CIH Scotland interviews Andy Wightman MSP

Andy Wightman MSP

CIH Scotland deputy director Callum Chomczuk caught up with Scottish Green Party MSP Andy Wightman to get his views on the party’s vision for housing, land and planning reform.

Q1. Can you explain why, for the Scottish Greens, reform of the housing market is needed?

Housing is a human right and yet we have an on-going crisis in the availability and affordability of homes across Scotland. The right kind of housing is not available to people at a price they can afford as the current model of private sector led development benefits company shareholders and does little to generate affordable housing for individual and families.

Post war public sector led housing development meant that need was reflected in the types of houses built. However, in the last three decades with the introduction of right to buy, the increasing financialisation of housing and private sector involvement, the market has become skewed towards landlords and developers.

If we look across Europe, we see high levels of self-procured housing rather than speculative development. Ultimately, people and communities have very little say in how housing need is met in this country.

Q2. Building on that – can you explain the position of the Scottish Greens? What is your preferred model for housing reform?

We need to begin with a clear analysis of housing need. There are increasing challenges for young people who want to find affordable homes in towns and cities where they want to work and for older people to find homes near friends, families and transport links with a flexible and accessible design- a point made clearly in the recent EHRC report into housing for disabled people.

The problem is people don’t look at housing as a system. Politicians need to recognise all the elements that contribute to the housing sector and their interconnectedness. For example, there needs to be greater understanding of the links between the planning system and procurement and energy efficiency.  No part of the sector operates in isolation. That is why the Greens want to see:

  1. A reduction of housing wastage: This will involve bringing empty and derelict homes back in to use, as well as considering the appropriate use of second homes.
  2. Reform of the tax system: We have a highly ineffective housing tax system. Rather than taxing transactions (LBTT), we want a well-designed system of annual property taxation.
  3. Planning reform: We need more nuance in the market and the ability to deliver different homes with different needs. Instead of simply building homogenous units within defined geographic areas.

Q3. Such a change would be considered quite radical – how have developers and opposition parties responded to your proposal?

The attitude towards housing has changed in Scotland. The fact that young people are struggling to get an affordable home of any tenure is creating a growing consensus about the need for change.

In addition, the focus on housing as a human right is also helping to shift the narrative, making it clear housing is an economic imperative for government across the world.

Encouragingly, there has not been the hostile reaction you might expect to much of what we are suggesting. Indeed, I recognise and welcome the fact that Ruth Davidson just last year called for greater levels of public intervention in land markets to address the housing needs of young people.

Q4. Are there any examples you can point to elsewhere in the world of this model and crucially how likely do you think reform is to take place?

The UK planning system is highly discretionary, whereas across Europe, there is more of a zoned approach to where housing can and should be located in communities. This discretionary approach unfortunately gives the opportunity for powerful interests to corrupt the system for their own financial gain.

If we look at Germany, it has a model of municipal led development , where these bodies have the right to acquire land at current value, not hope value. Because there is not unfettered speculation on land prices, the cost of land is more affordable and this has reduced the cost competiveness. Indeed in Germany, the market can often compete more on quality than costs.

In the Netherlands they also have a similar model where municipalities buy land at current value and I am greatly encouraged by the recent paper from the Mayor of London that calls for the Mayor and local authorities to be given greater powers over Compulsory Purchase Orders where developments are at risk of delay and for curbing land value speculation in areas due for development.

Q5. Irrespective of any change to the housing land market there will remain challenges to be addressed in improving housing policy and practice in Scotland. What are the Scottish Greens’ priorities over the next three years?

Key to any reform is open and informed debate and discussion. We need to get the message across that planning is about more economic growth and that housing is about more than responding to the market. Housing must be framed on the context of social justice and human rights. I am hopeful that politicians will respond positively to the needs and the calls from young people to have a safe, affordable, energy efficient home of their own.

The Greens have a number of priorities to achieve this:

  1. Tax housing: We don’t need a one off land, buildings and transaction tax. Instead, we should be moving to a model which taxes house value on an annual basis as a means to keep speculation under check and raise more regular tax receipts.
  2. Climate change: We need to reduce demand for energy in the home but any attempts will be missed unless we engage with owner occupiers about how to improve the energy efficiency of their homes.
  3. Housing allocation: As I mentioned earlier, we need to move to a better model of improving the allocation of homes. This includes looking at the role of second homes and bringing empty and second homes back onto the market. There are parts of Scotland where the prevalence of second homes has meant local people cannot find an affordable home of their own. Our first responsibility must be to meet the needs of the people who live in our communities.
  4. Homelessness: Homelessness is not a housing problem but is a symptom of a wider societal problem. In order to truly prevent homelessness and end rough sleeping, we must re-examine our broader social policies and how we fund them – not just build homes.

Q6. Finally, how can CIH Scotland and its members best engage with you over the next few years?

Be clear, be informed and be bold. This is not unique to CIH Scotland but across civil society, it would be heartening to see more examples of well evidenced policy and leadership on an issue before it is picked up by the government and put through their policy consultation process.

The Scottish Greens want to negotiate structural changes about where power is held, and this requires long-term thinking. I would encourage you and your members to also think in that way, look to the long-term, and avoid the temptation to be reactive to the short-term political cycle.

This article was originally published on the CIH Scotland website.