Iain Macwhirter Iain Macwhirter

Everything is an emergency after SNP rule

First Minister John Swinney (Credit: Getty Images)

After nearly 17 years in office the Scottish government has finally accepted the truth: it is incompetent. It has declared a National Housing Emergency – effectively a vote of no confidence in itself. ‘Honest’ First Minister John Swinney has thrown up his hands and said: it’s a fair cop, in anticipation of the Scottish parliament passing a Labour motion to the same effect this afternoon. The ‘emergency’ doesn’t actually commit the Scottish government to doing anything specific, but it is clearly an unprecedented admission of failure.

The ‘emergency’ doesn’t actually commit the Scottish government to doing anything

Perhaps Honest John should now declare a health emergency, since NHS waiting lists have hit 700,000. Or a drugs death emergency since mortality figures, already the worst in Europe have gone up again by 10 per cent.

It is a novel way to govern, it has to be said. After all, the Scottish government is admitting to being negligent, over many years, in addressing ‘one of the defining issues of our generation’ as the social justice secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville called it on BBC radio this morning. Shelter Scotland say almost 10,000 children are currently without a home. This is surely a dereliction of duty as well as a breach of successive election promises.

But such candour is risky. The Scottish government is arguably breaking the law because, since 2003, homeless people in Scotland have had a legal right to a permanent home. The law states that ‘anyone finding themselves homeless through no fault of their own must be entitled to settled accommodation in a local authority or housing association tenancy or a private rental’.

The Scottish government can hardly say it hasn’t had enough time to honour this legal obligation. Perhaps some homeless families should crowd-fund Jolyon Maugham’s Good Law Project to take the Scottish government to court for misfeasance in public office. Or then again, perhaps not.

Of course, it’s all Westminster’s fault. Somerville will call today on all parties in Holyrood to ‘unite with one voice’ against the UK government’s ‘austerity’ which had led to cuts in the Scottish capital budget. But as the UK government pointed out today, Scotland gets 25 per cent more funding per person than equivalent spending in other parts of the UK. This is because of the continued beneficence of the much-maligned Barnett formula, currently standing at £41 billion a year. The Scottish government needs to explain why there is a housing emergency here and not in other less generously funded regions of England.

It’s all about ‘priorities’, added Shirley-Anne Somerville on the BBC, saying that the opposition parties now have a responsibility to say where the money would come from to promote the building of homes to rent. Indeed it is a question of priorities. To govern is to choose and the Scottish government chose to cut the affordable housing budget by 26 per cent in the recent budget. The then finance secretary, Shona Robison, chose ‘active travel’ – cycle lanes and bollards – over Scottish peoples’ legal rights to a home. The opposition parties are calling on Swinney to reverse that cut and find a way to boost housing starts in Scotland.

Somerville’s solution, apart from setting up yet another ‘housing investment task force’ is to introduce a freeze on private rents in the forthcoming housing bill. But this will only make matters worse, since rent controls invariably reduce housing supply. On cue, today’s Herald newspaper reports the Scottish Property Federation, saying that Scotland stands to miss out on £4.5 billion in private sector housing investment, and 17,000 construction jobs, over the next decade because of the proposed bill to freeze rents for five years. They would say that perhaps. However, the collapse of the build-to-rent sector in Scotland is blindingly obvious in every big city centre where the only thing being built is student accommodation. There has been an effective private investment strike in Scotland since the Green-SNP coalition imposed rent controls during the pandemic.

Perhaps the Scottish government should be done with it and just announce a National Financial Emergency

What about local authorities doing their bit? Well, Scottish councils have just announced a £500 million cut in their budget as a result of the Scottish government’s council tax freeze and the recent public sector pay awards. So don’t expect any house building from them. Indeed, the housing crisis is only the latest manifestation of the Scottish government’s ever deepening fiscal crisis as it desperately searches for money to pay for its social programmes.

The BBC’s Good Morning Scotland programme is now a daily clamour from lobby groups demanding more cash for housing, social care, drug rehab, poverty, domestic abuse, transgender clinics and countless other demands on the Scottish tax payer, who already pays more in income tax than in England. Just today, child poverty campaigners are calling for the Scottish Child Payment currently £25 a week to go up to £40 – this in addition, of course, to child benefit. The Scottish Child Payment has already risen from £59 million in 2019 to nearly £500 million. And don’t even mention the health service where a record number of Scots are being forced to go private to avoid having to wait up to five years to have their hips and knees sorted.

Perhaps the Scottish government should be done with it and just announce a National Financial Emergency. It has over successive years, grossly mismanaged the relatively generous fiscal transfers from the UK government, and Scotland’s higher taxes, by making unfunded spending promises to every special interest in the country. And they can’t blame all that on Liz Truss.

Written by
Iain Macwhirter

Iain Macwhirter is a former BBC TV presenter and was political commentator for The Herald between 1999 and 2022. He is an author of Road to Referendum and Disunited Kingdom: How Westminster Won a Referendum but Lost Scotland.

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