Shelter Scotland hosts housing hustings in Dundee as local election looms

Shelter Dundee housing hustingsA panel of candidates in the upcoming local elections in Dundee take to the stage last night as Shelter Scotland hosted its last of four housing hustings events.

Chair for the evening, Kieran Andrews from The Courier, kicked things off by introducing the candidates while addressing the lack of diversity on panel saying these were the candidates put forward by the respective parties.

In his opening remarks, SNP candidate and current housing convener, John Alexander, highlighted his party’s record in the city over the last five years, namely the continuation of the Affordable Housing Supply Programme as well as £160 million of investment in energy efficiency measures in existing stock and a £30m programme which included external wall insulation.

Alexander added that the Dundee Fairness Commission has also made substantial progress in tackling poverty and deprivation across the city.

Labour candidate and fellow councillor, Brian Gordon, also welcomed the improvement being made but warned that the city’s housing situation is still “critical” with over 7,000 people currently on the housing waiting list and 470 households currently registered as homeless.

His party has pledged to build double the number of homes promised by the SNP, Gordon added.

Morgan Petrie from the Scottish Greens said “great strides” have been made in Dundee and welcomed the opportunity to engage more with the community.

Outlining his party’s policies, Mason McIlreavy from the Scottish Conservatives said more must be done to encourage more affordable housing in Dundee. If elected McIlreavy said he would lobby for more brownfield sites to be released for housebuilding and for new large sites to take better account of services such as GP surgeries and leisure facilities at the planning stage.

While not standing as a candidate in the upcoming local elections, Dr Clive Sneddon’s housing experience saw him take to the panel to represent the Scottish Liberal Democrats. Dr Sneddon highlighted the health benefits associated with safe and warm homes and said the benefits system must be used to support the provision of these.

He warned that a funding gap exists in the housing for rent sector and that councils will need to contribute their share.

The first question from the floor asked specifically about better support for disabled tenants in social housing and while admitting the situation is only going to get worse with an ageing population, John Alexander said the council has met with NHS Tayside and its partners to create consistent policies going forward.

The next question asked the panel what proposals they have to reduce homelessness in the city.

John Alexander said the council, alongside its partners, has the capacity to ensure no-one should spend a night sleeping rough in the city but conceded that the problem goes much deeper than that. While highlighting a 40% decrease in the number of people presenting as homeless, a preventative, person-centred approach the address the underlying issues is underway but has yet to pay full dividends, he added.

Morgan Petrie said the focus should be on supporting the people who support those in need.

A key theme emerging from panel was that the figures of those presenting as homeless don’t tell full story and more direct action is required.

Michelle from Shelter Scotland’s Dundee Hub highlighted that the number of people applying as homeless directly from the private rented sector is on the increase, largely due to the benefit caps imposed from Westminster.

Things took an emotional turn when an audience member offered his experiences of homelessness, sanctions and depression, recalling one time he was offered a sleeping bag instead of a bed for the night. Asking the panel to explain the logic behind the sanctions regime, he referenced the movie I, Daniel Blake to highlight how those on benefits are treated and sanctions enforced.

Moving on to the private rented sector, a young audience member asks about how families renting privately can be better protected.

Dr Clive Sneddon said pressure should be put on letting agents who often play the landlord against the tenants to the detriment of the relationship while Morgan Petrie offered rent controls as a potential solution.

Brian Gordon said the sector would be greatly enhanced if more homes would be built while John Alexander offered his personal experience of how an insecure tenure could have a chaotic effect on families.

While Mason McIlreavy agreed that reform of the sector is needed, he said a balancing act is required as “prohibitive” rent caps could drive landlords away from the sector.

Some of the more interesting ideas emerged as the candidates rounded up the evening.

Greens representative Morgan Petrie advocated compulsory purchase orders to be used for poorly maintained homes in the private rented sector, while Conservative candidate Mason McIlreavy said he would extend Right to Buy to housing associations as long as the homes are replaced.

Though the policy was doomed to fail according the Lib Dems’ Dr Clive Sneddon who explained that the sizeable discounted sell-off prevented councils from being able to afford to build new homes during the 1980s.