Black’s Blog: A new minister… a new beginning?

Black's Blog: A new minister… a new beginning?

Housing has a minister all to itself for the first time in a while. Paul McLennan MSP has been appointed and on the face of things, he’s well qualified for the job. He served 15 years in local government; he sits on the Local Government and Housing Committee; and he’s a member of 24 cross-party groups on subjects such as construction, social enterprise and poverty. Mr McLennan’s boss is former CIH policy officer Shirley-Anne Somerville, the cabinet secretary for social justice.

Then again, he’s not the only housing minister. Patrick Harvie still has the brief for tenants’ rights and zero carbon buildings, working under Neil Gray at wellbeing economy, fair work and energy. Maree Todd has social care and she’s in health under Michael Matheson.

Cabinet secretary Mairi Gougeon has land reform, and Joe Fitzpatrick has planning under Shona Robison in finance. Ms Robison also has the minister for community wealth, Tom Arthur, in her department.

So that’s five departments, five ministers and five cabinet secretaries who all cover areas relevant to housing. Is that a powerful team, working together effectively to tackle the housing emergency; or five separate teams falling over each other? We’re at the start of a new era, so let’s be positive. It’s great to see housing given so much attention.

The Scottish Housing News Podcast always likes to be topical so we invited David Bookbinder from the Glasgow and West of Scotland Forum of Housing Associations to join Jane Wood from Homes for Scotland to tell us what they think should be on Paul McLennan’s agenda. The chat was wide ranging. David found it hard to get his head round the idea of a Housing Minister without responsibility for tenants’ rights, but said he felt sure it would be worked out.

Jane pointed out that there is also a small business minister, Richard Lochhead, who will be crucial to the success of smaller housebuilders across the country. So that’s six ministers.

Co-host Kieran Findlay asked about the Scottish Government’s desire to make all new build homes ‘passive homes’. Jane had recently been visiting a passive home in construction, and was concerned striving for the passive house standard, or Scottish equivalent, would have impacts on scalability and the practicality of delivering homes at a tenable cost.

She said she always wants Scotland to be ambitious but we have to look at the starting point, which is a critical shortage of houses. Officials and ministers across the directorates need to work together effectively, and ask themselves, “What are the barriers we have to building the houses we need? What role can we play in unlocking those barriers?”.

David noted that the Scottish Parliament has always tried to produce pioneering legislation and this is one example, but he longed for a bit of consolidation. Can we resource all the pioneering policies? Can we really have a common standard across tenures?

I asked them both if the housing minister should forbid councils and housing associations from knocking down multis when they could be refurbished and retained, saving carbon emissions and housing people. No-one has actually suggested this, of course, but there is something counterintuitive about knocking down a lot of homes and building a smaller number in their place when we have a housing shortage.

David Bookbinder said social landlords should be left to manage their assets as they thought fit. He believes landlords don’t knock down homes without a good reason. He was already concerned that we might throw a lot of money into retrofitting stock which might have a very short life. Jane turned the question to making brownfield sites available more quickly, so that we could build houses on them.

Over the twenty-five minutes or so of the episode, we covered much else, and we ended by asking both David and Jane what else they would like the minister to address. You’ll need to listen to the podcast to find out all of what they said, but here’s some of it.

Jane highlighted the lack of useful data to help plan housing activity; she says “the data deficits in this area are vast”. She also stressed the importance of recognising the interdependencies between the housing sectors, and the need to find solutions to help SMEs survive and thrive in the industry.

David Bookbinder made a plea for the return of something like the old supporting people fund, money going direct to landlords to help fund tenancy sustainment work and prevent homelessness. “And we have to get stuck into private housing and make it a greater political priority, just in terms of housing conditions … it’s been a bit of a Cinderella”.

Both our speakers knew of Paul McLennan before his appointment as a minister; Jane Wood lives in East Lothian and found him very helpful some years ago when she set up a social enterprise. Both wish him well.

Paul has appeared on the SHN podcast before, speaking about housing with care for older people, and Kieran and I wish him well too. We hope he’ll join us on the podcast before too long.

All episodes of the Scottish Housing News Podcast are available here as well as on the following platforms:

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