Gina Davidson: Building blocks for better future

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IT’S easy to miss the news during the festive season. There’s little time to read an actual newspaper when trying to recall where you hid the jolly reindeer wrapping paper for Santa’s presents is top of the must-do list.

So it was great, almost, to be back at work, catching up on the news events of the last week and actually discovering something amid the usual astrological nonsense which could make this new year a much happier place for many people – if it works.

We live in a country which seems to be, according to the TV channels, obsessed with our homes: doing them up, making things for them a la Kirsty Allsopp, or watching other people build new, and ever grander, homes. I too am glued to programmes presented by Sarah Beeney (and her yo-yo-ing pregnant belly) Kevin McCloud (reciting the Grand Design prayer of don’t be hateful, don’t be hateful before each episode) and George Clarke (don’t cry George, please don’t cry) be it in his Restoration Man guise or his doing-up-the-caravan costume.

Yet at the same time as DIY home shows litter our televisions, growing numbers of people are either homeless or have little prospect of ever owning their own homes. It is one of the biggest ironies in our society – along with the obesity trend and TV’s focus on cooking and healthy eating.

But it was on television that an extremely important issue was finally aired. The Great British Property Scandal, again fronted by Clarke, launched a campaign to get the 300,000 or so empty homes across Britain back into use, rather than knocking down perfectly viable homes or focusing solely on building new homes at vast expense and blowing up the property bubble once again.

It’s a campaign which is proving relatively successful – but more importantly it’s one which can look to Scotland for some real results, courtesy of Shelter, Cosla and the Scottish Government’s collaboration in setting up the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership. It was this body which last week welcomed the announcement of more than £1 million government cash to help empty private homes in Edinburgh and the Lothians be brought back into use for homeless families.

The cash will help private landlords renovate vacant properties as long as they are made available as affordable housing for the homeless, for at least five years.

Furthermore the Scottish Government has also announced that anyone who loses their home “through no fault of their own” is now entitled to settled accomodation – rather than being moved from one temporary home to another – as well as an extra £300,000 to councils over two years to go towards homeless prevention.

For anyone already without a home or teetering on the brink of losing theirs due to unemployment, rent increases or family breakdown, it’s welcome news. For anyone who believes that having a roof over your head to feel safe and secure is a natural right, these measures are also to be cheered. And given that, according to Shelter Scotland, it costs £6000 to £25,000 to refurbish an empty home for rent compared £100,000 to construct a new build – while an empty home also costs in the region of £7000 in council tax and security – it sounds like good news for taxpayers too.

But let’s not get carried away. While a million pounds to help bring empty houses back into use might seem a cost-effective way of eradicating a blight on many communities in the Lothians – nothing attracts trouble like an empty – putting the cash into private landlords’ pockets with only a five-year promise of an “affordable” rent doesn’t feel quite right.

It’s definitely going in the right direction, but perhaps this year, the Scottish Goverment could look at strengthening its regulation of the private rental market – which has already seen landlords having to be licensed and meet certain standards when it comes to repairs – by perhaps investigating the possibility of regulating rents in terms of size, condition and location of housing.

Not that it should tell landlords how much they should charge exactly, but give some parameters which would ensure there’s a more even playing field, and that landlords’ pockets are not being lined by taxpayers’ money through housing benefit.

Or it could step up its very welcome council house building programmes which could provide increasing competition to the private market and in turn make rents more affordable all round. After all interest rates seem set to remain low, so borrowing to build could well be an option.

A successful housing market, which should ultimately eradicate homelessness, means there must be more choice of provision – rental properties, owned properties and not-for-profit properties – so housing needs can be met without a political narrow-minded focus on one over the other. A successful housing market should mean that decent rental accommodation shouldn’t be left lying empty and it should also mean there’s no slight attached to living in a rented home – be it council or private.

Perhaps 2013 will be the year when housing becomes an issue to be spoken of with pride, when homelessness becomes something which becomes increasingly rare. Wouldn’t that be a good new year?