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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 21 December 2021

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Covid-19, Point of Order, Rented Housing Sector, Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Point of Order, Covid-19 Vaccines


Contents


Rented Housing Sector

The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-02625, in the name of Patrick Harvie, on a new deal for tenants. I invite members who wish to participate in the debate to press their request-to-speak button or place an R in the chat function.

I invite Patrick Harvie to speak to and move the motion. You have around 10 minutes, minister.

15:28  

I am delighted to be able to do so, Presiding Officer. I have taken part in housing debates in the chamber over many years, and during those debates, I have often taken the opportunity to reflect on my own experience of renting a home.

I have known good landlords who act responsibly, but I have also known high rents and poor maintenance. I have been harassed out of a flat by an abusive landlord, and I can still remember the shock, when I could eventually afford to buy a home, of learning just how much more I had been paying to rent a room and kitchen than it cost to have a mortgage on an entire two-bedroom flat. I know very well, from personal experience, that Scotland’s tenants need a new deal. I am delighted that I now have the opportunity to propose action to Parliament.

The 700,000 people who rent privately need a new deal to give them the freedom to turn a house into a home, to better protect them from eviction, to challenge excessive rents and to assure them that authorities will take action if their landlord steps over the line.

More than 1 million people who rent from a council, a housing association or a co-operative need a new deal to continue to improve access to housing and to drive up standards, as we tackle the twin challenges of fuel poverty and climate change.

Together, all the people who rent need a new deal that helps them be better informed, more meaningfully engaged and better able to exercise their rights—a new deal that centres firmly on housing as a human right. That is why the draft new deal for tenants that we announced yesterday is a new deal for all tenants. It is also why “Housing to 2040”, which was published earlier this year, pledged to develop a whole rented sector strategy. The draft new deal for tenants also incorporates all the ambitions for the rented sector that were set out in the shared policy programme between the Scottish Government and the Scottish Greens.

For work of that scale of ambition, we need to hear from many perspectives. Over the past few months, I have met senior councillors and staff, tenants unions, landlords, housing associations, campaigners and letting agents. However, above all, the Government needs to hear more from tenants. That is why we are working with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, whose expertise has been very helpful in enabling us to engage with private rented sector tenants.

I have already committed to establishing a tenant participation panel for the private rented sector—it will be the first of its kind—to ensure that tenants’ voices are front and centre. I am also seeking views on how we can support the development of tenants unions and other ways of engaging with tenants. Early in the new year, we will launch a new publicity campaign to make sure that tenants know their rights.

I believe that a whole sector approach is required so that all tenants can expect value for money and good housing standards. Housing systems are integrated, and neighbourhoods and even buildings are mixed—each sector can learn from the other. However, I recognise that, for private renters in particular, there is a power imbalance where tenants are less able to exercise their rights and continue to have less secure tenancies than those in the social sector. Therefore, many of the specific policy proposals that I am seeking views on in the consultation relate to private renting.

That is why I have set out proposals for the introduction of a new housing bill in the second year of this parliamentary session and a new regulator for the private rented sector to enforce standards. We will also work towards a national system of rent controls for the private rented sector by beginning to put in place the evidence framework that is needed.

However, I know that there is more to be done for social tenants, too, so we are also consulting on a number of things to support them. They include creating a new housing standard, regulating to set minimum standards for energy efficiency and zero emissions heating for all homes, and exploring what further action we can take to ensure that rents in the social rented sector are affordable.

Will the minister take an intervention?

Will the minister take an intervention?

I think that I heard the request from Pam Duncan-Glancy first.

Thank you, minister, for taking an intervention—it seems to be a popular thing to do at this point.

Tomorrow, in Glasgow, approximately 14 people will be taken to court by housing associations—action that could potentially result in evictions. You and I have both campaigned strongly against winter evictions. Would you consider bringing forward immediately regulations to end winter evictions so that no one is evicted from their house, particularly in this period when people can be asked to self-isolate at home? People cannot self-isolate if they do not have a home.

Please direct interventions through the Presiding Officer.

I will come on to winter evictions later. As Pam Duncan-Glancy knows, some of the temporary coronavirus pandemic measures around discretion at the tribunal are to be made permanent. I hope that she understands that I am not able to comment on court actions.

I will take another intervention—this time from the back of the chamber.

I apologise—I will try very hard to be brief. I have previously corresponded with the minister on this matter.

Many constituents feel that social landlords have to do better on consulting on rent increases. Although social landlords have to have regard to the views of tenants, there is no set process for consultation and some believe that there must be greater constraints on rent levels in the social rented sector. Will the minister give consideration to how any new legislation could take better account of that?

I can give you some of that time back, minister.

I am grateful for that, Presiding Officer.

Bob Doris makes very fair points, and I hope that such arguments will come across in the consultation responses. Tenants’ voices are critical if we are to shift some of the power imbalances and address some of the injustices that exist. Hearing those voices can now be better organised in many places in the social rented sector, but there is still scope to do things better and to learn from best practice. I hope that people will take the consultation as an opportunity to put forward constructive ideas for how to achieve that.

I am seeking views on existing private rented tenancies and the grounds for repossession, and I am exploring how tenants can feel more at home in their rented property through simple things such as being able to decorate or keep pets. Those things might be seen as trivial by some people, but they are critical to the feeling that a house is a home and to supporting people’s wellbeing and mental health.

I am proposing new restrictions on evictions in winter. There are a number of questions around defining how that will work, on which we want to hear views. That is in addition to ensuring that the penalties for illegal evictions in the private sector are a meaningful deterrent.

I am highlighting the need to help people who live in non-traditional rented accommodation—from student accommodation to residential mobile homes, and from the Gypsy Traveller community to people in agricultural tenancies.

It is right to raise standards, but it is just as important to ensure that renting is affordable. On average, people who rent privately spend more of their income—more than a quarter of it, and for some, much more than that—on rent.

The social rented sector already has some safeguards in place to protect tenants from high rent rises, and all the money from rents should be reinvested for the good of tenants. The position is inconsistent, to say the least, in the private rented sector, where approaches to rent setting can vary dramatically among landlords. We are therefore consulting on how to introduce an effective national system of rent controls by 2025 for privately rented homes, with appropriate mechanisms to allow local authorities to introduce local measures.

I recognise that campaigners for that policy are impatient; some people even argue that we should use emergency coronavirus legislation to bypass the need to consult. I do not agree with that. The Scottish Parliament has always consulted before legislating, where that is possible, and that is as it should be: it helps us to make better law. The weakness of the 2016 reform to create rent pressure zones is a warning about legislation that is developed swiftly without adequate testing or dialogue.

I want the new system to be one that works for the long term. That means collecting the information that we need, learning from what works well elsewhere and taking the time to get it right. We will improve the collection of data on rents and other factors in the private rented sector so that we have the evidence needed to inform an effective system. A more detailed consultation on rent control will follow later in the session, as we gather that evidence and as building the evidence base picks up pace. At the same time, we will consider how best to share good practice and improve affordability in the social rented sector, too.

Affordability and supply are of course closely linked, and I know that Parliament will support my commitment to our expanded programme of building 110,000 affordable homes, 70 per cent of them being for social rent, by 2032. That programme is on a larger scale than any for decades, and I am determined to work with colleagues across both Government and Parliament to ensure that every contribution counts—public, private, community and third sector—in achieving that goal.

New homes for rent are rightly a major theme in the new deal for tenants, but most of the homes that we will live in in 2040 are already here today. That is why we are seeking views on how we can improve quality and raise standards across the whole rented sector, both in physical buildings and in the services that are provided to all tenants. With that in mind, I am seeking views on establishing a new housing standard for all homes.

I could say more. There is a great deal to do, and a great deal of work ahead of us throughout this session of Parliament. There will be no shortage of views, and the consultation is open for the next 16 weeks, so that everyone can engage on the wide-ranging and ambitious aims of this agenda.

I believe that the draft strategy will deliver a new deal for tenants, with stronger rights, greater protections against eviction and access to better, more affordable homes. That will help us to deliver a fairer Scotland, to tackle child poverty and to meet our climate change targets.

I urge MSPs across the chamber to support that ambition, to contribute their ideas and to join me in welcoming this new deal for tenants.

I move,

That the Parliament notes the publication of the consultation on A New Deal for Tenants, which seeks views on the Scottish Government’s ambitious plans for the rented sector; agrees that the 1.85 million people who live in the rented sector should have improved quality, standards and rights in the place they call home; supports the aims of A New Deal for Tenants to ensure tenants have more secure and stable tenancies, flexibility to personalise their homes, improved safeguards against eviction, improved regulation and effective national rent controls in the private sector; recognises that this strategy will support progress towards the human right of an adequate home for all, and welcomes, therefore, this draft strategy seeking to make renting a home more affordable, safer, with a higher quality, better managed and more secure.

15:39  

I thank the organisations that provided useful briefings ahead of today’s debate and the many housing charities and organisations that work in all our communities across the country.

The Scottish Government’s draft rented sector strategy proposes a number of new rights and protections for Scottish tenants, many of which Conservative members support and want to see improved—specifically, those that relate to domestic abuse and the rights of victims. There is an opportunity to significantly improve support and to help to ensure that it is available, and I genuinely hope that the minister will look at making the strategy an opportunity for all of us across the Parliament to contribute and help to achieve that.

However, at the outset I express concern about some of the more controversial proposals that have been outlined in the draft strategy. What the rented sector in Scotland needs is proper investment and further action to stop increased rents instead of missed house-building targets and cuts to the housing budget, which we saw being put forward at stage 1 of the Scottish Government’s Budget (Scotland) Bill. As Shelter Scotland made clear in its briefing for the debate,

“Without increasing the supply of social homes, realising the commitment to deliver the right to adequate housing will be extremely difficult.”

In the short time that I have, I want to concentrate on a few areas that are outlined in my amendment.

The strategy details plans to establish an independent regulator for the private rented sector. That regulator would operate in a similar way to that the Scottish Housing Regulator, which covers social rents and a national system of rent controls.

The minister has already outlined that further consultation on rent controls will be proposed later in this parliamentary session. However, it is clear from countries in which rent controls are in operation that the supply of rental properties has been negatively impacted and, indeed, policy outcomes around controlling levels of rent have not been achieved. When the minister closes the debate, I would be interested to hear from him what genuine assessment ministers have made of the proposal in the strategy for national rent controls and how the discussion to shape the consultation that he has outlined will take place.

If we are going to have that debate, it is important that we start to look at unintended consequences and international lessons that we are already aware of. It is becoming a hallmark of the Government not to look properly at the unintended consequences of regulations and legislation, and there are concerns about the potential negative impact on not only tenants but landlords.

The draft strategy aims to outline what impact existing legislation, such as on rent pressure zones, has had on existing high rental markets, of which the market in the capital is an example. I would like the need to understand that important aspect to be considered in the strategy.

Patrick Harvie rose—

I am happy to give way—if I can get some time back, Presiding Officer.

It is very clear that rent pressure zones have not been used anywhere by any local authority. One of the issues is that the burden of responsibility is on local authorities to come forward with evidence. I hope that, even if the Conservatives do not ultimately support the proposals on rent controls, they will support the action that we need to take to gather the evidence and data that are required to design a good system.

I very much agree with that point. Rent pressure zones were introduced by the Government, but local authorities have not felt that they have been provided with the powers that they need—and that the zones do not give them the opportunity to make a difference. We need to look at that. An answer to the questions around rent pressure zones does not seem to be forthcoming. One of the key questions relates to the market levels of rent. In the capital, for example, they are much higher than they are in other parts of the country.

Above all, the delivery of affordable housing is important. In its evidence to the Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee, the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations made clear its concerns about on-going rises in construction costs. The spike in construction costs is having an impact on maintenance and on future developments, and SFHA was clear that, without additional support from Scottish ministers, long-term solutions to that issue will be difficult to develop. The impact on housing association budgets and the ability to keep rents affordable is, obviously, of concern to the SFHA.

In the programme for government, Scottish National Party ministers set out a house-building target over 11 years into the future of

“110,000 affordable homes by 2032—with at least 70 per cent for social rent and 10 per cent in our remote, rural and island communities”.

Let us look at the Government’s record to date. Since 2016, the SNP has promised to build 50,000 affordable homes, and ministers have failed to meet that target. To March 2021, only 28,154 houses were completed in the social rented sector. In rural Scotland, the situation is even more concerning. SNP ministers spent less than half the £25 million budget that was allocated to rural housing funds; £11.4 million of that funding delivered just 59 affordable homes in rural Scotland over a four-year period.

Ministers’ rhetoric is strong, but delivery of their promises has not been forthcoming. Scottish Conservatives want SNP and Green ministers to step up the affordable home building agenda across the country. That is the only way in which we can properly address the lack of affordable housing across our communities, which is the fundamental issue that tenants face.

A key part of my amendment is that we need to look not only towards the strategy but at the lack of action from the Government on temporary accommodation for homeless people. SNP and Green ministers will know that the number of families and children in unsuitable and temporary accommodation is now at a record high. The increase in rental costs is one of the main barriers that prevents many people from securing a home and a secure tenancy, and must be considered as well.

I hope that, as the strategy is developed, ministers will genuinely look at the issues and concerns that I have raised. We need to make sure that the solutions that are being developed to the lack of affordable housing and the issues with the unsuitable accommodation order that many councils face are not forgotten about and will be included as we move forward.

It is vital that SNP and Green ministers listen to the real concerns that are being put forward at this stage of the draft strategy. I hope that ministers will engage across the Parliament far more on the draft strategy. I do not believe that we have seen such engagement to date. Many members have come to the debate with issues that we want to include in the strategy and in future legislation. I hope that the minister will make sure that those issues are included.

I move amendment S6M-02625.1, to leave out from “, improved regulation” to end and insert:

“and improved regulation; acknowledges, however, that the biggest challenge facing those in the rented sector is the rising cost of living caused by a national housing shortage; notes that the Rural Housing Fund delivered just 59 new homes over four years; notes with concern the decision to reduce the housing budget in 2022-23; further notes concerns that current levels of investment in this sector are not high enough to meet the target of building 110,000 affordable homes by 2032; notes that the number of households in temporary accommodation is now at a record high and that high rental costs are one of the main barriers preventing those who are homeless from securing new tenancies; regrets that the implementation of the Homeless Persons (Unsuitable Accommodation) (Scotland) Order 2014 was repeatedly delayed; notes concerns that the introduction of rent controls may be counter-productive and result in reduced choice for private tenants; calls on the Scottish Government to provide increased investment in the housing market to ensure tenants have access to a wide range of affordable properties, but otherwise welcomes this draft strategy seeking to make renting a home more affordable, safer, with a higher quality, better managed and more secure.”

I advise members that we are tight for time. That is not an instruction not to take interventions, but you might need to accommodate them in your allocated time.

I call Mark Griffin to speak to—for six minutes, please—and to move amendment S6M-02625.2.

15:47  

I draw members’ attention to my entry in the register of members’ interests, as I am the owner of a rented property in North Lanarkshire.

Scottish Labour welcomes the publication of the draft rented sector strategy consultation—which has arrived, finally, at the end of the year—because we have long called for more meaningful Government intervention in the private rented sector, in improving tenants’ rights and in protecting people from rising rents, as my colleague Pauline McNeill’s Fair Rents (Scotland) Bill and her general work in campaigning last session would have done.

Once again, with more restrictions expected soon, on top of the reinstatement of widespread self-isolation rules, the pandemic forces us to acknowledge that our homes have never meant so much to us. Once again, if we have somewhere that we can call home and that is warm and safe, that is the first line of defence against Covid.

We will support the motion, and we agree with the aims of the strategy. Tenants must have secure and stable tenancies, rights that allow them to truly live in them, a pause clause, a chance to decorate, continued safeguards against eviction and private sector rent controls. However, we also want to use the debate to ask the Government to take immediate action, because Covid continues to exacerbate the housing crisis. How quickly we move will be key.

Last month, the First Minister told me that the Government is

“happy to engage about the timing of legislation on rent controls.”—[Official Report, 18 November 2021; c 28.]

Our amendment therefore singularly seeks to hold the Government to that and to secure agreement that the framework for rent controls will be put in legislation sooner rather than later, via the forthcoming housing bill.

I would like to support the Labour amendment, if I understand its meaning correctly. When Mr Griffin says that the framework needs to be brought forward in the year 2 bill, is he referring—I hope that he is—to the need to generate the data that is required to understand the matter and to design a proper system? We will not be able to implement the rent control system in year 2, but we will put in place the framework for collection of data. If that is what he means, I very much welcome his position and would like to support his amendment.

We certainly do not expect the legislation to come into force in year 2 of this parliamentary session, but we would look for the details of the framework for the rules, and data for the broad system that we expect to be implemented, to be in the forthcoming housing bill.

Let us not forget that rent controls are needed urgently. The number of children in private rented housing living in severe poverty more than doubled in the decade from 2008. Living Rent has said that it is ready to go on the matter. Its proposed points-based system, which would link rents to the quality of property, aligns with the strategy’s vision. That link to quality would provide an incentive for landlords to make improvements and would be a block on landlords who refuse to do so. It is important that it would also attach the control to the property and not to the lease. That landmark reform would deal with the fundamentals of costly rents and would be a step towards implementing the human right to an adequate home for all.

However, 2023 is still a lifetime away for renters who are struggling now. The situation for those tenants is reaching crisis point and, as Living Rent says, they cannot wait another five or so years for the protections.

A major cost-of-living crisis is just weeks away. Energy bills are set to rocket by 40 per cent in April and, last month, the Government’s own statistics showed that in 2020 there were inflation-bursting rent increases in West Dunbartonshire, Ayrshire, Fife, Forth Valley and Lanarkshire. The contribution of rents to November’s unprecedented 5 per cent inflation was the highest since March 2016.

The starting point that we are at is bleak. Almost 150,000 people are waiting for a social or council house and homelessness applications are up. After a University of Glasgow report estimated that £126 million is owed in the private rented sector and that social arrears jumped £9 million over the summer, it looks as though arrears in the rented sector have topped £300 million.

Changes to the notice period and pre-action protocols for evictions have been proved to keep people in their homes, so those measures should stay. I look forward to working with the Government on that commitment. I echo the calls from Living Rent and Shelter for the reforms to be made permanent as we go into the new year. That would prevent an evictions crisis in the short term, but given the fast-developing situation with omicron, the Government must also consider extending the evictions ban.

The importance of stability and security for renters is not secondary to affordability. It is fundamental to a sense of self and to the ability to make choices. Security stems from the ability to call a place home, as the minister pointed out. People without open space, a spare room and the freedom to have a pet or to redecorate have endured a miserable pandemic, regardless of their tenure. People who had those—mostly owner occupiers—could work from home, do renovations and consider upsizing.

Research from Crisis also found that more than 40 per cent of employers are unprepared to support a homeless employee and would even consider terminating their employment. That is a devastating statistic that reinforces the call that Pam Duncan-Glancy made for a winter evictions ban to be put in place right now.

I support the strategy that the minister outlined and look forward to working with the Government on it.

I move amendment S6M-02625.2, to insert after “private sector”:

“; agrees that the legislation establishing the framework for these rent controls must be included in the forthcoming Housing Bill in the second year of the current parliamentary session”

15:53  

I have been in too many shoddy, damp, mouldy, poorly insulated and cold but far too expensive properties that could never be classed as a place to call home. A building that makes people ill is no place to live. It should be a human right to have a warm and affordable home; I am sure that all members across the parties agree with that objective. The questions are how we get there and how we do so quickly, because the crisis has gone on for far too long.

All housing organisations speak with unity in pointing to the need for an increased affordable housing supply. We simply do not have enough affordable or social rented homes, so we need to build far more. At the election, the Liberal Democrats offered a commitment to deliver 40,000 homes for social rent in the next five years. That was an important part of our plan to build more homes that people can afford, with an initial programme to build 60,000 homes.

We want to return to a housing market that re-establishes social renting as a valid long-term option for people. However, Shelter has today expressed concern that the Scottish Government’s commitment to deliver 110,000 affordable homes over the next decade has been downgraded to an “ambition”. It would be helpful to have clarity from the minister on whether it is only an ambition, rather than an election promise and commitment. My amendment is aimed at strengthening the Government’s motion so that we can have confidence that the housing supply is a top priority for the Government.

I am interested in what works, and less interested in slogans. The Liberal Democrats are interested in rent controls, but we are cautious about how effective they would be. We want to support the motion, the consultation that was launched last week and the future consultation on rent controls that the minister has set out today, but we need to work on the detail. That is incredibly important.

Despite what I said about there being an awful lot of poor-quality rented homes, the private rented sector provides a lot of good homes for good tenants, with good landlords. We have a duty to get it right and to ensure that any future rent controls create the right incentives for the sector.

We have seen in evidence from other countries that have rent controls that the benefits of such controls are often not clear. Controls seem to have an effect on investment in the private rented sector and on the types of properties in which it will invest. There is also potentially a question about their effect, regarding whether they control rent or the cap becomes a minimum as well as a maximum increase.

We Liberal Democrats want to see the detailed proposals and the evidence to back them up. We are open to considering what works. As I said, it is important that we ensure that we have a high-quality private rented sector, which is why we need to treat the issues with care. We will not support the Conservative amendment, because it rules out rent controls. We think that it is important to explore rent controls, along with the evidence. However, on the basis of what Mark Griffin said, we will support the Labour amendment, which will allow for further evidence to be gathered.

It is important that we invest in the housing sector in Scotland, because far too many homes are shoddy and poorly insulated. That is why the consultation paper and the “Housing to 2040” strategy document are incredibly important. We need to get this right, because too many homes are at stake.

I move amendment S6M-02625.3, to insert at end:

“; urges the Scottish Government to also address the issues around the availability of private rented properties; considers that it should increase its ambitions for the building of more homes for social rent, and believes that increasing the supply of affordable rented housing is necessary to give people security, stabilise the housing market and support progress towards the human right of an adequate home for all.”

15:58  

I draw members’ attention to my entry in the register of members’ interests, as I am a councillor in Aberdeen City Council.

The new deal for tenants consultation is a crucial consultation to address long-standing issues in the rented housing sector—specifically security, affordability, standards and regulation. We all deserve to live in a warm, dry and affordable home in which we feel secure and safe. Access to housing is a recognised social determinant of health and sits alongside education, health services, employment and economic stability as a key factor in ensuring good health and wellbeing.

There is no doubt that the pandemic has heightened anxiety and insecurity for many people who live in Scotland’s rented sector. Many lost their jobs or became too unwell to work. Despite lifeline Scottish Government support for tenants who are at risk of arrears or eviction, rising costs, cuts to universal credit and Brexit have created a perfect storm for many tenants across Scotland. I therefore welcome the SNP-Scottish Greens agreement, which puts the rights of tenants and the right to housing at its heart.

Like other north-east constituencies, over recent decades Aberdeen South and North Kincardine has seen sustained high rents, courtesy of the energy sector. However, the reality is that we continue to host poor-quality rented stock, particularly in the city of Aberdeen. Typically, dated council housing stock that is now affected by damp and mould has gone unactioned. In Aberdeen, 59 per cent of homes are not energy efficient, which results in high fuel bills, high carbon emissions and residents being unable to heat their homes to a comfortable level.

I have a local consultation under way, with residents who live in some of the poorest-quality housing in my constituency, to identify the housing issues that impact on them most. To date, the responses have been stark. The local economy, which was once propped up by oil and gas, has been in decline. That is reflected in the private rented sector, in which between 2010 and 2014 rents consistently rose far above the Scottish average, only to decline rapidly since then. That means that rents today are, largely, the same as they were a decade ago. Some private housing developments that had commenced before then have now become unprofitable or have collapsed, which has impacted on the supply of badly needed social housing, as well as on delivery of developer obligations, including schools. We face a bizarre paradox in which there is overprovision of private rented properties while, in June 2020, the waiting list for council houses was more than 6,000.

It is regrettable that Aberdeen City Council has fallen short of its commitment to build 2,000 new homes, with only 900 having been completed to date, which is adding to the already significant shortage of affordable housing in the city. It is safe to say that local change is needed, starting with a genuine commitment to build more high-standard affordable homes and, where feasible, to retrofit existing homes to make them warm, dry and more liveable.

I welcome our commitment to build 110,000 affordable homes over the coming decade, but I want to see within that local projects that are driven by what is required in housing areas, not by what developers choose to include in a project specification—which is, in other words, the tail wagging the dog.

The consultation on a new deal for tenants is a welcome step on from “Housing to 2040”. It offers tenants a tangible opportunity to have their voices heard, and it offers us an opportunity to provide our constituents with the good-quality, secure and safe rented housing provision that they deserve.

16:02  

It goes without saying that the housing system in Scotland is notoriously complex, and I welcome the opportunity to make positive changes to our rental sector to address the fundamental underlying problems that tenants and landlords face. It gives us the chance to address a number of issues, such as amending the Scottish model tenancy agreement for private residential tenancies so that consent for a pet is the default position for responsible pet owners.

Landlords should be allowed to refuse pets only with a good reason, thereby putting an end to blanket no-pets policies, in line with the recent amendments to the English model tenancy agreement. We also need more social housing providers to introduce reasonable pet policies to allow responsible tenants in social housing to keep pets in suitable properties.

For people who are not a cat or dog lover, it might not seem a major problem, but cats and dogs bring their renting owners joy, love and companionship. A survey by animal charity Cats Protection found that 92 per cent of social housing tenants and 73 per cent of private tenants in Scotland who are able to keep their own cats report that the cats have a positive effect on their life by making them happy, providing company and affection or improving mental health. If that is the case, the chances of those tenants leaving are far less.

Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting Cats Protection. In its most recent report, which is cleverly named “CATS”—“Cats and Their Stats”—it found that renting with a cat in Scotland can be quite difficult. Pet-friendly rental houses are in short supply, with just 10 per cent of private landlords explicitly allowing cats, and only a further 25 per cent permitting a pet but not specifying the actual pet. It is estimated that people in 1 million UK households who would like to own a cat cannot because they live in rented accommodation that does not allow pets; a staggering 1.6 million more cats in the UK could be rehomed if all landlords allowed pets.

Although I absolutely understand that landlords might be reluctant to rent to cat or dog owners for fear that the pet might damage the property, that is not the case. For example, the charity found that 83 per cent of cat-friendly private landlords reported having no problems at all.

However, it must also be recognised that, in some cases, landlords are left with a far bigger cost than they would otherwise have—for example, if they need to replace carpets when reletting their properties. Often, the deposit does not cover such a cost, so that point needs to be considered.

There are obligations and responsibilities on both sides, as is always the case with landlord-tenant relationships. In that regard, the Dogs Trust and Cats Protection have created a pet CV to help potential tenants with dogs and cats to highlight that they are responsible pet owners and to enable landlords and letting agents to be better informed. The pet CV sets out details about the animal, including whether they are neutered, microchipped or vaccinated, as well as information about their general behaviour and temperament. Such a CV can be a vital tool in helping landlords to assess whether a tenant is a responsible pet owner.

However, it is not just animal lovers who are facing issues when it comes to private and social housing. More needs to be done to improve accountability, affordability and quality in relation to existing housing. As the SFHA rightly points out, one of the main rights in relation to housing is to a

“safe, warm and affordable home, in a thriving community”,

and Shelter Scotland insists that enough social houses should be built to reduce affordable housing needs.

Additional rights for tenants are welcome, but the SNP strategy fails to address the fundamental issue of shortages in the Scottish housing and rental markets. I am sure that members from all parties will agree that spiralling rents are often caused by housing shortages, and that is the real issue facing today’s renters.

Tenants are still facing rising costs that are caused by a national housing shortage, particularly in rural areas, and the situation will not be helped by a reduction in the Scottish housing budget in the financial year 2022-23. We must see an increase in investment in rural areas such as Dumfries and Galloway where many young people are forced to leave communities because of a shortage of suitable housing.

The next two speakers join us remotely.

16:07  

I draw members’ attention to my entry in the register of members’ interests, as I am a serving councillor at Aberdeen City Council.

I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak in this important debate about the Scottish Government’s plans to strengthen the rights of tenants across Scotland. In this day and age, everyone should have the right to a safe, secure and affordable home that meets their needs.

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, we have seen the importance of having a suitable home, with increased protections for renters being required to prevent evictions and ensure secure, safe housing for all during the difficult lockdowns.

The Scottish Government gave £10 million to local authorities to provide grants to tenants who have fallen behind with their rent as a result of the pandemic and who were at risk of eviction. That forms part of a package of measures that local authorities could use to tackle homelessness, which also includes discretionary housing payments and additional advice on maximising income.

Nearly 40 per cent of people in Scotland rent their homes, so it is key that we get this right. Everyone should be entitled to good-quality housing that they can call their home, no matter whether they are renting from their local authority, a registered social landlord or the private sector.

The on-going pandemic has offered us all an opportunity to reflect on what is important to us when it comes to our housing needs. Over the past two years, we have seen a unique set of circumstances that nobody could have envisioned. Many people have been required to work from home, which brings its own challenges. We have all spent more time at home than we perhaps would have liked to or planned for and, for many renters, outdoor space is extremely limited. That has highlighted the need for high-quality, suitable housing for everyone in our country, not just those who can afford the most expensive rents.

Housing should be a human right; it should not be dictated by anyone’s ability to pay. The Covid-19 pandemic has given us an opportunity to re-evaluate priorities when it comes to rented properties, and it has highlighted the need for protections for both renters and landlords.

I am pleased to see the Scottish Government bring forward its consultation to seek views on proposals to deliver a fairer rented sector. Those include

“increasing penalties for illegal evictions ... restricting evictions during winter”

and

“giving tenants greater flexibility to personalise their homes and keep pets”.

The list goes on. I am also pleased to see the requirement for a minimum standard for energy efficiency included in the proposals, helping Scotland to reach our net zero goals and helping to ensure that no renter has to make the decision between heating and eating.

Renters make up nearly half of our population. There is an expectation in public sector housing that renters have the right to safe and secure housing that meets their needs. The legislation seeks to level the playing field between public and private sector tenants and ensure that they are all afforded the same security.

Pauline McNeill is also joining us remotely.

16:11  

I believe that the Scottish Government missed the opportunity to get private sector rents under control in the previous session of Parliament. I say that because I felt a sense of frustration that my Fair Rents (Scotland) Bill was not supported by the governing party. I believe that we lost critical time in tackling poverty and inequality.

However, I make it clear that I plan to work with the Scottish Government and Patrick Harvie, who I know is committed to this set of reforms. I hope that the minister will consider incorporating some of the ideas from my bill in the forthcoming legislation. Tenants cannot wait until 2025 to see at least some change. In the private rented sector, there is a need for parity with the public sector. That is long overdue.

This has been an extremely tough year, with tens of thousands of people losing their jobs and incomes. Many people in the private rented sector have also had to contend with rents rising above the rate of inflation, yet again. It will be worse for some, as the Scottish Government figures on private rents up to the end of September 2021 show that average rents in Lothian and greater Glasgow increased at above the rate of inflation again. Between 2010 and 2021, we have seen rent rises at well above the rate of inflation on all property sizes.

However, rising rents are not just a problem in Glasgow and Edinburgh. The statistics show staggering increases in rents of 7.1 per cent in West Dunbartonshire and 6.8 per cent in Ayrshire. Therefore, I am pleased that the temporary legislation that Parliament passed during Covid clearly succeeded in preventing mass evictions during the worst of the pandemic. It also sheltered public services from the additional pressures of responding to, and ensured a reduction in, homelessness.

A report by Andrew Watson at the University of Glasgow that was published last month found that around one in five landlords had current tenancies in arrears at July 2021. That scales up to around 45,000 landlords across Scotland, with arrears totalling around £126 million, as Mark Griffin mentioned. It is a real crisis and we need to get our heads round it.

However, the state of private rented sector housing leaves much to be desired. Many tenants routinely suffer from water penetration, damp and condensation, and the associated mould growth. Those problems are frequently made worse by repairs that are slow, with issues often going unrepaired and unresolved. Therefore, I believe that rent controls must be linked to the quality of the accommodation that people rent. My Fair Rents (Scotland) Bill would have done that.

There is a clear link between poverty and high housing costs, which should be at the centre of the legislation. We cannot continue to accept the number of people who are living in poverty in the private rented sector, many of whom have no alternative available to them. That is the key point. Evidence shows that around half of tenants spend 30 per cent of their income, and some spend 40 to 50 per cent of their income, on rent. A mortgage is cheaper for most of those people, but because of the problem that they face, they will not get alternative options for housing.

Young people are at the centre of the housing issue—they need a fair deal. We need a fair deal for families and we must recognise that single parents are very likely to be struggling to pay their rent in the private rented sector. The number of children in the sector who live in severe poverty has more than doubled.

We need a fair deal for students, too. In my bill, there is a way to address Willie Rennie’s point, which I am happy to talk about another time. We can overcome the problems. Students in the private rented sector saw their rents rise by 34 per cent in the past three years, and many of them who live in private accommodation have no rights. I ask the minister to consider whether students will be at the centre of housing reform.

We must make the reforms in this parliamentary session and ensure that we make a difference by tackling poverty and giving people options for good, affordable, warm homes.

16:15  

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate. I welcome the consultation with all the relevant parties. I draw members’ attention to my entry in the register of members’ interests, as I am a serving councillor in East Lothian, where I own a rental property.

I grew up on a council estate in Dunbar with my mum, dad and sister. It was and still is a close-knit community. I have been a councillor for 15 years in Dunbar, and the most pressing issues over that time—any councillor will tell you this—have been housing related. Members have mentioned the various houses that they have been in; I have been in houses of various sectors that were in various states. It is a much-needed consultation.

In East Lothian, the right-to-buy scheme resulted in the loss of 8,000 council houses, with no means to replace them. Today, we are still trying to recover from that.

How we treat our tenants is key and fundamental to ensure a vibrant housing sector. As the motion states, 1.85 million people live in the rented sector, which accounts for 37 per cent of all housing in Scotland. Those people should have improved quality, standards and rights in the place they call home. They should have the right to more secure and stable tenancies with improved safeguards against eviction, improved regulation and effective national rent controls in the private sector, as the minister said.

Shelter Scotland said:

“This is an ambitious strategy, and it offers the chance to mend many aspects of a housing system that is currently failing thousands.”

The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations said:

“We welcome the Scottish Government’s ambition that all tenants should have access to secure, good quality, affordable homes.”

I want to focus on two main issues in the consultation. The first is the commitment to deliver 110,000 homes. We need to ensure that we have an appropriate tenure mix to ensure deliverability, and we must look at other funding models to support the long-term commitment. As we have heard, the target is for at least 70 per cent of the homes to be for social rent and for 10 per cent to be in our remote, rural and island communities, as Finlay Carson said. That is an issue in East Lothian; the remote and rural issue is an important one and, in a second, I will come on to how we might deliver on that.

We must ensure that the private sector can deliver its commitment, as much of our affordable housing target is dependent on that. It is of course being supported by £3.6 billion of Scottish Government investment.

Housing supply affects affordability and quality across all tenures, but we need the proper tenure mix in that supply so that everyone has access to the housing that they need at a price that they can afford. Local authority local development plans have a key part in that, as they deliver affordable rented accommodation. Local authorities must be brave in their allocations. Mid-market rent has a role to play, along with build to rent, which is a growing sector in Scotland. They all have a key role in ensuring the tenure balance that I talked about.

I am keen for us to explore other funding models. In my constituency, I have seen housing delivered with funding from Co-op pension funds and the LAR Housing Trust through commercial lending. We need to look at ways of scaling up such delivery options to maximise grant funding. The Co-op and LAR Housing Trust have both worked with East Lothian Council on allocations, which is very important.

The second issue is about strengthening and enforcing housing rights. I welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to deliver a new human right to adequate housing through the forthcoming human rights bill. On that, Shelter Scotland has stated:

“This is welcome and is a vital step on the journey to ensuring everyone has access to a home that meets their needs. Accompanied with ensuring there is an adequate supply of social housing in the places that need it most, this will help to tackle Scotland’s housing emergency. We welcome the Rented Sector Strategy’s focus on marginalised groups and look forward to more work being done in this area to fix the broken and biased housing system which disproportionately harms people with disabilities, women, and people from ethnic minority backgrounds.”

On that issue, a few weeks ago I met Women’s Aid East and Midlothian, which said that housing policies for those fleeing domestic abuse require a different, gender-competent approach. For that reason alone, we must ensure that changes are made.

I look forward to working with Scotland’s housing sector to deliver the basic human right of a house over everyone’s head for them to call home.

16:20  

I thank the Minister for Zero Carbon Buildings, Active Travel and Tenants’ Rights for lodging the motion. It signals the beginning of a long-overdue transformation of Scotland’s private rented sector. For too long, tenants have been second-class citizens, living in houses that they cannot make their homes.

Housing is a fundamental human right. I know that members from across the chamber will agree that everyone deserves to live in a secure, affordable, good-quality home, and the draft new deal for tenants will deliver on that right. I am proud to support the motion on behalf of the Scottish Green Party. Reforming the private rented sector is hard graft. That is why Green ministers in Government and with the grit and determination to tackle difficult problems are vital to the long-term wellbeing of tenants.

During the pandemic, we have spent more time than ever indoors, and our surroundings and our sense of belonging are essential to good mental health. Seemingly simple things such as allowing tenants to decorate their homes or keep pets can uplift their mood and alleviate loneliness. However, poor conditions have been far too common in the private rented sector, and we have seen rents skyrocket even during the pandemic.

Last winter, evictions were banned. That should be the case every winter, not only during a pandemic. Firm action will be taken against landlords who evict illegally, whatever the time of year. Greens in Government will deliver protections and controls to ensure that tenants are not subject to unfair treatment, with much-needed rent controls and action against unfair evictions. Tenants across the country who do not have the time, money or energy to fight their corner will have a greater say in the private rented sector through new tenant participation panels and options to establish tenant unions. They will be supported to do that by new powers to allocate long-term unclaimed deposits to fund rights and representation work. Landlords, in turn, will benefit from having tenants who are invested in the properties that they live in and who are connected to the communities around them.

Scotland is a founding member of the group of wellbeing economy Governments, and the new deal for tenants is exactly the sort of innovative approach that will put the wellbeing of the people of Scotland at the heart of the Scottish Government’s housing policy. The changes will be felt not only in urban areas; rural and island communities will see action taken on residential mobile homes and on agricultural and tied tenancies. Rent controls in those areas will also tackle the rural depopulation crisis by making housing more affordable and preventing young people from being priced out of the communities that they grew up in.

I hope that the new rent guarantor scheme for estranged young people will help some of the most vulnerable young people to live authentically and to break free of abuse. The review of grounds for ending private tenancies and action to make it easier to exit a joint tenancy will ensure that tenancies are fit for purpose and that they can adapt more easily to changes in life circumstances. This deal for tenants may be new to us, but it simply brings us into line with many other European countries where tenants have long had protection through measures such as rent control.

In August, as part of the shared policy programme, the Greens said that we would introduce a new deal for tenants. Four months later, Green MSPs and ministers are delivering on Green promises. The Scottish Greens will stand with tenants and tenant unions to revolutionise the private rented housing sector. The review will deliver for people, not profit, it will view houses as homes and it will place wellbeing at the heart of our housing policy.

16:24  

I celebrated the strides that were made in the previous session of Parliament to make private tenancies more secure. They did not undo the fact that I had been priced out of my studio flat in Inverness when the landlord hiked the price despite there having been no hot water for a year, or the fact that I was kicked out of another flat because the owner wanted to stick it on Airbnb, but I knew that it would be harder for landlords to pull such things in the future.

I am as delighted as anyone else will be who has put off getting a pet, or who has snuck their cat into the back of a pal’s car every time the landlord has come round, that we are discussing the right for people to make their home their own.

Affordability is now the big issue that we have to tackle for private tenants. The commitments to build social and affordable housing across Scotland will do wonders for attempts to claw back some balance in the housing market. However, as fantastic as 110,000 new homes will be, we all know that that is not enough. The constant loss of homes to absentee landlords in tourist hotspots and the fact that so many people are waiting on housing lists that, half the time, someone has to be homeless to get a council house cannot be addressed by house building alone. In addition, on the subject of depopulation, the fact that a house is expected in 2035 will not prevent people from leaving the Highlands tomorrow.

I understand that it will take time to implement the measures that we are talking about. However, we must recognise that a five-year warning to landlords that they will not be able to increase rents will mean many hiking their prices now. I urge the minister to do what he can to tackle that mindset.

I have said in the chamber before, and I will keep saying, that we must not make policy that relies on the good will of landlords. We must make policy that puts the rights of tenants—people who use houses as homes—far above the rights of landlords to own multiple properties with little regulation and a guaranteed increase in their value.

Miles Briggs called the proposals controversial and asked for bailouts for landlords instead. I suggest that, if someone cannot meet their obligations as a landlord, they should not be a landlord. The proposals are not extreme—they are just not Conservative. Until Scotland starts to vote Conservative, my colleagues on those benches should probably get used to the fact that the Government is not Conservative either.

In some communities that I represent, overtourism has prompted the conversion of more than 50 per cent of locally available residential properties to holiday homes with key safes at the door. They lie empty; they cannot house our badly-needed health and social care workers, students or families; and they drive up the cost of homes and the ever-scarcer long-term rents that are available nearby. Whatever figures members use to argue how much money such properties bring to local pubs and shops, those places will not stay open without staff, and those staff need homes. Whatever members say about how much we need tourism, we need communities more.

I had eight addresses in the space of three years before I found my current flat. Such insecurity prevents people from bedding into their communities. I have heard stories about people in rural areas realising during the Covid pandemic that they had no neighbours to help with the messages because all the nearby houses were empty holiday lets.

In 2019, the Scottish Government reported that there were more than 22,000 whole-home Airbnb listings. That is equivalent to a fifth of our 14-year house-building programme. Four hosts were responsible for nearly 2,500 listings. We know that the issue is only getting worse, and rent controls may well make unregulated short-term letting at higher prices for shorter stays even more attractive. Although much of what I am hearing is positive, I urge the Scottish Government to work on the matter across portfolios. We need to tackle the housing crisis from all angles if we are going to make a difference.

16:28  

There can be no doubt that, as others have said, Scotland is facing a difficult period with regard to the housing market. Here, in the Lothians, it can be seen starkly as rents rise and the number of available properties falls. Something has to be done to address the problems, and I put on the record my and my party’s willingness to work with anyone in this Parliament on reasonable measures.

However, we must be careful about what constitutes a reasonable measure. We must not allow ourselves to fall into the trap of thinking that doing something is the same as helping. We must not allow ourselves to be seduced by the easy option of measures that will help in the short term but wreak untold damage in the future. It is incumbent on the members of this Parliament not to be short sighted but to see beyond dogmatic convictions and consider the consequences of legislation beyond the current five-year session of Parliament.

The Government’s so-called new deal for tenants is not the revolutionary legislation that it would have the country believe. It is a package of old, tired and previously unsuccessful policies that define the concept of a short-term fix at the expense of future generations.

My colleagues in the Green Party like to talk about the settled science. I am afraid that, when it comes to rent controls, the verdict is in—and they do not work. Mr Rennie asked for evidence of why we are going down this road. It is not as though we do not have example after example from around the world of rent controls having been implemented and having failed to fix the problem of affordability.

A number of countries, including some in Europe, have a system of rent controls and are not seeking to abolish it, and they are not saying that it has had huge unintended consequences. What about the consequence of not acting? Mr Balfour and I both represent cities that are seeing wildly disproportionate, way-above-inflation rent increases. Do we simply not act and allow that to happen?

I think that the minister would recognise that the countries in Europe that he is talking about have a very different housing market from ours in Scotland.

The biggest issue that we face is that, if we go for rent control, landlords who have only one or two flats will simply sell them. That will take them off the market and those who are looking to rent will have less choice rather than more choice. That, in economic terms, means that rents will go up. Of course, there will be short-term benefits for renters if the proposals go ahead. However, they are minimal and will be dwarfed by the costs for future renters.

I would argue that none of this is controversial. An economist from the left-leaning Brookings Institution in America stated that

“Rent control appears to help affordability in the short run for current tenants, but in the long-run decreases affordability”,

makes negative extremes and affects surrounding neighbourhoods in a way that no one would expect. I would suggest that, if we go down the way of rent controls, that is what would happen in this country.

Yes, we need to fix the problem that has been created over the past 14 years. Scotland would be better served by the Scottish Government if it focused on meeting its targets for new houses built, a measure that would effectively bring prices down and ensure that there was enough accommodation for everybody to have, instead of trying to fix the market.

Rona Mackay will be joining us remotely.

16:32  

Some of the most distressing cases that my office deals with involve tenants who are being forced to leave their homes, sometimes with very little notice and without regard to their personal circumstances. Some have been in their properties for years, and sometimes decades. It is where their children have grown up, where their neighbours are friends and where their lives have been rooted. At those times, I often ask myself how I would feel in that position. I think that lost, scared and confused would be the answer. That is why the consultation on a new deal for tenants is so necessary and so right.

I profoundly disagree with Jeremy Balfour on rent controls. Tenants need to know that their tenancies are secure and that they can call the place where they live home by personalising it to their taste. They need to know that they will not be faced with exorbitant rent rises that they cannot afford, which would inevitably lead them into debt. Have no doubt about it—many private tenants are paying high rents, which are usually much more than a mortgage, for poor-quality homes. We have heard that from across the chamber. The latest report from Citizens Advice Scotland states, under the category “Problems during a tenancy”, that the figures have gone up by 54 per cent since the start of lockdown, in 2020. Lockdown showed us all the value of having a secure and suitable home, and this consultation, held in conjunction with the Scottish Green Party, is the start of a conversation about ensuring that a new and better deal for tenants will be delivered.

Unlike the previous private rented sector strategy, this strategy will pursue a whole-sector approach that considers the social and private rented sectors together, because housing tenures are integrated across the same neighbourhoods and even within the same buildings. All tenants have the right to a safe, warm, affordable and suitable home, regardless of the form that their tenancy takes. Although the Scottish Government’s aim of providing a further 110,000 affordable homes by 2032 is exemplary, there is no doubt that we will need private sector rental houses and responsible landlords for the foreseeable future.

Of course, the housing shortage that we are experiencing comes from Margaret Thatcher and her Tory Government’s disastrous policy of selling off council houses. What a legacy to leave for future generations, which are now struggling to put roofs over their heads.

The new deal recognises those difficulties, and the much-needed agreement will help people with all aspects of renting a home. It aims to increase penalties for illegal evictions and to restrict evictions during winter. It will give tenants greater flexibility to personalise their homes and keep pets. That is crucial. Why should tenants be denied the right to enhance their lives that homeowners take for granted?

Rent controls for the private rented sector and a new housing standard will apply, and there will be a regulator to ensure that the system is fair for renters and landlords.

Crucially, the new deal will set minimum standards for energy efficiency, to make homes cheaper to heat and to help us to meet climate change targets.

The measures form part of the “Housing to 2040” strategy, which was published in March, and they take forward several commitments in the co-operation agreement with the Scottish Green Party. The results of the consultation will feed into the final version of the strategy, which will be published next year, and proposals will be put to the Scottish Parliament in a housing bill in 2023.

I know that members of all parties agree that a warm and affordable home is a basic human right, but it is a right that has been denied to too many people for far too long. I welcome the commitment to a new deal for renters, and I hope that it will ease anxiety for and give security to the 1.85 million people in Scotland who live in rented premises.

Mercedes Villalba joins us remotely.

16:36  

The pandemic has exposed what decades of failed housing policy have done to the rented sector in Scotland. Many tenants are being driven into debt by unaffordable rents and are being forced to live in damp, cold, poor-quality housing. Therefore, I welcome the Scottish Government’s publication of a consultation on a new deal for tenants.

However, let us be clear. It is thanks to activists in tenants unions such as Living Rent, and to campaigning members of the Scottish Parliament such as Pauline McNeill, who lodged a proposal for a fair rents (Scotland) bill, that there are proposals for rent controls in the consultation.

I am concerned by the Scottish Government’s approach to implementing a system of rent controls. The co-operation agreement with the Greens commits to introducing rent controls by the end of 2025, which means that tenants must wait another four years for action to be taken on rents and that landlords will have another four years in which to raise rents with impunity.

Living Rent is calling for urgent action from the Scottish Government. In support of that, the Labour amendment calls for a commitment that

“the legislation establishing the framework for these rent controls must be included in the forthcoming Housing Bill in the second year of the current parliamentary session.”

I hope that all members will support our amendment.

The minister said earlier that no legislative change can come until the consultation has concluded. However, we are in the middle of an unaffordability crisis and every month in which rent controls are delayed is another month in which renters experience increasing debt and insecure homes. I ask the minister to look again at urgent interim measures that can be taken right now to address unaffordable rents.

Rent controls will be vital if we are to improve the quality of rented accommodation and security of tenure. Scotland’s housing stock is in a state of disrepair, with every second home failing the Scottish Government’s quality standards, but tenants have no real power to force landlords to make repairs and, too often, complaints are met with the threat of eviction. Even if a landlord cannot evict a tenant through a no-fault eviction, they can increase rent and use cost as a weapon to pressure tenants to get out.

In Germany and the Netherlands, rent controls are used to force improvements and repairs to rented housing. We should adopt a similar approach in Scotland, with rent controls serving to incentivise improvements and deter unscrupulous landlords from refusing to make repairs or hiking up rents to secure evictions.

Unaffordable rent is not unique to the private rented sector. In 2019, the Scottish Housing Regulator found that up to 80 per cent of tenants in the social and public rented sector were concerned about their ability to pay rent. Too many social landlords leave tenants with no choice but to accept rent increases. We must democratise social landlords and put tenants at the heart of social landlords’ decision making. That is why the Scottish Government must make rent consultations statutory, and the results binding on registered social landlords.

Although my remarks have focused on the need for rent controls and proper consultation on rents, those measures cannot be implemented in isolation. They must be matched by significant improvements in enforcement and measures that enhance tenants’ rights, such as ending the practice of tenant reference fees. Given that landlords received 14 times more in financial support than tenants during the pandemic, the Scottish Government now needs to prove to tenants that it is on their side by introducing those changes as a matter of urgency.

We move to closing speeches. I note that two members are not in the chamber, which is a discourtesy not just to the chair but to other members taking part in the debate. I expect an apology from each of those two members.

16:40  

This has been quite a good debate. I have enjoyed many of the contributions, which have been quite enlightening. However, I wonder what has happened to Finlay Carson, because he went all cuddly this afternoon about cats and dogs. That is not the character that I am used to. Perhaps, because the Lib Dems are sitting on this side of the chamber now, Finlay Carson has gone all soft, or perhaps he has had too much of the sherry in advance of Christmas. Nevertheless, his was a good contribution, because it got across how much people care about cats and dogs, especially when they are going through periods of self-isolation. Things like that are incredibly important.

That relates to Audrey Nicoll’s comments on health and wellbeing. I am particularly passionate about the need for improved mental health support. It is incredibly important that we take into account the impact of poor housing on people’s mental health.

Emma Roddick’s contribution was particularly powerful. She talked, from personal experience and with quite a lot of knowledge, about the interoperability of different parts of the housing sector. She talked about holiday lets, short-term lets, second homes and absent landlords, and the impact that that has on people, particularly in the remote and rural communities that Ms Roddick represents. I was full of admiration when she spoke directly to the Scottish Government about the need to improve supply. Supply is at the heart of the Liberal Democrats’ amendment, which I hope the Government is able to support, because, if it does, we will be able to support the motion.

It has been a good debate, because we got into some of the complex issues that are at its heart. I was interested in the comments on evictions. We want, of course, to minimise evictions as much as we can. However, it was interesting to read the briefings from Shelter and the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations, which address evictions from slightly different perspectives. Obviously, the SFHA is keen to keep the tool of evictions as a last resort, in order to address the issue of people who simply refuse to pay their rent, even though they can afford to do so. The SFHA tries to keep evictions to a minimum.

On the other hand, Shelter says that there are still far too many evictions in the social rented sector. It is also concerned about illegal evictions in the private rented sector. However, even Shelter admits that we need to keep the tool of evictions as a last resort. It focuses on the need for best practice to avoid people getting into a situation in which they are not paying their rent. Nevertheless, Shelter regards evictions as an important tool that landlords should have available to them. I would be keen to hear the minister explain how that all fits together, and how we can spread best practice without denying the tools of control, so that those who are supposed to pay rent, and can afford to do so, pay the rent that is due.

We have dealt with short-term lets in recent legislation. Some issues, such as licensing, need to be finally resolved, but we have dealt with an important part of the housing market that is contributing to major problems in coastal and remote communities. Second homes, however, are another issue in such areas, including in North East Fife and many constituencies across the country. There are parts of my constituency where the combination of short-term lets and second homes accounts for something like 80 per cent of the community.

How on earth are we supposed to keep a thriving community together, with local shops, a school, public services and buses, if we do not make efforts to deal with second homes? I was interested in the plan set out in the housing to 2040 strategy, which includes a reference to more powers for local authorities. However, it is scant on details and I would be interested to hear from the minister what more will be proposed and how quickly. The situation is urgent and coastal, remote and rural communities need it to be addressed.

16:45  

This has been a really interesting debate, describing an issue that has been at the heart of Scottish politics for over a century: the tension in our economy between landlordism and tenants’ rights. That perpetual struggle for power has run for decades, it is at the heart of why the Parliament was established and we need to confront it boldly and with imagination. In that spirit, Scottish Labour welcomes the publication of the draft rental sector strategy. We will seek to drive it forward with encouragement and support, and our amendment proposes to inject some pace. I hope that the minister will meet that in the spirit with which it was intended. It was good to have that insight at the start of the debate.

We have had some very good speeches. We are working against the clock. The pressure on tenants is rising daily and, over the past decade, we have seen rent increases in Edinburgh of 46 per cent and in Glasgow of 41 per cent. We know that the longer any bill takes, the more pressure people are under. As incomes continue to stagnate and people experience continued cost pressures, something has to give. It is often the security and fundamental ability of people to live their lives with a sense of mental wellbeing. As many members have said, we have to act urgently to address the housing crisis in our midst.

We have seen the symptoms of the crisis increasing in the past few years because of the pandemic. Once the temporary ban on evictions was removed, we saw social rental evictions due to arrears increase by 975 per cent—that is explosive growth. We have heard estimates that the total of social and private sector rental arrears has climbed to more than £300 million. That is a major pressure.

As Ms Villalba, who represents North East Scotland said, we cannot wait for the crisis point to address the issue. My colleague from Glasgow, Pauline McNeill, addressed the point about short-term measures that can be implemented, such as protecting renters’ rights under the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020, alongside extending powers to end evictions in circumstances where there are no issues related to anti-social, disruptive or criminal behaviour. It is unreasonable for the community to see people being displaced from their homes and ratcheted out of accommodation, resulting in their homelessness, because of private landlordism. That is not something that society can accept; the cost of homelessness is not priced in. It is not something that the community as a whole should bear for the sake of private profit.

The Scottish Government is proposing rent controls and we welcome those in principle. However, our amendment calls on the Government to move faster and to agree framework legislation in the second year of the parliamentary session. I understand that the minister is prepared to accept our amendment; I welcome that and I hope that we can work constructively to deliver that framework at pace, being mindful of the pressures that renters are under.

We have heard about the extent to which insecure tenancies affect people’s lives. Members who have personal experience of that have offered some pretty stirring testimony. We can also understand that there are other pressures in the discussion on rent controls. We have to understand what we mean by rent controls: rent control already exists, but the control lies with the landlord and not with the tenant. The strategy is an effort to try to redress the balance of control. Control is constant, but the question is, who has that control? That is what rent controls seek to address.

I noted that there was a question about dogmatism. Let us look at the evidence. I know that one of the Conservative members for the Lothians raised that point. Yes, we are dogmatic about ending poverty and income-related issues that push people into homelessness and other distress as a result of housing costs that are completely out of control because of landlordism. We have to address that issue in our society urgently.

We know that it can work because there are practical examples, although some models have been flawed. In Scotland, there were rent controls in Glasgow from 1915 to 1989, which resulted in significant issues in the city. We have learned from that and there are international models that we can benchmark against. I hope that that is what the proposed legislation will seek to achieve.

In New York, for example, there have been rent controls since the 1940s, and they have not resulted in the sort of calamitous effects that were described by Conservative members. There is an issue in San Francisco, where pre-1980 properties are subject to rent controls but those built after 1980 are not, which creates a perversity in the market that causes distortions. That can be addressed; what has been described is a false equivalence. It is not a constant that all rent controls are bad. As ever, the devil is in the detail, and we hope to address all that in the course of considering the legislation. That is why Labour supports it.

We broadly support the principles behind the living rent campaign around democratic accountability, which I think was mentioned by the member for East Lothian, referring in particular to the legacy of the right-to-buy scheme causing distortions in the market. At one point, Scotland had the highest level of social tenancies in the world. In Glasgow, it was second only to Hong Kong worldwide for social rented tenancies. We have seen a massive disruption and change in the marketplace over the past 40 years, which we must address.

Things are out of control and we have heard numerous descriptions from members today about the impact that that has had: the lack of control on tenancies, including from the public rented sector, and rampaging profiteering in the market must be addressed. We hope to work constructively as we proceed in the coming months and years to address that with urgency, boldly and with imagination. Let us redress the power of rent controls from the landlord to the tenant.

16:51  

I am grateful for the opportunity to close the debate on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives. Today we have heard many contributions about the importance of protecting and enhancing tenants’ rights, and I welcome the fact that we have had time to debate that.

All too often, the rented sector and tenants themselves have become forgotten elements of the wider debate around housing. Now, there is certainty and opportunity. Over the past two years, the pandemic has shone a light on many of the challenges faced by tenants the length and breadth of the country. In response, the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020 included measures to protect tenants in both the social and private rented sectors from evictions. That was very much welcomed, and the period went from three to six months. Similarly, the Coronavirus (Scotland) (No 2) Act 2020 dealt with students stuck in rental contracts during the Covid pandemic, and they were protected. Measures such as those are entirely justified, and Conservative members did not hesitate to support them.

It is right, however, that the conversation should now shift and that we are talking about supporting tenants in the long term while we look towards Scotland’s recovery from the pandemic. There is much in the rented sector strategy that we can welcome, including measures to prevent illegal evictions and evictions during the winter months.

Although those protections are there, evictions involve what happens to tenants themselves. There is a gap in the rental market, and it has been proposed that new tenancies provide financial guarantees to cover the cost of deposits, for instance. It is perhaps disappointing that such a scheme is not included in the proposals that we are debating today.

It is clear that the main issue faced by tenants is spiralling rents. Some of the largest increases have been in Fife and the Forth valley, in my region, where rents for two-bedroom properties have increased by 5 per cent in the past year, and by more than 30 per cent since 2010. In Fife, rents for three-bedroom properties have increased by 40 per cent, and rents for four-bedroom properties have increased by 72 per cent since 2010 and by 16.5 per cent in the past year alone. Such statistics make it clear that increasing rents will be among the main challenges faced by tenants. We look forward to that being addressed.

Although conversations about increasing tenants’ rights are very important, there needs to be a plan to discuss increasing housing. Tenants indeed have the right to protections. However, while we talk about the proposals that will come into effect towards the end of 2025, we should not suppose that they offer a one-stop solution to ensure that rents will be managed. We considered what is happening in the rental market and we discussed some examples from different parts of the country and around the world. In Sweden, rent controls have ensured that there is a second, sub-let property market, and there have been waiting lists there of more than a decade. In an attempt to fix one problem on the rental market, we should not inadvertently create another. It is vitally important that we manage the situation. Experience tells us that we should not try to push through such proposals without considering the potential pitfalls.

There have been some very good contributions from across the chamber. I will talk about some of them.

My colleague Miles Briggs spoke about the need to increase the supply of homes and rental properties, rent controls and rent pressure zones. What can happen with them has to be examined in the process, because there will be different market levels and rents.

Willie Rennie talked about increasing the supply of affordable housing and the key to that being ensuring that the supply is the priority. I believe that that is the case.

Finlay Carson talked about the complexities of the issue. We acknowledge that massive complexities are involved. Rented properties need responsible tenants. There are many responsible tenants and there are many responsible landlords. Finlay Carson also talked about pet-friendly rentals, which have been brought to the fore during the pandemic. They have a part to play in the sector to deal with social isolation and loneliness.

Jeremy Balfour talked about the difficulties that the market faces and short-term assessments that should not be short sighted. We must ensure that we do not fall into that trap and that we understand the needs of the workforce and how sustainable it should and can be.

The Conservatives welcome the efforts to enhance and protect tenants’ rights, and we have set out an appropriate timescale for doing that. There will be opportunities for people to contribute during the process. The key focus for the Government needs to be on investment in the housing sector more generally. The bigger problem that renters will face will be the lack of rental properties and maintaining sustainable investment. That is what the Government should address to ensure that change takes place.

It is appropriate that tenants’ needs are looked at. We will continue to call for that to ensure that there is a balance, an opportunity and a structure that supports and enhances the sector. I look forward to the debate and discussion that will take place.

16:57  

I thank all members who have contributed to a constructive debate. It is clear that there are some issues of substance that we will disagree on. Some are calling on us not to do certain things; others say that we are not going nearly fast enough. We will have those debates and perhaps disagreements—that is all legitimate.

I want to pull out one point that has come across from right across the spectrum. The importance of home has been recognised in speeches from all parties. We have learned more about that and maybe understood that at a deeper level in these days of Covid, in which more people have had to work from home or have been isolated and cooped up together. The necessity of making the right to adequate housing a real, delivered human right in our society and of recognising that not everybody’s right to adequate housing is being met is really important, as is recognising the meaning and importance of home.

Residential properties are not principally speculative investments or substitute pensions; they are principally homes. That is what they are for, and that must be our priority. I hope that, whatever differences we might have on points of detail and individual policies, we will all continue to stick to that principle and work towards the realisation of adequate housing being a human right that has to be met everywhere.

In the time available, I want to run through some of the contributions and, in particular, I want to talk about all the amendments that we will vote on.

Miles Briggs opened for the Conservative Party. Obviously, we disagree on some fundamentals, but we have some important points of agreement. Not least, we thank the organisations that sent briefings. Many of them have worked with me to help to shape our thinking ahead of the publication of the strategy. The Conservatives have expressed support for measures to support those who are experiencing or are at risk of domestic abuse as well as for action on illegal evictions. I think that I heard support for action on winter evictions, as well. If there is any common ground that we have there, I will certainly look forward to working together on that.

However, I do not agree with the Conservative amendment, the budget analysis in it, or the focus, for example, on the rural housing fund. That fund is not, by a long way, the only way in which social housing is provided in rural and islands areas. In fact, during the previous parliamentary session, more than 6,000 social homes were provided in rural and islands areas. The amendment would also delete a lot of the ambition in the Government’s motion, so we will not support it.

It is a fact, which the minister will have to accept, that the housing budget is being cut by £10 million.

There are contesting analyses of how we look at that budget. That is always the case. Pretty much every year, political parties, analysts and others try to cut and slice the budget in different ways, in order to present their own particular preference.

I will touch on the point of disagreement about rent controls. Miles Briggs asked what assessment had already taken place. We are not yet at the point of having a fully developed proposal on rent controls, but we recognise the depth of the problem and the need for it to be addressed. We are open to hearing all points of view on the particular design of a rent control system. We have been very clear. We need to gather far more data—detailed data—on rent levels and on the other aspects of the private rented sector before we are able to design and present finalised proposals on that. We will keep an open mind.

Miles Briggs rose—

I will take one more intervention, if I have time.

I also highlighted the complete failure of rent pressure zones to make any difference. What assessment has taken place of that?

As I have said, it is clear that one of the fatal flaws in that system has been placing the onus—the whole responsibility—on local government to generate the data and produce an evidence base to show that rent pressure zones are necessary. That is why I believe that an effective national system of rent controls is needed.

When it comes to the fixation on market values and on the operation of a free market, it is abundantly clear that such an approach to housing has failed far too many people. In any case, housing is not just a market commodity; it is a human right. There is a moral case for fair rent, which I believe is equal to the moral case for fair wages. These days, few people would question the need for a minimum wage and for the state to intervene in what would otherwise be an extremely exploitative free market. The case that we need to make is every bit as clear.

Will the minister take an intervention?

Will the minister give way?

I need to move on, I am afraid.

I come to Labour’s position. I recognise the long-standing case for intervention that has been made by Labour colleagues. I believe that our intention to lay the framework for the data collection machinery that we need will start to build on that case. That is what is to be proposed in the year 2 housing bill. From my exchange with Mark Griffin early in the debate, I understood that that was the intention of his amendment, and I will support it on that basis.

It is clear that, if we are to take action, we need to take the time to get the detail right. Some elements of what is proposed in the strategy will take until 2025—near the end of this parliamentary session. Other measures, such as those on rent adjudication, will happen much earlier. I hope that we will continue to work with Labour colleagues on that. In addition, I recognise Pauline McNeill’s long-standing work on the issue, and I thank her for the opportunity to work constructively on it, as I will be very happy to do.

We must be clear. This is not about saying, “No change until 2025”—far from it. It is about saying that a schedule of work will begin in the short term and will work through to 2025—for example, on pre-action protocols, as Mark Griffin also mentioned.

There is a review of student accommodation. I will write to Pauline McNeill with more detail on that.

In the Liberal Democrat contribution, Willie Rennie recognised the level of cold, damp, overpriced properties that are still out there—the reality of the problems that the strategy seeks to address. A lot of his focus was on social renting. Pre-pandemic, we were clearly on track to meet the target for delivery for social housing. The pandemic has provided a massive challenge to everybody when it comes to the construction sector, but the 110,000 homes target is a clear commitment. As far as I understand Willie Rennie’s amendment, he does not seek to up that figure to an arbitrary and unfunded target but to put pressure on us to deliver the target to which we have committed. On that basis, I will support the amendment.

Will the minister give way?

If I have time for one more intervention, I will.

The minister has eight minutes and is closing now.

In that case, I once again thank everyone who has contributed to our thinking in developing the strategy and who has contributed to the debate. It is clear that Scotland is on a journey to a much fairer position for tenants in the private and social rented sectors, as well as in the more niche, unconventional areas of rented accommodation. I invite the Parliament to share my ambition for a new deal for tenants in Scotland to make that fairer Scotland possible, and to support the Government motion as well as the Labour and Liberal Democrat amendments.