David Bookbinder: Is the Scottish Government waving the white flag?
David Bookbinder, director of the Glasgow and West of Scotland Forum of Housing Associations, reflects on the housing cuts announced in the Scottish Budget just before Christmas.
A harsh headline, perhaps. But after months of high-profile coverage of our housing crisis, a 26% cut to the Affordable Housing Supply Programme was an unexpected and mortal blow.
As with other sectors, we always want to return from the festive break refreshed and energised, ready to address the challenges facing us in any way we can. That determination will still be there, but the big cut to the 24/25 programme announced by finance secretary Shona Robison was as disheartening as it was shocking.
It almost came over as an act of surrender. It’s hard to avoid a feeling that ministers are effectively saying “It’s over to you guys now. We’re out of here.”
First, some facts from the Budget:
- The overall AHSP shrinks from £752m this year to £556m in 24/25 - a 26% reduction, not allowing for either normal inflation or the higher construction industry inflation
- The biggest hit, at 71%, was to ‘Financial Transactions’, which is loan funding for the likes of Open Market Shared Equity and the Charitable Bond
- The hit to the capital part of the AHSP, which mainly funds social housing, was 15% - down from £489m to £414m
- That cut is a wee bit less than 15% if you factor in that the separate ‘TMDF’ budget for Glasgow and Edinburgh remains uncut at £96m
So OK, a lesser hit for social housing, but we’re now faced with the likelihood of the cut leading to there being no new approvals in some parts of Scotland in 24-25 because the budget is already fully committed.
What was especially depressing was hearing ministers label the Budget as ‘values-based’. A value judgement indeed to freeze the council tax again when this is much more beneficial to the better off. And note that the housing cut was roughly the same as the money needed to fund the freeze.
The AHSP cut wasn’t the housing minister’s decision, but it’ll be down to Paul McLennan, and Patrick Harvie too, to face up to the consequences. In the context of the current crisis – whether or not you term it as an emergency – the cut surely reduces ministers’ and officials’ moral authority to lean on us and ask still more of the sector.
One thing’s for sure - ministers must finally stop insulting our intelligence and put an end to what are now becoming embarrassing references to the 110,000 homes target. It was disingenuous – if not just dishonest – of the SG’s Budget document to set out the cut yet still refer to the target. This implies it’s still on track, when something nearer 60,000 is probably more realistic.
And the cut is a terrible blow to efforts to tackle child and family poverty. The proud boast that our rate of new social housing provision has been a big factor in Scottish poverty levels being lower than down south is one we can’t reliably make any longer.
So apologies for adding to the usual January doom and gloom. I don’t doubt that housing associations and councils will continue to work in partnership to maximise access to housing. But if that memorable October 2015 announcement of a five-year 50,000 homes programme finally elevated housing to the level of high political priority, none of us have been left in any doubt that it’s a much lower priority now.