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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, June 7, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 07 June 2018

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Onshore Wind Energy (Community Benefit), Miners’ Strike (Impact of Policing on Communities), Hate Crime Legislation: Bracadale Review, Decision Time, Correction


General Question Time

Affordable Housing

1. Kate Forbes (Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government how many affordable homes will have been built between 2007 and 2021. (S5O-02197)

Between April 2007 and December 2017, a total of 72,462 affordable homes have been delivered; of that, 53,465 have been newly built. The next quarterly update, showing affordable housing completions for the whole of 2017-18, will be published on 12 June. Over the course of this parliamentary session, we fully expect to achieve our ambitious target of delivering over 50,000 affordable homes, 35,000 of which will be for social rent.

I whole-heartedly welcome that commitment. The minister will know how important affordable housing is in my constituency to everything else—jobs, education and even healthcare—and those figures are very impressive. Would the minister accept an invitation to my constituency to meet key stakeholders to discuss how the Government’s target and the Government’s previous successful building programme have enabled rural areas to grow?

Local authorities have the statutory requirement to produce a local housing strategy, which I know Ms Forbes will be aware of, and they need to set out their priorities in that. Over the course of the next few years, Highland Council will have been allocated over £184 million for affordable homes.

I would be absolutely delighted to accept Ms Forbes’s invitation to visit her constituency. I made a promise to visit to Lachie MacDonald of Lochalsh and Skye Housing Association when I met him recently in Kincardine in Fife. We will therefore arrange a visit, and I will be very pleased to visit Ms Forbes’s beautiful constituency.

In that spirit, I wonder whether the minister would like to visit my region with me and meet some of the stakeholders there. He cannot give an answer to that, but he can give one to my actual question. What analysis has the Government done of whether the money for affordable homes is being spent in areas of Scotland that are most in need of affordable homes? Further, what analysis has been done of the type of homes being built?

I am more than happy to visit any part of Scotland to see our affordable homes programme delivering for every part of Scotland. Mr Simpson has asked a comprehensive question about analysis. As he very well knows, I keep a close eye on what is being delivered across the country. If he wants to write to me with more specific questions about analysis, I will happily answer his points in that regard. However, as I have made very clear in the chamber on many occasions, I want our affordable housing programme to deliver for all of Scotland and I want local authorities to look at the areas where there are most needs and to deliver for communities across the board.

On people in need of affordable homes, is the minister aware that almost 10,000 disabled people are stuck on the waiting list for suitable affordable housing? With demand set to rise by 80 per cent over the next five years, will the Government reconsider setting targets for how many of the 50,000 new affordable homes must be disabled accessible?

I thank Ms Smith for her question, because it gives me the opportunity to reiterate what I said last week, which is that the Government has stated that in terms of subsidy for wheelchair-accessible and specialist housing, we will be flexible so that local authorities and housing associations can build to meet the needs of people in their areas. I do not want to set an arbitrary target, because it is up to local authorities to look at the needs and demands in their areas. Some local authorities, such as Angus Council—if I remember rightly—have set a target of 16 per cent of the housing that they deliver being wheelchair-accessible or specialist homes.

I want all local authorities to not only consider their housing needs and demands assessments, but interrogate their waiting lists to see who is waiting for such homes, and get on with the job of delivering them in their areas. Now is the time to do that. The subsidy is available, the flexibility exists and local authorities must go and meet the needs of people throughout the country.

In the light of the fact that many of the homes in Kate Forbes’s constituency are second and holiday homes, and in the light of a report that I published yesterday that shows that there are 26,000 such homes throughout Scotland, does the minister agree that second or holiday homes should be subject to planning consent?

We need to look closely at some areas where there is a difficulty with second and holiday homes. However, we must remember that holiday homes bring income into Skye and other parts of Scotland. We need to increase the number of homes that we provide in those places so that people who choose to live and work there have the right accommodation.

Mr Wightman will be aware that local authorities have flexibilities on council tax for holiday homes and second homes. I urge councils to use those powers. It is their responsibility to do so.

Speed Limits (Heavy Goods Vehicles)

2. David Stewart (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government when it plans to publish the findings of the 50mph speed limit pilot for HGVs on the A9. (S5O-02198)

We plan to publish the findings of the A9 HGV pilot later this summer. The research into the performance of the A9 with a higher HGV speed limit in place is currently being evaluated. As the member is probably aware, there is also some data coming from the Department for Transport on uplift in speed limits on the highways in England. We look forward to receiving that in the coming months, too.

Does the minister share my view that the pilot for HGVs on the A9 has been a success? Is this not the time to extend the speed limit for HGVs to 50mph for all single carriageways in Scotland? That would be good news for the haulage industry, safety campaigners and the climate, as HGVs are less polluting when driving at 50mph. If it is good enough for the A9, why is it not good enough for all Scotland?

I am sympathetic to the points that David Stewart makes. I will make a couple of other points to ensure that we put the conversation in context. Every safety campaigner will tell us that any uplift in speed is the biggest contributor to potentially fatal and serious casualties on our trunk road network. We have to be mindful of that.

The uplift in the speed limit on the A9 is being done in conjunction with the fact that we have average speed cameras on that road. We have to consider other parts of the trunk road network—single or dual carriageway—that do not have average speed cameras.

We have the data that is coming from the A9 pilot, which I will publish in the coming weeks. We also have the data from the Department for Transport on its uplift of speed limits, which we expect towards the end of summer or in autumn. If the data shows that we can raise the speed limit in a way that does not compromise safety on our trunk roads and is not counterproductive for our climate agenda, I will be sympathetic to it.

I know that David Stewart will appreciate those points. I will ensure that he is kept up to date.

I appreciate hearing that response from the minister. Have any assessments been made of, or has any consideration been given to, increasing speed limits for HGVs from 40mph to 50mph on some parts of the A75?

We are looking at the trunk road network as a whole. If we consider it for the A9, we will have to consider other roads that have average speed cameras on them as well, such as the A77 and the A90 Dundee to Stonehaven. However, if there is a compelling case to change the speed limit right across the trunk road network—the Department for Transport data will be important in that—the A75 will, of course, be included in that. I will ensure that the research that we are analysing is made available to Emma Harper.

Waiting Times (Children’s Health Services in the Highlands)

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to reduce waiting times for children’s health services in the Highlands. (S5O-02199)

A number of initiatives are under way to improve waiting times for children’s health services in the Highlands. They include improved workforce planning, staff development, case load management and better use of technology. However, recruitment to some specialties continues to be a challenge.

Due to staffing difficulties, a total of 151 children and young people in Highland are waiting more than 18 weeks for services such as speech and language therapy, occupational therapy and dietetics. There is also a shortage of school nurses, with more than seven vacancies—in addition, two retired last month. The risk to health visiting is reported as being high, and the shortage of health visitors means that children are not receiving many of the visits that are laid down in the health visitors’ home visiting pathway. What is the cabinet secretary going to do to make sure that those children get the best start in life?

Highland Council has advised that staffing continues to be an issue, particularly for speech and language therapy, but it has recruited to a number of occupational therapy posts recently, so it expects waiting times to decrease.

The allied health professional workforce that Rhoda Grant refers to is crucial, and it is expanding. Of course, it provides that really important support in the early years. The Highlands have tried some quite innovative ways of improving services. For example, Rhoda Grant might be aware of the telephone consultation and triage that is being developed to give people quicker access to advice and support, and the building of greater universal resources for parents and professionals to support self-management for those children with lower levels of need, in line with the national model for children’s AHP services.

The health visiting services are expanding. We are on track to deliver the additional 500 health visitors that we have committed to, and Highland is getting its share of them.

School Estate

To ask the Scottish Government what its role is in maintaining the school estate. (S5O-02200)

I remind members that I am the parliamentary liaison officer to the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills.

Under the Education (Scotland) Act 1980, it is the responsibility of all local authorities to maintain the school estate. However, the Scottish Government’s £1.8 billion school building programme is helping to replace the schools in the worst condition across Scotland.

What the young people of Glenrothes really need in the town’s 70th year is school buildings that are fit for learning, yet both Glenrothes and Glenwood high schools’ buildings have a “poor” rating in the most recent Scottish Government data, which was published in 2016. Will the Scottish Government work with Fife Council to ensure that Glenrothes schools are prioritised to allow improvements to be made?

I record my good wishes for Glenrothes on the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the new town.

Fife Council was awarded significant funding of over £57 million towards the construction of a number of schools under our schools for the future programme. One of those is in Glenrothes: Auchmuty high school, which was opened in August 2013. I have committed to announcing further details of the enhancement of the learning estate later this year, and the development work for that is under way. We will discuss the matter with local authorities in due course.

Can the cabinet secretary provide details of the number of schools that have been renovated and had asbestos removed from their buildings and the number of school buildings that still contain asbestos?

The Government does not hold that information. In my answer to Jenny Gilruth, I made the point that local authorities are responsible for the maintenance and management of the school estate.

We take issues relating to asbestos very seriously, and we expect local authorities to follow the strict guidelines and recommendations from the Health and Safety Executive in that respect, ensuring that they maintain an asbestos register at local authority level and that all risks that are inherent in the handling of asbestos are fully assessed as part of their management responsibility.

The Deputy First Minister knows of my personal interest in the school estate in my constituency, where Liberton high school is in desperate need of replacement. Throughout the whole of devolution, the Scottish Government has had a critical role to play in financing new schools, and the Government keeps saying that the new scheme is coming. Does the cabinet secretary accept that, given that it takes many years to plan, design and build new schools, it is now the Scottish Government that is holding back vital improvements to the school estate, including at Liberton? The rumour up the road is that there will be no Scottish Government money for the wave 4 schools in Edinburgh. Can he confirm or deny that?

I do not accept the fundamental premise of Mr Johnson’s question. The Government has fully committed to the schools for the future programme until 2021, which is three years away. That is long-term planning. I have always said that the revised programme will be announced later this year, which will give local authorities plenty time to adjust their plans.

I remind Mr Johnson that, when this Government came into office, we inherited a legacy from the Labour Party of only 61 per cent of schools being in a satisfactory condition. That figure is now 86 per cent under this Government, following our investment. Mr Johnson has no grounds for complaint.


To ask the Scottish Government what steps it will take to reduce the number of people who have never been in employment. (S5O-02201)

The Scottish Government’s employment programme called fair start Scotland was launched in April and will support at least 38,000 people over a three-year referral period. The programme is targeted towards those who face barriers to entering employment, including people who have disabilities and the long-term unemployed.

In March, I announced the publication of “No One Left Behind—Next Steps for the Integration and Alignment of Employability Support in Scotland”. That document sets out the next steps that the Scottish Government will take to deliver more effective and joined-up employability support across Scotland. It also starts a wider discussion with our partners about how we should do that. It contains a range of activity that we will develop and implement collaboratively with our partners, with a specific focus on integrating employability provision with health, justice, and housing support and services to help those people who are further from the labour market.

There are many reasons why some people cannot work, but that can explain only partly why more than one in 10 Dundonians has never had a job of any sort. Given the fact that that has been the case for a decade under the SNP Government and an SNP-run council, will the minister explain what he will do about it?

We will take forward our fair start Scotland programme, which, unlike the UK Government’s approach to employability, will not threaten people with sanctions. As we know from the paper that the Economic and Social Research Council published in May,

“Benefit sanctions do little to enhance people’s motivation to prepare for, seek, or enter paid work”

and they lead to

“Recurrent short-term movements between various insecure jobs, interspersed with periods of unemployment”,

which are described as “routine”. We will take a different approach to support people in Dundee and across Scotland into employment.

Does the minister agree that the Scottish Government’s approach to helping those who are furthest from the labour market to return to work is more effective than the actions that are being taken by the UK Government?

Indeed, I do. I refer to the point that I made a moment ago. The ESRC paper says:

“Welfare conditionality within the social security system is largely ineffective in facilitating people’s entry into or progression within the paid labour market over time.”

Those are not my words or those of the Scottish Government; they are the words of the Economic and Social Research Council in a study that was assisted by the University of Glasgow and Heriot-Watt University. I therefore think that our approach is much better than that of the UK Government.

Stirling City Centre (Business Closures)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it can take to prevent further business closures in Stirling city centre. (S5O-02202)

The Scottish Government is supporting inclusive economic growth across Scotland, including in Stirling. Just last week, the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work, Keith Brown, signed heads of terms for the Stirling and Clackmannanshire city region deal, committing £45.1 million over 10 years to a range of projects that will benefit Stirling and the entire region. The overall investment package in the city region deal is expected to deliver more than 5,000 new jobs across the region and leverage additional private sector investment worth more than £600 million. That is alongside an additional £5 million for the Kildean business park and infrastructure at Callander, taking the Government’s funding to £50.1 million.

Since 2017, the Scottish Government has also supported the successful establishment of Stirling’s city centre business improvement district. That will run for five years and will enable local businesses to invest, through a levy, to improve their economic opportunities, agree and deliver improvements and take charge of the regeneration needs of their area.

Notwithstanding the steps that the minister has outlined, a number of businesses in Stirling have been forced to close during the past year, with five closing in the past two weeks alone. On top of that, 1,600 businesses across Stirling have had rates appeals outstanding for more than a year. Those businesses employ thousands of people and, for many of them, the decision on their rates appeal will mean the difference between their staying in business and their being forced to close. What steps will the minister take to address that situation urgently and obtain clarity for the future of those businesses?

Dean Lockhart should recognise that we are already committed to a £720 million package of non-domestic rates relief that covers more than 100,000 premises across Scotland, including 2,868 in the Stirling constituency. A Federation of Small Businesses survey explains that 18.9 per cent of businesses in receipt of small business bonus that it sampled might have closed their operations in its absence, while for 19.9 per cent it would have prevented investment in their businesses and 18.3 per cent would have amended their plans for growth. It would be good to hear Mr Lockhart recognise the contribution that this Government is making to sustaining existing businesses.

He might also want to reflect on the chaos that has been caused by his own party’s Government through Brexit, which we now know—[Interruption.] Mr Lockhart might want to listen to this. Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, has said that £900 per household has already been lost across the UK before we have even left the European Union. How about Mr Lockhart recognising that and his party’s contribution to the destruction of our high streets?