As Midlothian councillor Kelly Parry settles into her post as spokesperson for community wellbeing at the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA), Scottish Housing News asks about the housing elements of her wide-ranging role.
Can you give us an idea of your professional background / experience and tell us what drew to you towards becoming a councillor?
I’ve always been passionate about public services and my local community and, after spending time working in a variety of roles including finance, education policy and in student politics, I decided to run as a councillor in a 2015 local by-election. I was delighted to be elected as Midlothian’s youngest ever female councillor and would love to see more women get involved in local government. I am deeply passionate about protecting public services and tackling inequalities and hope that I can be a role model for others from working class backgrounds to get involved in local government and shaping their communities.
Your new role appears to be quite wide-ranging, just how high up on the list of priorities will housing appear?
Indeed! As COSLA’s spokesperson for community wellbeing, I’ll be our lead on a range of really active policy areas including welfare reform, justice and reducing reoffending, migration, fuel poverty and tackling violence against women. Housing is one of the COSLA Community Wellbeing Board’s key areas of focus but I don’t think it is right to talk about a hierarchy of priorities because they are all so interdependent. Housing policy in particular should never be seen in isolation and so, as well as giving housing the attention it deserves, I will also ensure that COSLA takes a strategic approach to the whole Community Wellbeing portfolio and how that fits in with issues such as poverty and reducing inequalities.
The next couple of years are going to be fascinating for housing in Scotland if you consider the recent announcement on homelessness, the 50,000 affordable homes target and the fuel poverty/energy efficiency agenda and I’m really looking forward to leading local government’s efforts in all of these areas.
The Scottish Government has set a target to deliver 50,000 new affordable homes within this current parliament. How much of a role can / should councils play in meeting this target?
I was pleased to learn that COSLA had previously endorsed the 50,000 target and I am certainly keen to ensure that this continues. Clearly, councils have a huge role to play in delivering more affordable homes across Scotland and I think we as elected members also have a responsibility to encourage local authorities to keep up the momentum. Local authority housing services are facing pressure from all angles at the moment but as it stands I think we can tentatively say that councils are on course to make a significant contribution and certainly an increase on their contribution to the previous target.
Could councils do more and even surpass their housebuilding ‘quotas’? What barriers are in place preventing them from doing so and how can COSLA help overcome these?
Local authorities don’t have quotas or national targets within the affordable housing supply programme and I think this is welcome as, at the end of the day, councils know the needs of their communities best. You are right to raise the question about barriers to building more homes and these cannot be ignored. I know there are concerns in the sector about availability of land, cost of materials and the impact of Brexit but at COSLA what we are sometimes hearing is that general capacity within the local authority is under pressure in a way that can slow down house-building (e.g. pressure on building control or planning departments). This demonstrates the need for local authorities’ core work to be well-resourced in order to deliver in specific service areas.
In terms of COSLA helping to overcome these challenges, I’m looking forward to meeting with housing conveners along with the minister later in the year to discuss a range of housing issues and how we can all work better to achieve better housing outcomes across the board. More can always be done to share good practice and I would like to think COSLA provides an important forum for that sort of discussion.
Do you think sufficient importance is being placed on bringing existing stock into social use i.e. by buying up old properties or renovating empty homes?
I know there can be controversy around this but the most important thing is to keep the bottom line in mind which is that we need to provide more affordable homes. Bringing disused properties back into use is an important tool in the box if we want to maximise the number of homes we are creating for people and, where it makes sense, COSLA would completely encourage that. The Scottish Empty Homes Partnership tell us that there are around 34,000 long term empty properties in private ownership across Scotland – that is clearly a waste.
In its submission to the Parliamentary inquiry into homelessness, COSLA called for an integrated, whole-system approach which addresses social inequalities and goes beyond housing to prevent and respond to homelessness in Scotland. How vital do you see this joined up approach being to tackling the issue?
A joined up approach is essential. As hard as councils and the third sector might try to tackle homelessness, our progress will always be undermined if other agencies don’t play their part. The conversation around people coming out of prison and ending up homeless almost immediately has been rehearsed many times but it is simply unacceptable that anyone should leave prison and have nowhere to stay on the night of liberation. Councils and the Scottish Prison Service are teaming up to explore ways that this can be addressed. I would also like to see more of a contribution from the health service – it’s really encouraging that the NHS in Scotland are identifying the links between health outcomes and homelessness but I’d like to see a bit more action on that front. Hopefully health and social care integration is the vehicle for change.
It is important that a joined up multi-agency approach allows for local flexibility in the way services are delivered and we must continue to address these issues through community planning. We must not lose sight of the fact that local partnership approaches within a community planning context are the best way to tailor services to local need.
I have been in good contact with the housing minister since taking up my role as a COSLA spokesperson and I am encouraged that he sees part of his role as encouraging other departments of government to think about their impact on housing and homelessness. The announcement in the Programme for Government to launch a Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Group is an exciting one which I hope brings these partners together.
In your time at COSLA so far, what seems to be the main housing issues people are bringing up?
These are tough times for public services and for local government in particular. Not only has local government’s core funding taken a hit but councils are often left to pick up the pieces when the impact of other policies is felt. At the moment this is a particularly important point relevant to Universal Credit and the impact it has on people’s ability to pay their rent, which is already affecting local authority housing revenue budgets. We have good data to back up the fact that rent arrears have seen a significant increase in areas where Universal Credit has been rolled out. We’re talking about increases in arrears of up to 30% and councils are able to apportion much of this increase to the impact of Universal Credit.
What are your priorities for your time at COSLA and what would you like to achieve during your tenure?
My portfolio at COSLA is very wide ranging but within the housing brief, I will be focusing my efforts on the three themes of homelessness, increasing the affordable housing supply and tackling fuel poverty. More broadly, I will continue to fight the corner for local government and continue to apply pressure on the Scottish Government and others to recognise the valuable contribution councils make. During my tenure, I’d like to see local democracy being enhanced and local services continuing their journey of improvement.