Universal Credit and rent controls dominate Dundee West hustings

IMG_1443Representatives from five of the General Election candidates for the Dundee West constituency came together last night to debate social housing and devolution last night in a hustings organised by the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations (SFHA) and co-hosted by Angus Housing Association.

Labour’s Michael Marra, SNP candidate Chris Law, Scottish Liberal Democrat Daniel Coleman, the Scottish Conservative Party’s Nicola Ross and Green party member Pauline Hinchion took part in the debate at the University of Dundee’s D’Arcy Thomson lecture theatre, which was chaired by former Scotsman political editor Hamish Macdonell.

Top of the agenda was the proposed roll-out of Universal Credit in Scotland, something the SFHA and 56 other civic organisations have called to be suspended in light of the new fiscal powers due to be handed over to the Scottish Parliament following the Smith Commission.

While the SNP and Green candidates committed to scrapping the policy altogether, the Conservatives pledged to continue steadily to roll it out.

Pauline Hinchion from the Greens said the policy is wrong, based on austerity, not aligned with the Smith Commission and branded its roll out in Scotland a “dogs dinner” due to its association with the devolved issue of housing.

SNP’s Chris Law said his party will argue for 100 per cent home rule of welfare policy and pledged to scrap both Universal Credit and the ‘bedroom tax’.

Nicola Ross from the Conservatives admitted that the policy is very complex and said she was open to explore the option for direct rent payments to be made to landlords for the most vulnerable tenants. However she added that it forms a major part of welfare reform and was here to stay.

More interestingly, Michael Marra said Labour would continue with some form of Universal Credit because the policy has its merits and can work “if delivered humanely”. He conceded that there is a lot to learn from the pilots, which he said had been “a shambles”, but that housing benefit would go some way to clarify the situation once it is fully devolved.

The next question asked the candidates to spell out how their party would financially deliver an increase the supply of affordable homes.

The Conservatives said that money used from people being able to buy their own homes can go towards building smaller homes which are more representative of the population, something which would also alleviate the bedroom tax.

Labour said it would pay for more homes by moving the current housing spend “away from benefits and onto bricks”. Marra said it was a scandal that 95 per cent of housing spend is on welfare with only 5 per cent spent on new homes. Labour would also push hard to get people off housing benefit by raising wages, set up an ISA for first time buyers and introduce a ‘use it or lose it’ land provision to increase supply.

SNP’s Chris Law agreed that some kind of land reform was needed and that the issue was high on his party agenda. His party said it would raise money to invest in 100,000 new affordable homes per year by increasing public spending and scrapping trident. Law said there would also be £30 million of ring-fenced cash to help SMEs fund smaller developments.

Daniel Coleman said the Liberal Democrats would bring in a housing investment bank to provide capital for building 300,000 new decent homes in the UK each year and pledged to stop all forms of tax evasion and avoidance as well as initiating a ‘Help to Rent’ scheme.

Finally the Green party’s Pauline Hinchion said it would replace council tax with a land value tax and scrap buy to let tax relief to build more social housing. Hinchion called for housing benefit to be fully devolved to develop a cohesive housing policy and said the Greens would work to bring derelict and unused buildings back into use as housing.

The candidates clashed again on the issue of rent controls in the private rented sector (PRS). Labour said it would cap “excessive” rent rises as part of an array of policies to assist private tenants though the Conservatives argued that rent controls would only lead to poorer housing standards. This brought a swift retort from the Greens’ Pauline Hinchion who said the reality is that buy-to-let is already heavily incentivised and warned that without rent controls the PRS could witness a “pension revolution” with thousands of people become landlords in their retirement because of the massive potential financial gains.

When asked whether their party would back a cut of VAT on housing renovation and repairs from 20 per cent to 5 per cent, the SNP and Lib Dems said they would be in favour of the move while Labour and Conservatives argued against it. The Greens said the policy is regressive and hits poorer people most but that there was a case to be made for it to be limited to housing associations.

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