Questions for Scottish Housing after a ‘yes’ vote

by Ken Gibb

I have not yet read the White Paper (I suspect like many). I have read the short version and many post publication blogs. These have focused on the big questions regarding the currency, the EU and the policy pledges offered in the light of a ‘yes’ vote e.g. augmenting childcare support to encourage work.

Despite its centrality to our lives, housing does not feature much in these debates (welfare reform excepting). You might well argue that this is because it is devolved and indeed has featured prominently in the law and policy innovation we have seen since 1999. But of course, significant aspects of the housing system are reserved to Westminster and any debate about how the world will work after a vote for independence should factor these undoubted complexities into the calculation.

I am not taking a line here with respect to either camp. As with economic and fiscal policy controversies, voters need to confront the issues and evidence on the questions that to matter to them in a coherent and systematic way and it is clearly important that major sectors like housing are understood in their entirety and not partially. I have argued before that housing can be conceived of as something of a ‘wicked’ problem that defies simple definition, analysis and policy solution. This will be the case whatever the constitutional outcome. But at least the referendum affords a rare opportunity to have widespread public engagement and debate on these types of fundamental policy challenges.

The current situation is that key aspects of housing taxation are reserved (e.g. capital gains and inheritance). The regulation of mortgage finance is reserved (and the sector is fundamentally a UK level and indeed international marketplace). The benefits system, so fundamental to housing policy & practice, is reserved and the seat of so much current controversy (I read someone saying that the ‘bedroom tax’ is mentioned 38 times in the White Paper). There are also of course UK wide initiatives like Help to Buy.

Scotland’s social housing is increasingly characterised by cross-border ownership and group structures (and I declare an interest in being involved in one of them as a board member) and there is actually no reason to conclude that this will always be one way traffic from England to Scotland.

Scotland has done much that is innovative in recent years – from homelessness legislation, Right to Buy policy, early adapting to guarantees and council house building, to name four examples. And, equally, this policy divergence happened without independence.

Housing is owned by the majority in Scotland and asset-based welfare, rightly or wrongly, is increasingly important. We do have our distinctive ‘free’ personal care system but of course it is not deep enough to avoid the problems that arise with housing assets and the market failures surrounding the funding of long term care. Much of the Dilnott Commission was to me right on the money (though I do not think they found a credible way to incentivise personal savings to support care costs in later life). Any future Scottish settlement needs to address this most fundamental of issues.

So what might be a reasonable set of housing sector questions to debate over the next 10 months? Those supporting the status quo could also replace the word independent in the questions below with ‘devolved’.

1. Would an independent Scotland use tax powers to seek to stabilise the housing market?
2. Assuming the bedroom tax is in the future abolished, what would an independent Scotland do to reform fundamentally Housing Benefit, Universal Credit and support for those struggling to pay mortgages?
3. How would an independent Scotland work with rUK authorities to regulate the mortgage market (and seek to moderate its excessively cyclical nature, much of it of course originating outside of Scotland)?
4. How will new housing supply be supported to provide a stable and higher level of long term new housing across tenures? For instance, what can be done to encourage long term large scale investment in private renting?
5. Post-indepdendence, can resources for non-market housing be planned over at least a five year period and matched to housing need locally and nationally – and can it be afforded, if not, how much can?
6. Would an independent Scotland advance a Dilnott plus package for funding long term care in Scotland?