Housing and Wellbeing – blueprints and more

by Ken Gibb

Earlier today I was part of a report launch jamboree in Edinburgh. This was the official presentation of the Commission on Housing and Wellbeing: A Blueprint for Scotland’s Future. This has been a two year programme of work supported by, but independent of, Shelter Scotland. I have been a research consultant to the project team throughout, tried to input into discussion and provide briefings, attended all the commission meetings and thoroughly enjoyed the process throughout.

The Commission was chaired and led by Bob Black. Bob has been a great colleague and a quietly dynamic figure keeping the process both moving forward and energised throughout. My project team colleagues Richard Grant and Paul Bradley were also a pleasure to work with throughout, as was everyone at Shelter Scotland. The members of the Commission were drawn from far and wide and only in one case had an explicitly housing-based career or expertise. This made for quite fundamental and first principle discussions, which were often daunting. I enjoyed talking through the diagnosis and the proposals with the commissioners greatly and will retain for a long time the particular challenge that Phil Hanlon gave us to be clear, succinct and unambiguous about how we characterised problems we perceived, understood and explained transmission mechanisms and potential solutions.

The launch involved presentations, ideas, Q&A and a keynote speech from the Cabinet Secretary, Alex Neil. The main messages I left with were, first, that there is considerable support for the thrust of the report and its proposals from Government and from the minister in particular. Second the report was a common sense call to arms that sought to place housing as a priority because of its wider preventative benefits to health, education, community and employment. Third, a focus on well-being is useful precisely because it makes us think about housing as home, as something inter-temporal and intergenerational that is at the heart of our neighbourhoods and places. Fourth, there are some grounds for optimism that will not just sit on the shelves alongside other worthy and less worthy times. We think this because of its obvious resonance and good timing with Government but also because it is likely to feature strongly in the forward Shelter Scotland strategy. There is also a specific future actions plan in the report itself

We had a question and answer session at the end and I had a chance to reheat some favourite themes: insider-outsiders in the housing market acting in self interest in opposition to long term and succeeding generations; rising house prices are not good things per se but the outcome of insiders capturing the political ground without considering the wider housing system; and, of course, the need for long term consensus to affect required policy transition e.g. from demand to supply subsidy systems.

The report has fully 47 recommendations but within them 18 ‘priorities’. These include:

1. Notional annual new supply target of 23,000 units until we have a better sense of needs and demand estimates.
2. Increase the social and affordable housing supply target from 6,000 to 9,000 a year, which would cost indicatively about an extra £160 million (net).
3. Mid market rental programme should be opened up to private landlords.
4. Community anchors should be established in all housing renewal areas and areas where there are demonstrable problems with the local neighbourhood.
5. Effective partnership arrangements should be worked out and implemented at the neighbourhood level.
6. The Scottish Government should implement an improved property tax. A land value tax should be introduced either nationally or locally as well, perhaps to replace LBTT – but could readily seek to be revenue-neural overall.
7. RICS Scotland proposals on a land agency for Scotland should be progressed, as should their proposals for more effective land supply.
8. The Scottish Government could provide more resources for housing services such as handyman tasks for the elderly. The Government should also move ahead with the rationalisation of the funding of adaptations.
9. The Scottish Government should review the funding requirements for the 2030 milestone for delivering a step change in the provision of energy efficient homes. Regulations requiring owners to insulate their homes should play a part in achieving the necessary improvements in insulation standards.
10. The Scottish Government should establish an independent advisory body, chaired by the minister, to annually review housing system outcomes and performance reporting to the Parliament against wellbeing objectives (and linked directly and centrally to the Scottish Government’s national outcomes framework).

There has been a bit of a media blitz today but the real test will be how this work influences and challenges government in the months to come. The Cabinet Secretary was encouraging about supply and thinking systemically about housing. But we will see.

Personally, I have greatly enjoyed this process over the last two years, especially meeting and working with such interesting people. It has required a different set of techniques and challenges to what I am used to in the traditional research project environment. On the other hand, it is this kind of input that is increasingly what I do as part of What Works Scotland and also within the knowledge exchange world of Policy Scotland. So, all in all, it has been a good time to be involved in such an undertaking.