Housing chief highlights difficulty over funding
By RYAN TAYLOR
THE HOUSING service must “jump through hoops” to qualify for Scottish government funding to build new council homes.
Head of housing Chris Medley said Shetland would do well to secure a share of a £25 million package launched by the nationalist administration this week.
Health secretary Nicola Sturgeon announced the package back in April, however it has taken until this week for the government to reach an agreement with Cosla on the funding criteria for councils.
It is hoped the move will kick start a new generation of council house building, following a dearth of new builds across the country in recent years.
In 2006/07, only six council homes were built across the whole of Scotland – the first to go up since 2003. That contrasts with 1980, when there were 5,048 completions.
Minister for communities and sport Stewart Maxwell said the funding would help “reverse decades of decline in council house building”.
All local authorities are being invited to apply for a share, but Mr Medley said it was by no means certain Shetland would benefit from the funding.
He said the council had little time to ensure it could meet the strict criteria necessary to secure the money.
“On the face of it it’s encouraging the Scottish government is recognising that local authorities can be part of the solution.
“But I’m not, at this stage, getting excited about the £25 million, because behind the offer is a whole heap of criteria we would have to meet.
“There are lots of hoops to jump through, and three pages of criteria we would have to adhere to. We’d have to demonstrate we could meet all those criteria, and get it all back to them by January 12th.”
Even if a share is allocated the council would have to secure much of the building costs itself.
Under the government guidelines, the maximum allocation will be restricted to £25,000 per council house, meaning the SIC would have to find the remainder of the money necessary to make up the difference.
“While I would welcome any opportunity to apply for funding, it doesn’t follow we would get some of this.”
“We’ve got to make sure that the plans are well developed. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it’s going to be very difficult.
“We know we are desperate for houses and we will do all we can to bid for whatever money is available, whether we are successful or not will depend on what happens afterwards.”
He poured scorn on the government’s plans to help housing by abolishing the right to buy, adding it was only abolishing the right to buy new houses.
“At the moment the number of new houses councils are building is zero. If they were talking about the full, unqualified abolition of right to buy they’d get my support 100 per cent, because I consider that to be the root cause of the national housing crisis.
“By just tinkering with it they are not helping at all. At this moment it doesn’t make any difference.”
Mr Medley said the council could apply for “pressured area status” which would automatically abolish right to buy.
But he warned that would only apply to tenancies after 2003. Given that most of the SIC’s tenants have been in council homes since before then, it would have little impact.
His comments follow the news the credit crunch has added new pressure to the SIC’s waiting list – already standing at 1,000 – as a growing number of people default on their mortgages and turn to the council for help.
The authority is already bracing itself for an influx of tenants when new homeless legislation is introduced.
Earlier this year the Scottish government called for all homeless applicants to be entitled to a roof over their heads by 2012.
That led Mr Medley to label the council the “landlord of last resort” as it prepares to cater entirely for people classed as homeless.
Proposals were later unveiled to build 200 new houses in Lerwick’s Staneyhill as part of a major effort to drive down waiting list numbers.
Last month SIC convener Sandy Cluness said the council was failing in its responsibility to provide adequate housing for people struggling to put a roof over their heads.
Speaking at a summit of the community planning partnership, he said the shortfall could be behind a recent drop in Shetland’s population figures.