As someone who has lived long enough in Scotland to know better than get excited about summer, I have transferred my affection to autumn and get particularly excited when the leaves start changing and there are satsumas in the shops.
What’s not to love? Wintery walks, cosy pub lunches, excuses to stay in when it’s freezing cold and pouring with rain, I could go on, but the very best thing about autumn is the publication of the Scottish Government’s draft budget.
No, no, hear me out. Nothing creates the storm of confusion, the debate and the frantic use of calculators in the Shelter Scotland office that the publication of the budget does. In two weeks my colleague Gordon MacRae will give evidence at the Scottish Parliament’s Infrastructure and Capital Investment (ICI) Committee on the draft budget, and particularly what the implications are for affordable housing in Scotland. This means detailed scrutiny of the numbers and an attempt to reconcile a series of one year and three year budgets with annual, three yearly and ‘lifetime of the parliament’ affordable housing-building targets…and that’s just for starters.
Clearly, managing a Scottish Government budget that is in the region of £33 billion is trickier than the management of my personal finances (admittedly mine is a slightly smaller pot) but the principles are the same. You have certain ‘fixed’ costs that are allocated before you even get the money. For Joe Public that might mean rent/mortgage payments, bills, charges etc. For the Scottish Government that means around £9,124 million for running the NHS and Special Health Boards, £179 million on learning, £364.5 million on the Scottish Prison Service and so on and so forth. But then, in the same way I might decide to book a holiday, eat out or even save some money from what’s left, let’s not forget that the Scottish Government too has choices on how they divide up the pot.
That’s why we were pleasantly surprised to see an additional £40 million being allocated towards the affordable housing budget in this year’s announcement. With an acute shortage of affordable – particularly socially rented – housing across Scotland, this is one pot of money that really must be protected. There are currently more than 157,000 people on council waiting list for a home and there are over 5,000 children living in temporary housing.
Last year over 35,000 people were homeless across Scotland. So even by these fairly crude measures, we get a picture of the scale of housing need.
But what we also know is that the population and number of households is projected to increase significantly over the next 10 years and we are simply not building enough houses.
So back to the budget. According to our furious calculations, the Scottish Government has assigned in the region of £770 million for affordable housing across the 3 year spending review period (2012/13 – 2014/15). At the same time there is a commitment to build around 6,000 affordable homes annually (so around 18,000 in total). So far, so good but that’s a cash terms cut of 45% on the previous three year period, which delivered around 22,000 affordable houses. Something doesn’t quite add up.
‘Show your working’ was a mantra drilled into me at school. Well. I’m trying. But the lack of transparency around the budget makes that nigh on impossible. Each year the categories changes, the allocations are moved around and the waters definitely get murkier. We are yet to see the detail that may well explain the delivery plan for actual, real homes underneath these headline figures.
But it may not. And does it matter? What really matters is that we put in place the strategic plans to deliver enough housing for Scotland’s growing population and those households in acute housing need. Building homes must be a political priority, since having a warm, safe houses impacts on health, wealth and life chances. If the Scottish Government wants to build a ‘wealthier, fairer, smarter, healthier’ Scotland, they must start with building houses.
Of course there are budget pressures in every central and local government department in the country. Of course, everyone feels their priorities are most worthy of investment. But there are choices. The £770 million bill for the Edinburgh trams proves that.