Time for a grown-up conversation about how to help solve Scotland’s housing crisis

Andrew McFarlane

By Andrew McFarlane, a consultant in the Glasgow North office of DM Hall Chartered Surveyors and a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators

Housing has risen up the political agenda once again and, as happens with most politically sensitive subjects, the debate about it has immediately become rancorous and ultimately unproductive.

The irony is that there is a general, across-the board-agreement that, faced with a rapidly rising population, Scotland needs to do something about the chronic lack of decent and affordable housing stock.

Nicola Barclay, the chief executive of Homes for Scotland – widely seen as a builders’ and developers’ lobby group – put the cat among the pigeons recently when she said that Holyrood government’s target of 50,000 new affordable homes is damaging private sector growth.

She said that her organisation’s view was that a focus on affordable and social housing is exacerbating Scotland’s housing shortages, ignoring commercial realities and was not the only recipe for solving the looming housing crisis.

Immediately, she was condemned for being anti-social – that is, against the concept of social housing per se. She was accused of lobbying for the property developer model which is stigmatised as having fuelled the housing crisis in the first place.

Ben Wray, head of policy at Common Weal, claimed that Ms Barclay’s view on social housing was “aggressive lobbying” to extract more subsidies for private developers on top of the new subsidy for private sector build-to-rent.

In terms of a spat, it was all fairly predictable and ran along the lines we have come to expect when political considerations begin to intrude on what should be straightforward commercial transactions.

Ms Barclay was subsequently at pains to point out that focusing on one element of the market to the exclusion of others will not, of itself, solve the problem. The 50,000 target, she insisted, can only be met with the help of a healthy and profitable private sector.

Speaking from my long experience with DM Hall, my role as Chair of the Judging Panel for the Herald Property Awards for Scotland and a non-executive director for a registered social landlord, I am convinced of one thing: the issue will not be resolved by fighting over it.

We can all agree on the root of the problem: Scotland needs more housing. The number of properties started in Scotland was down again on the previous year and completions were 36% down on 2007 and below 2010.

First-time buyers need an average deposit of more than £21,000 to get on the first rung of the Scottish housing ladder, typically around 16% of the purchase price. It is little wonder they are called Generation Rent.

But Ms Barclay is right in one major aspect – no one part of the house building sector can provide for all the different requirements demanded by an increasingly diverse and financially disparate society.

Collaboration is greatly to be desired among interested parties. We should not lose sight of the fact that there is considerable cross-sector work going on at the moment, but there is little doubt that there could be more of it, and better.

Another thing we should all be able to agree on is that there is more to be gained by collaboration than by conflict. We have to step back from knee-jerk reactions and try to see the points of view of other participants in the debate for what they are.

There is a generation of young people coming through at the moment who are sceptical about the possibility of ever being able to afford their own homes.

An open and mature debate is required from people with the relevant experience and expertise in the field to find solutions which will satisfy everyone.

Trading insults is not going to help.