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Opinion: Adam Lang

16 March 15

The impact of housing and housing needs has been neglected to date in the debate on land reform, according to Shelter Scotland, but should be at the heart of it

by Adam Lang

Our collective relationship with Scotland’s land is absolutely key to how each and every one of us sets up and makes a home. Currently, long council house waiting lists, young families paying high private rents in unsecure accommodation, and new house building falling well short of current and future demand, all point to a broken housing system. That is why the focus of land reform should be set squarely on how we can improve the housing situation of Scotland’s most vulnerable people.

Housing is by far the major form of land use in Scotland: there are 1.46 million owner-occupied homes in Scotland, 99,000 empty or second dwellings, 368,000 homes in the private rented sector, 277,000 rented from housing associations and 318,000 rented from local authorities. The largest aspect of land value is tied up in our homes: an estimated £325 billion in 2014, more than double Scotland’s GDP. As recent history has shown, an unstable and volatile housing market can lead to dire consequences in the rest of the economy – regionally, nationally and globally.

Another part of this picture is the negative effect the pressures being exerted on Scotland’s housing system are having on the wellbeing of Scotland’s population. There are more than 150,000 people on local authority housing waiting lists across Scotland. In 2012-13, 36,457 people made homeless applications and 29,326 people were assessed as homeless by local authorities. There were 10,308 households in temporary accommodation as at September 2014, with 2,662 of these containing children. These are not signs of a stable, secure housing system capable of providing everyone in Scotland with a good quality and affordable home.

This is why we warmly welcome the Scottish Government’s renewed focus on land reform. The commitment to the diversification of landownership in Scotland, the intention to provide clear, publicly available information on the ownership of land, and increasing community ownership are all positive initiatives that the Scottish Government should pursue. Central to the land reform agenda should be an ambition to reduce inequality and increase the wellbeing of everyone in Scotland. To achieve this, it is essential that the Scottish Government focus its attention in this area on housing.

We have seen the beginnings of this reflected in recent Scottish Government policy initiatives – such as the recent consultation on proposals to give private tenants additional security of tenure – which shows why we should cast the net of land reform as broadly as possible. We should ask big questions as part of the land reform process, and set out to address the stark need for good-quality affordable housing in Scotland and stabilise the housing market across all tenures.

Could innovative reforms to the taxation of land and property stabilise house prices and take the heat out of the market for land? A property-based tax has the potential to play an important role in moderating house price increases and addressing some of the affordability pressures in Scotland’s housing market. Young people, for example, are increasingly priced out of home ownership and being pushed into the expensive private rented sector. This is an issue that should be addressed head-on by the Scottish Government’s commission on local tax reform. We have long argued that tenants in the private sector should see their property rights modernised and strengthened, and be given the right to stay in their homes for as long as they need. We should also consider how we might best make use of the property currently available in Scotland – giving local authorities additional powers to bring empty properties back into use.

This is just a starting point and, while we don’t currently have all the answers, we do know what our ambitions should be. These are issues that a land reform commission independent of government should take up and explore. Land reform, after all, is a process and one that should consider radical solutions to our country’s housing crisis.

Adam Lang is Head of Communications and Policy, Shelter Scotland

Sources: Scottish Government statistics; Savills UK on estimated housing values

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