Painful cuts to new social housing budget - Ewan Aitken

I spent Christmas Eve 1993 in Nazareth. It was a wonderful evening of parades and music, a celebration involving the Christian and Muslim communities along with the Communist mayor. People of faith and no faith enjoying each other’s company and respecting each other’s views.
Poor quality housing is a blight on our societyPoor quality housing is a blight on our society
Poor quality housing is a blight on our society

I had found the same sense of common life being more important than difference when I visited Bethlehem a few days earlier.

Thirty years later, Bethlehem and Nazareth are silent this Christmas Eve. Celebrations are cancelled because of the war in Gaza. It’s hard to find hope when 1.9 million people – 80% of the population - in Gaza are homeless and families all over Israel wait in fear for the lives of those still taken hostage. There seems little sign of the war abating, although a ceasefire would be a good start.

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Watching from afar here in Edinburgh the overwhelming sense I have is one of utter powerlessness. The situation seems so intractable and those involved seems so far apart that peace appears a long way off.

At the same time, there is also much to be concerned about on our own doorstep. Homelessness is increasing and more people are tipping into poverty. They may not be experiencing war, but their struggles are still deeply painful.

The Scottish Budget, itself created in difficult times, went some way to recognised this. Investments in social security benefits payments, continued delivery of free school meals for P1-P5 children and extending them to P6 and P7 children in receipt of Scottish Child Payment whilst also allocating £1.5m to local authorities to cancel school meal debt are all things to be thankful for. As is continued support for the Ending Homelessness Together Plan.

But tragically there are huge cuts in money to build new homes. At a time when we are year on year missing our targets for social housing, support for new social housing has been cut by 26%. I know these are tough times but with 5000 households (that’s about around 8000 adults and children) in temporary accommodation in Edinburgh, this was a time to be brave in a crisis. Instead, we have a short-term saving with a long-term human as well as financial cost. Taxing those who can pay more is the right thing to do but that’s contradicted by the freezing of council tax which is spending money on the well off and undermines local democracy.

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I am sympathetic to the challenges our politicians face in creating this budget. The competing pressures will have been enormous. There are limits on the decisions they can take. But they still are making choices and they must be prepared to “own” them and be held accountable for them, even if the context in which they were made is not entirely of their making. That is a mark of authentic leadership.

The nativity story is about fragile hope in dark times. A promise of change kept in the arrival of a child in a borrowed outhouse to a family made refugees in their own land. Both in that child’s birthplace and here at home, I hope the coming new year will bring new light into these difficult times, no matter how fragile. It is the gift we all need to see us through.

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