure on school places, GP clinics and the like.

A single Agency could be called on by local authorities to help them tackle these infrastructure challenges.

It could, for example, issue developer infrastructure loans, to help developers pay the upfront costs of new roads, schools or sewage works, to be paid back by builders over the long term.

And what better way to signal strong government backing for this new agency, than by actually putting a combined Housing and Infrastructure Minister in the Scottish cabinet.

If we really do want housing to become a national priority, then the man or woman delivering it should be at the cabinet table.

To be clear, I am not talking about taking planning control out of the hands of local authorities and local communities.

This is about national government providing the strategic direction that allows local communities to press ahead.

It could restore trust in new housing.

Earlier this week, the director of Shelter, Polly Neate, said that nimbyism in the UK was often caused because communities don’t feel listened to – and because too many new homes are ugly or unaffordable.

She has a point.

So – in building new homes – we need to ensure that people’s views are heard – and ensure that new developments add something to our natural environment.

And we need genuine national leadership which makes clear that new development is about making Scotland more beautiful..

…that we aren’t going to accept new building that is dumped down carelessly – but instead that we are going to build with people in mind.

That is the way to restore faith and overcome peoples’ understandable concerns about new developments.

Secondly, it is time we stopped thinking about housing as something done to us – and changed the culture so it is something we can do for ourselves.

In Germany, France and Italy, 60% of homes are self-built. In the USA and Australia, it is 40%. In the UK, by contrast, the figure is just 10%.

Is it any wonder that we are sceptical about new developments in this country when so much of it feels imposed on us, not designed by us?

So more can be done.

In Scotland, the SNP Government is piloting simplified planning zones – where planning permission is waived for certain types of development.

We should expand this model across the country.

Currently, the planning system has it all the way wrong. All construction is prohibited and you cannot build unless and until you have permission to do so.

What about freeing up land across Scotland where you flip that on its head? Where, within certain parameters about building regulations plus the size and design of a property, you can go ahead as you wish?

This model is being trialled across Europe – where small scale developers and individuals buy so-called plot passports in designated areas, and then are allowed to proceed as they want.

The result is something altogether more human and varied that some of the housing we have seen developed in Britain – where design and individuality has been drained out of the building process.

I’d like to see more of that here too.

However – of course – such self-build projects are never going to meet the deep needs of the housing crisis we face.

Something altogether more ambitious needs to be considered.

And that is why – as my third proposal – I think we should also asking whether we need to match the ambition of our post-war generation seventy years ago, and examine once again the question of New Towns.

The original new towns programme in Britain saw 32 new urban developments being constructed which today provide homes for some 2.5 million people.

In Scotland, five new towns were constructed: East Kilbride, Glenrothes, Cumbernauld, Livingston and Irvine.

The latter was the final development to be designated, on November 9th 1966 – almost exactly half a century ago.

A report for the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors has proposed that, today, as many as 6 to 8 new communities are required across Scotland.

It is time to seize the moment – and look at a series of new generation new towns

We are already seeing some beautiful new villages and towns springing up in Scotland which have put high quality design, affordable homes and community values at the heart of development.

That’s the way to go.

Chapelton outside Aberdeen and Tornagrain outside Inverness are both examples of this.

They show we can learn from the ambition of the post-war generation

If we can learn from the ambition of the post-war generation, we can learn from their mistakes too – by, for example, putting the needs of people and communities first.

By acknowledging that we are not just building housing, we are in the job of creating homes, nurturing communities, and adding to the beauty of our country.

Because if new developments complement the local environment and avoid the disastrous design choices of the past we can all get behind a generation of towns and villages across the country

….adding to the vitality and vibrancy of Scotland.

The big question, of course, is the question of land – and affordable land, at that.

And given the scale of the crisis we face, I think we should be examining some radical solutions.

Institutions as varied as Shelter and the Adam Smith Institute have supported a reform so that local authorities get powers to buy land at current use value – and then keep the profit when that land value increases following planning.

When realised, that profit can then be used to spend on affordable housing, new roads and better infrastructure.

It was this financial model that allowed Prince Charles to invest heavily in the new Poundbury village in Dorset. It’s one we should look at too.

It’s a model that is widespread across Europe and Asia as a way to unlock start up capital to get new development off the ground.

With a clear ambition: to provide a new generation of communities that provides the homes that we need to house a new generation of people in Scotland.

With affordable private housing made a priority so that young people currently locked of the housing market are able to gain a foothold in life.

Because that – in the end – is what we are talking about here.

Housing and planning is not an abstract policy area.

When we talk about housing, we are not simply talking about bricks and mortar. We are talking about the building blocks of our society.

A good home can provide the security for a family to grow and flourish.

It can radically improve the life chances of individuals and their health outcomes.

When we deliver better housing, we are also supporting our NHS, we are reducing anti-social behaviour, we are creating a more cohesive society.

I have been challenged in recent weeks to set out what we in this party – the Scottish Conservatives – stand for.

Are we simply the No to Independence party? Of course not – our roots go back nearly 200 years before the referendum and we have always advanced property ownership.

But it is ALSO about using the power of government, where necessary, to improve markets – like the property market – to support the life chances of our people, and to restore faith in our way of life.

And while today I’ve focussed on housing, there are numerous other areas which also require our attention.

The need to confront the challenge of our ageing society and how we support the NHS better.

The need to ensure our economy is ready for technological change, and the threat and opportunity of automation.

The need for Scotland to use the vast expertise that exists in our Universities and capitalise on it for our own good.

And the need to ensure that, as the economy changes, so we equip young people with the skills they’ll need.

Perhaps the exciting thing is that – after ten years where we have been locked in the comfort of our own certainties fighting and refighting over the same constitutional ground – none of us in any political party can really say we have the answers to these big questions.

But if devolution is for anything, it should be to ensure that we can, through debate and argument, find a better path forward.

Previous political generations in Scotland never shied away from thinking big.

From delivering clean water to Glasgow.

To building a hydro-electric network across the country.

To helping Scotland become the shipbuilding capital of the world.

That same ambition for Scotland is required today.

At a time when too many people look at the future and see only problems and obstacles ahead – we must not lose faith in our collective ability to grapple with – and resolve – the big questions.

Too often government guidelines are more concerned with making things harder, not easier.

With erecting barriers and forcing people to expend unnecessary energy on what should be the simplest of endeavors.

We’ve had years in Scotland where the short-term election cycle has dictated a staccato approach to the policies of soundbites.

We have an opportunity in the years to 2021 to do some of the intellectual heavy lifting that has been so alien to policy formation at Holyrood. We now have an opportunity to write in paragraphs and not in tweets.

We have serious issues to address and we need serious people to approach them with a seriousness of purpose, too.

We can tackle our housing crisis.

We can give families a more secure future.

We can make Scotland a better place to live.

As we embark on the new political term next week – my party can – and will – play its part.”