Monday 22 June 2015

Can We Have Affordable, Beneficial Housing in Scotland?

I think we can, but we need improve its associated costs while we’re about it.

The sad thing is it needn’t take public money, just public and political will. The pride it can engender, the ‘we can’ mentality could also be another incremental stepping stone towards a ‘yes’ in the next referendum.

We, the Scots, need to quite literally ‘get off our behookies’ and light a fire under our politicians. It’s irrelevant as to who those politicians are, they need prodded into action.

The first thing to understand is that housing, like anything, follows a supply and demand value structure. The second thing to understand is that a great deal of that value structure is dependent upon the pricing of land, which I’ll deal with later. The second part of the equation to create affordable housing is obviously directly related to increasing the market supply.

It’s really not that hard to do, but….

For now, the one big thing I have to ask is why folk are so scared?

For many of them they’re so scared they don’t even think, can’t even allow themselves to think of the obvious solution?

I’m referring them to building their own home.

I’ve talked to lots of folk, their foremost thought is where they can afford to buy and will they get a mortgage?

I can’t recall anyone who initially said “I’d like to build….but” – it has in point of fact become something of an alien concept, building a house. If you discuss the subject there are all sorts of objections thrown up – like buying land, building costs and then, for many, actually getting planning permission, hooking up sewers, power, light, streets. It’s all seen as something only government or ‘big builders or investors’ can or should do.

I hear and see the SNP encouraging immigration, they say Scotland needs people, and I’ve got to agree with that. My question is where are we going to put them without driving up house prices and creating another false ‘bubble’ that in the end will burst while still mostly benefiting the bankers, because, let’s face it, in the United Kingdom, banker’s rarely lose, even when they should be jailed for the human misery their greed so often creates.

Scotland needs housing – I don’t think anyone denies that.

Scotland’s government could draft a universally supported bill and pass the law which allows it to happen, for minimal cost. Land could be set aside, perhaps what’s known as ‘Brownfield’ land, or perhaps simply land that’s already in public ownership and meets certain criteria. (Land reform will be my next blog).

Our government could then set forward a competition with several architectural firms for home designs which are ‘uniquely and traditionally Scots’ in both design and build, homes which won’t be ‘just Barratt-boxes’, but places folk will be proud to help build, create, develop or maintain. These plans should be free to anyone wishing to build, and subject to automatic planning approval at designated site locations. By doing that, much of the perceived obstacle is removed. It’d be good to limit these plans to single family or semi-detached and no more than two story. Ideally there’d be several plan options available for each classification. As codes and requirements change, so they’re updated.

Another big issue is financing; there’s absolutely no reason that the government can’t provide interest free construction loans to qualifying individuals for, perhaps, twelve months, renewable (for a set percentage) for two additional spans. Sometime during those three years you’ll have to convert to a conventional mortgage, so you’d better be finished. If this was done, folk could live in their present homes without undue financial burden. There would simply be no re-payment due during the construction process – funds would be released after proof the last lot were used for the intended purpose.

A big issue is the infrastructure, that’s installed at present under the public purse, but unlike at present, some half of that cost could be re-collected when the home’s complete. It’s really not as much as folk imagine, often as little as one or two percent of the cost of the home. It’s simply rolled into the final mortgage amount.

Next, we need to look into population density. I have a husband that spent his later youth in Livingston, he could only describe it as ‘soul destroying’, so densely packed were the houses. I’ve come to understand that it’s even in decisions like that the pervasive ‘too wee, too poor, too stupid’ is re-enforced, albeit subliminally. Force folk into what is in effect a commune and there is every chance you may destroy aspiration. Some will rise above it, not as many as should or could though. Imagine if we simply passed a law with two small considerations; that no home may be within ten meters of a boundary line, and that no window may look directly into that of another home within fifty meters. Effectively you’d ensure that homes were built on a staggered plan. Scots would feel they’d room to breathe. To see the sky, to expand their horizons with quite substantial ancillary benefits

In an advanced and wealthy nation like ours, these things shouldn’t be that difficult. When it comes to implementing this, there’d be challenges. Nevertheless I can’t accept that Scots can’t beat those challenges. For example the government itself, as part of the act, could set up a central hub for folk to register for these places. The government could underwrite the loans, and penalties could be severe for misuse. Folk who’s circumstances change, or who walk away simply lose the investment made, which could be as low as 5% funding lodged in an escrow account.

These communities can rebuild Scotland’s heart, a heart so wounded for so many by a recent referendum result, and they could truly do it if we abandon London’s egocentric, selfish and destructively capitalistic ways by limiting their size to perhaps a thousand homes, codifying a need for a mile or two of green-space between them and limiting the floor-space of any retail establishment to perhaps a hundred meters square, which could be very advantageously taxed, with penalties severely imposed on a sliding scale above that. We need to level the playing field between big corporate and the corner shop. Our new communities have to protect our independent trades-folk, for example the local butcher, simply being swallowed up by ‘Asda’ or ‘Morrison’s’, then discovering themselves unemployed on some future day through ‘corporate adjustments’. We can plan our new developments as we plan the future of our communal ‘high streets’.

If we focus on what we can do, with the powers we now have, we can rebuild the heart of Scotland’s communities, we can be a shining light, we can house any who need it. Like the next referendum, the changes required for a ‘win’ won’t happen overnight, but the can happen if we will it. They can also help to prepare the way for that future victory.

We do need more powers in Edinburgh because not all of those we’ve won so far are unusable.


  1. I have been reading your posts from a far but this post is dear to me. I'd just like to point out that at the time of the Union, the population of Scots was 20% of that of the English. Today, there should have been 10 million Scots in Scotland. Before the Clearance, 20% of the population were living in the Highlands and Islands. There should be 2 million Scots there today. This summed up Scotland's population deficit.

    You have rightly pointed the housing crisis. Two books I bought when I was in Scotland were Andy Wightman's The Poor Had No Lawyers and Lesley Riddoch's Blossom. These books succinctly covered the existential problem(s) of Scotland and suggested a lot of groundbreaking solutions. In this particular post, land reform I believe is urgently necessary. Free the land and the people will disperse back to the long forgotten corners of formerly inhabited Scotland. Return back all the lot lands.

    In Blossom, somebody stated to Ms Riddoch, "I am living IN it, not FROM it". This lack of sense of belonging must be eradicated.

  2. I Hi again Hazel,
    I was very pleased to see your article as one of my children and her partner are currently hoping to self-build for their next home. The immediate hurdle is to obtain a suitable piece of land. I will pass a copy of your article to them.

    I have read your conclusion as “We do need more powers in Edinburgh because not all of those we’ve won so far are usable”, which is perhaps what was intended although the conclusion as presented is, of course technically, of the same meaning.

    On a separate matter; when I took the liberty of posting another link to your site on Fb, this time on the Facebook page “We love Alex Salmond”, a map of Scotland appeared beside an introduction to your comments. Louise Hogg asked, “Why is most of the Borders painted a dull grey colour in that picture? Calum Kerr MP isn't grey, even his hair isn't grey, he doesn't even have hair to go grey”. The slight difference of colour is not immediately obvious on the small map on the site to my eyes.
    All the best

  3. Having spent most of my life in flats, small ones and slightly bigger ones, we now have a lovely two bedroom bungalow here in Fife. This in itself took some doing as normally builders shy away from these preferring to build five bedroom houses on the same bit of land. Fortunately our builder (a homegrown one), is building several of these, energy efficient and suitable not just for the elderly and or disabled but could accommodate a single person which is something badly needed considering how many people live alone these days. I have said for many years much of Scotland's ills are caused with too many of us living cheek by jowl in homes which have become noise boxes. Our last flat in Edinburgh was sold to us as a luxury, ahem, flat. Well not so much luxury when we needed to run a dehumidifier 24 hours a day and not so much a luxury that you could hear the people above you closing doors and opening and shutting wardrobes whilst you were sleeping. We too lived for a few years in Livingston and it was when we lived there still building, we were eventually in Dedridge but started off in Craigshill, now that place was not delightful and if your Husband lived there he has much of my sympathy, but coming from a Council house in Edinburgh the maisonette we had wasn't that bad and of course we were out working.
    I will mention, because it deserves a mention that the Scottish Government and Partners built a small amount of houses here in Dunfermline as a showcase as to what could be done. Many innovations were added, and they were built in different ways. Most have Solar or Photovoltaic cells and sun pipes and if not then heat exchangers. Unfortunately this small part of the estate had been over run with what I would say is the norm in Council housing. They have built a horrible load of flats at the entrance and completely destroyed the ambience which must have been a breath of fresh air for all who moved in first.