Interview: CIH Scotland speaks to Danielle Rowley MP
CIH Scotland’s deputy director Callum Chomczuk caught up with Labour MP for Midlothian Danielle Rowley to find out more about the housing issues facing her constituents, and her top housing priorities as a Scottish MP.
You worked for Shelter Scotland before being elected as an MP. How has your experience and understanding of housing helped inform your approach to policy and politics?
I have always had an interest in housing and my role at Shelter Scotland definitely gave me a better understanding of the issues that my constituents face when it comes to accessing housing. Working for a charity gives you a real insight into how slow the system can be to change, even when you know what needs to done. Perhaps I have unrealistic expectations!
Midlothian is one of the fastest growing parts of the country with 22% growth in households expected by 2037. What do you hear from housing associations, housing officers and local residents about the needs of people and communities in Midlothian?
One of the main issues that comes across my desk every day from constituents is housing; mainly the affordability and suitability of new developments. Why are we not building more social housing, and why are we not ensuring that we have the right balance of homes to meet the needs of local people?
Also, I hear from a lot of constituents who are concerned about the impact new housing will have on local services. Given our location, many people who work in Edinburgh are increasingly looking at living in Midlothian, but it is unrealistic to expect that existing services can simply manage the increased demand for GPs, dentists and schools when hundreds if not thousands of new homes are added to a community. It is fair to say that there has been a better approach to infrastructure when developers have been building new towns such as Shawfair, but when it comes to existing communities, there is not enough consideration and/or funding given to enhance existing local services. If developers are interested in building in Midlothian, then the community expects investment in health services as well as schools in return.
“We need to finally define what we mean by ‘affordable housing’ … by linking it to average wages across a defined rental market.”
The Labour party across the UK recently launched a green paper setting out its UK Housing priorities. In Scotland, Richard Leonard announced Labour’s intention to introduce a rent cap law, and the Mayor of London has just published a report 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 the curbing of land value speculation in areas due for development.
Why do you think there is now such an appetite for housing reform?
Housing is at the core of Labour values. From the construction of post war council housing to the vision set out by Richard Leonard in his call for rent control legislation, we as a party have always adapted to the current environment and created a housing platform that meets the needs of people and communities.
The lack of appropriate housing supply is a real challenge across the country and that is why we are putting forward a policy programme that helps give everyone a safe, affordable home. Not just by building more homes but looking at how we can link rent to average wages, so that those who can’t afford to buy can afford to rent.
I also believe we need to finally define what we mean by ‘affordable’. The phrase gets used to mean different things to different people in different communities. But by linking it to average wages across a defined rental market, we will finally have a clear definition of what we mean when we talk about ‘affordable housing’.
What are your housing priorities as a Scottish MP?
I recognise housing is a devolved issue but I have a rule to never turn anyone away from my constituency. And if my inbox is like anyone else’s, it is clear that accessing affordable housing is one of the major challenges facing people in all communities. I will do what I can to act as their advocate and representative to get the change that they and Midlothian needs, but the whole system needs reform.
Also, I would like to stress that a home is nothing unless it is safe and in the aftermath of Grenfell, it is vital that we do everything possible to ensure that every home, of every tenure is as safe as possible for communities and families.
As you say, housing is a devolved issue but a lot of social security issues including Universal Credit (UC) remain reserved. CIH Scotland, along with other partners, have called for further reform to UC, including a reduction in the period before the first payment in made - what are your priorities on how we can improve Universal Credit?
In my time in Parliament, I have continually called for increased frequency of payment for the housing element of UC, for a reduction in waiting times before claimants receive their first payment and to ensure Universal Credit payments are routinely split between partners to help women experiencing domestic abuse. I was proud to see the Scottish Parliament vote earlier this year to offer automatic split payments to protect women’s financial autonomy.
Finally, how can CIH Scotland and it’s members best engage with you over the next few years?
I am keen to hear from any of your members who want to get in touch. Over the summer, I am looking at running specific policy themed sessions, one of which may be on welfare reform, and input from CIH members would be very welcome.