Meeting date: Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Meeting of the Parliament 23 May 2018
Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Education (Subject Choices), Housing, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time, Sistema Scotland and the Big Noise Orchestra
- Portfolio Question Time
- Education (Subject Choices)
- Business Motions
- Parliamentary Bureau Motion
- Decision Time
- Sistema Scotland and the Big Noise Orchestra
The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-12342, in the name of Graham Simpson, on housing.15:52
It would have been easy to lodge a motion on housing attacking sluggish house building under the Scottish National Party. A sector that is flatlining and an obsession with ill-defined affordable housing—whatever that means—would indeed be worthy of this Parliament’s time, but there are other issues in housing that also deserve our attention, and I want to concentrate today on our current housing stock.
By 2050, 80 per cent of our current homes will still be in use. In Scotland, a quarter of all domestic dwellings are tenements, and 38 per cent of those are pre-1919 buildings. According to the Scottish house condition survey of 2016, 6 per cent of all properties need extensive repairs, 28 per cent require urgent repairs and 48 per cent have disrepair to critical elements. Further, 5 per cent of pre-1919 properties have critical, urgent and extensive disrepair.
Members across the chamber have realised that we need to act. A number of us got together and formed a working group—that is different from a cross-party group, as it is a group with work to do. In January, Ben Macpherson led a members’ business debate on this issue. It was consensual but, of course, there was no vote. That is why, today, we wanted to give Parliament the chance to say that it thinks that something should be done.
When we talk about tenements, we are talking about buildings in common ownership, and we could mean any block of flats of any age or one of those four-in-a-block buildings. In such buildings, problems arise because the ownership and the responsibility for the properties is shared. Someone who lives on the ground floor of a four-storey block that has a roof that needs work is not going to be happy to pay for that work, even though it is their roof, too. Very often, basic maintenance is not carried out. Gutters are not cleaned, checks are not done, so problems mount—and so do the bills.
Councils have powers to ensure that buildings are kept up to scratch but, with one or two exceptions, they do not use them. We are standing at a condition cliff edge, and something has to change. We think that it is inevitable that there will have to be legislative changes, so it is good to see that, in its amendment, the Scottish Government agrees that there should be a review.
The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations has said that the issue is of “real concern” and that
“there is no clear legal requirement for tenement flat owners to fund the maintenance and report of common parts”.
There have been some good ideas. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors mooted the idea of buildings having regular health checks. We agree with RICS, and the Government amendment backs looking at that.
We also think that factors will have to play a part. That is where we come to the second part of the motion, which would be left untouched by the Government amendment. We back that amendment. If we are to have mandatory factoring, we must have a system that ensures that factors perform well and are struck off if they do not. The Property Factors (Scotland) Act 2011 provides for the performance of factors to be regulated and for them to comply with the code of conduct. If factors do not measure up, residents can appeal to the First-tier Tribunal for Scotland housing and property chamber. Since 2013, that tribunal has issued 169 enforcement orders against factoring companies. One in five of those orders has never been complied with. Last week, Kevin Stewart told the Parliament that just two property factors have been removed from the register since 2013 as a result of having failed to comply with the code and the enforcement orders. Five factors have been removed for technical reasons.
A number of factoring firms are repeat offenders, and there have been multiple complaints and rulings against them. Apex Property Factor has had 13 hearings and 10 rulings against it. Charles White Ltd has had 23 hearings and 19 rulings against it. James Gibb Property Management has had 17 hearings and 13 rulings against it. They are only examples. There is no system in place to flag up repeat offenders. Firms just have to comply with an order, and they can then carry on as before. That must be wrong.
I agree with Graham Simpson’s point that factors need to behave properly, but does he agree that it is useful to have a factor or an organisation looking after a close, because, if doing so is just left to the owners, that is even less likely to happen?
Yes. I do not disagree with that at all, but we need to ensure that they operate properly.
I do not want to give the impression that we are talking about an industry of rogues. It is not. The number of tribunal cases is small in relation to the size of the client base, and most factors do not get rulings against them when they appear. However, Property Managers Association Scotland told me:
“The industry generally would benefit from robust action against any firms consistently failing to meet required standards.”
I am glad that the Government agrees with us on that.
Apex Property Factor came to my attention when I was asked to help one of its clients. Sophie Wells is an owner-occupier in a block of flats in Motherwell. Earlier this year, she came to me in desperation, so I went to see her, and my blood boiled. In 2014, lead flashing was stolen from the building, and it has never been replaced. Water leaks into the building, and the wood is rotting. Parts of the ceiling are missing and walls are damp and mouldy. They are green—and that is not the colour of the paint. Doors have been kicked in by drug addicts, windows are broken and downpipes are missing. Repairs have not been carried out. In December 2016, the communal areas were without lighting. Residents asked for help from Apex Property Factor. The lighting was not fixed, so Sophie and a neighbour rigged up their own.
General complaints relate to invoicing for cleaning and maintenance works that have not been done. Sophie has cleaned the block herself, cut the grass, picked up litter and redecorated inside and outside. The main door to the block has been replaced by Sophie and a neighbour. The intercom system has been vandalised and does not work.
I recently met officials from North Lanarkshire Council, who are not prepared to use the powers that they have to get anything done to help the residents. They should be ashamed of themselves. As I said earlier, Apex Property Factor is one of a number of firms with multiple rulings against them.
I will tell members about one of the cases heard by the tribunal, which involved a property in Renfrew and an invoice for repair works. The property owner asked to see the three competitive quotes that the factor had received for the work, and three quotes were provided. Quote 1 was from Real Building Contractors, but there was no company address or VAT number. Quote 2 was from Concept Builders, but the quote was dated after the request for three competitive quotes. The applicant tried to call the telephone number on the quote, but it was not in use; the website listed did not exist; the postal address was a mail-drop box company; and the applicant found a company with the same name, but it denied having provided the quote. Quote 3 was from Quality Property Maintenance, but with no date, no VAT and no address, and the land-line telephone number turned out to be a branch of a shoe shop at Parkhead Forge. The case goes on to establish various breaches of the code.
I have some suggestions. We should introduce a ratings system for factor companies, there should be a flagging system, there should be better consumer support, and it should be possible for applicants to mention things to the tribunal that they have forgotten to put on their complaint form. We need to look after what we have and we need the system to do it.
That the Parliament believes that existing legislation is inadequate in dealing with the condition of Scotland’s tenement housing stock; backs calls for changes to legislation including, for example, having mandatory building health checks; believes that property factors can play a part in a new system; considers that there are property factor companies that perform their duties well, but that there are some that are performing poorly; acknowledges the limited role of the First-tier Tribunal for Scotland (Housing and Property Chamber) in improving the performance of property factors and considers that the system for members of the public to make complaints should be improved; believes that there is a need for a more robust process to remove property factors that repeatedly break the property factors code of conduct or duties, and calls on the Scottish Government to review the current system.16:01
I am pleased to have the opportunity to welcome and speak in this debate that Graham Simpson has brought forward on the important issue of tenement property maintenance.
From the amendments that were proposed from across the chamber, it is clear that we have a lot to agree on. Had Alex Cole-Hamilton’s amendment been selected, we would certainly have supported it. We very much agree that improving the quality of the housing stock will support our efforts to eradicate fuel poverty and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Through the energy efficient Scotland programme, we will encourage and support owners to improve their homes.
Likewise, I entirely agree with Andy Wightman’s unselected amendment, which stated that VAT should be removed for building repairs and improvements. Scottish ministers have spoken about that on numerous occasions and have pressed the United Kingdom Government directly on it. I encourage all parties to join us in calling on the UK Government to make that very sensible change.
Pauline McNeill’s amendment rightly highlights the various ways open to owners to manage and improve their properties, such as co-operative arrangements. I encourage owners to work together to put in place the most appropriate mechanism for them. The under one roof website is a useful source of impartial advice and information for owners and the Scottish Government will continue to support it.
I welcome Ben Macpherson’s establishment of a working group of MSPs from across the chamber and interested stakeholders to look at ways for owners to better look after tenements. I look forward to hearing the group’s findings, particularly about the practical difficulties of enforcement and the costs that might be involved for home owners. I will, of course, give serious consideration to proposals that come out of that group.
Should the proposals coming forth from that cross-party working group include one on the need for primary legislation, will the Government commit to bringing forward such legislation?
Yes. We are committed to keeping our policy frameworks and legislation under review to ensure that everyone lives in a good-quality home.
In terms of existing powers and future regulation, actions have been taken already to improve property conditions. The Housing (Scotland) Act 2014 allows local authorities to pay, and subsequently recover, owner’s missing shares when they do not contribute to common works. We touched on that subject in the debate that Ben Macpherson brought to the chamber. Again, I say to all local authorities that they should use the power that they have to help their citizens. A number of local authorities have used those powers. The others must follow and there must be the sharing of best practice.
Can the minister clarify which local authorities have used and which have not used the legislation that he mentioned?
I do not have that answer for Mr Johnson off the top of my head, but I am more than willing to provide him with that information.
Glasgow City Council is using the missing share powers very well. Aberdeen City Council recently used them for the first time, and I hope that it will do much more in that regard. I have committed to extending the missing share powers to registered social landlords, and regulations on that will be introduced later this year.
For owners, we are piloting our £10 million equity loan scheme in Glasgow, Argyll and Bute, and Perth and Kinross to fund essential repairs and energy efficiency improvements, including common works.
Local authorities should use all the powers at their disposal to tackle poor-quality housing in the private rented sector, including through enhanced enforcement areas and the power to report breaches of the repairing standard directly to the First-tier Tribunal on behalf of tenants. We have already consulted on improving condition standards in the private rented sector, and draft regulations are proposed for later this year. I also intend to consult on other condition issues, including specific matters affecting tenement properties, which again will happen later this year.
I turn to property factors. Through Patricia Ferguson’s member’s bill, which received cross-party support and became the Property Factors (Scotland) Act 2011, Scotland led the way in having a specific statutory framework to protect home owners who use the services of property factors. The regulatory regime has been in force for more than five years and we are considering how it could be strengthened. We consulted recently on a revised code of conduct for property factors and on whether the 2011 act has improved the wider regulatory regime. We will publish an analysis of the consultation responses shortly, and we will use it to shape future standards of practice.
I believe that there is a clear consensus across the chamber and that we can all agree that there is no single quick fix to improve the condition of Scotland’s homes. I very much welcome this debate and the creation of the working group on maintenance of tenement scheme property, which is supported across the parties. I commit to continuing to work with the sector to review and strengthen policy and legislation so that everyone across Scotland lives in a good-quality home.
I move amendment S5M-12342.3, to leave out from “existing legislation” to “in a new system” and insert:
“tenement housing stock, as defined in the Tenements (Scotland) Act 2004, is an important housing sector for many people in Scotland and that maintenance of this stock is vital for all those owning and living in the sector and to wider society; notes the creation and ongoing work of the cross-party supported Working Group on Maintenance of Tenement Scheme Property; agrees that a review should be carried out of relevant existing legislation and of how tenement housing in Scotland could potentially be better maintained and enhanced, which should include consideration of the potential costs and impact of mandatory building health checks, new initiatives that would help facilitate owners to collectively undertake maintenance of tenement communal property, and what is the best role for property factors”.16:07
I welcome the debate on Graham Simpson’s motion.
Tenement property is a complex subject, on which the Parliament has made significant progress, but the law in the area is crying out for more action, more investment and more solutions.
We broadly support everything in the motion and the amendments. I will briefly explain our amendment and what it seeks to do. We felt that the Tory motion reflected our position, but that it appeared to read as if building health checks would be mandatory. Our amendment clarifies that they would be up for consideration, rather than mandatory. In order to clarify that, we had to include the rest of the motion in our amendment so that we could put in the bit at the end about co-operatives as an alternative to factoring.
We support the Green position. We would have supported the Liberal Democrat amendment had it been selected for debate and, if our amendment falls, we will vote for the Government amendment, essentially because we feel that there is a lot of commonality between us. We believe that the Government needs to be a bit stronger in giving a commitment to legislation in the current session of Parliament, but that is really the only division between us.
As Graham Simpson said, the law on the management of tenement property covers much more than only the traditional tenements that were built in the 19th century, when there was an explosion of such buildings. It includes any flatted property where there are common repair and maintenance issues. I am sure that I will not be alone in saying that the tenement is a fantastic but complex building form. I have owned three tenement properties in the west end of Glasgow and dry rot, poor factoring, leaky roofs and unco-operative neighbours all go with the territory. At my surgeries, too, I hear many cases of people trying to get factors in place. Properties are not registered but are rented out and owners are left with the debts of others who have not paid.
We welcome the working group on the maintenance of tenement scheme property. We strongly believe that it is needed and hope that it will come up with some real solutions in the current session of Parliament. Existing provisions are inadequate to deal with the extent of Scotland’s tenement housing. In particular, we welcome the discussion on owners associations, which currently have no legal status. It will be worth while to explore what else they could do if they had the teeth to do it.
Housing associations are playing a vital role in preserving and improving tenements that were in serious disrepair. Some social landlords are selectively selling flats where they are the minority owner as they struggle to meet the housing quality standard.
A rapid rise in the number of private landlords and the growth in property values that leads to owners becoming property rich but income poor is a key problem in this area. Owners failing to address maintenance issues and passing them on to the next owner is a huge problem, too, and I hope that members do not miss that. It would be unfair of us to think up schemes that would in effect penalise the current owner when the maintenance work and repairs have built up over a much longer period, so we need to think about that, too. The reluctance of owners to take a long-term view of and interest in their properties is a critical point in this debate.
The West of Scotland Housing Association estimates that there are 12,500 substandard properties in pre-1914 tenements and 5,000 substandard post-1924 properties. Crumbling stonework and a lack of maintenance of roofs and gutters are just two of the problems.
Glasgow City Council estimated that, in 2015, 7,000 tenements were below tolerable standard. In the same year, Renfrewshire Council estimated that it had 1,200 that were below tolerable standard. They cite as the main problem a lack of routine maintenance and a lack of interest among owners generally. They say that it is difficult to engage landlords in any discussion about the management and maintenance of the common fabric of the building.
The West of Scotland Housing Association also says that former right-to-buy properties are now a major time-bomb. In fact, in my experience, which I am sure is shared by others, many owners of such properties do not seem to fully understand that with ownership comes a responsibility for the property and the common part of the stair, close and solum.
We need some solutions that will help ordinary tenants who are trying to decide on common repairs and ensure that the law favours them over absentee landlords who cannot be found and do not take an interest in their properties. We also need to support landlords who are trying to invest in their properties. We need long-term thinking that does not penalise only current owners. We need to support housing associations in the work that they are doing, too.
I believe that we will need some legislation in this Parliament, but, if we work together effectively with the group that has already been set up, we will find common ground and do some good for the owners of tenement properties and ensure that the law is more strongly in their favour.
I move amendment S5M-12342.2, to leave out from “including” to end and insert:
“following a thorough review of the gaps in existing law, which would include the consideration of mandatory building health checks; believes that property factors can play a part in a new system; considers that there are property factor companies that perform their duties well, but that there are some that are performing poorly; acknowledges the limited role of the First-tier Tribunal for Scotland (Housing and Property Chamber) in improving the performance of property factors and considers that the system for members of the public to make complaints should be improved; believes that there is a need for a more robust process to remove property factors that repeatedly break the property factors code of conduct or duties; calls on the Scottish Government to review the current system, and believes that more should be done to encourage owners to set up co-operative arrangements as an alternative to factoring to assist in the management of their properties.”
I call Andy Wightman, who has up to four minutes.16:12
I thank Graham Simpson for using Conservative Party business time to propose a motion on a topic that is designed to achieve broad agreement across the chamber. As Graham Simpson said, this debate follows on from Ben Macpherson’s members’ business debate earlier this year. I am delighted that he subsequently established a cross-party working group on the maintenance of tenement scheme property. He posited that as being in contrast to a cross-party group that does not do any work. A lot of cross-party groups do a lot of work; I am sure that he did not mean to imply otherwise.
The Scottish Greens have a manifesto commitment to establish a not-for-profit repairs service to manage major repairs, together with commitments to look at log books, sinking funds and mandatory energy efficiency measures at point of sale in the private sector. We also promised to press for the removal of VAT on building repairs, and I welcome the minister’s comments in that regard.
Given that 68 per cent of dwellings in Edinburgh are flatted, more people are likely to live in such property than any other type of domestic property. It is therefore incumbent on us to deal with the highly unsatisfactory state of affairs that confronts far too many people on a daily basis. Getting things right for tenement dwellers is not just about ensuring maintenance; it is about promoting our health. Having personally experienced threats of physical violence and harassment when I have tried to initiate tenement repairs, and having met constituents who have experienced that, I can well understand the stress and anxiety that comes from poor governance in tenements.
The private sector has made some useful interventions, such as the tenement health check policy, but there are still huge legal and financial barriers in the way of maintaining tenements to an acceptable standard.
Presiding Officer, how long do I have?
Much of the flatted property in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee was built more than a century ago. With proper refurbishment and maintenance, those buildings should last many more centuries. In the light of that, tenements are, in my view, part of the public infrastructure of our cities, just as the streets, sewers and utilities are. However, that public infrastructure is currently framed in law as private interests, and it is those short-term interests—which last typically 10 or 15 years—that too often prevail and frustrate the necessity of undertaking regular maintenance that could ensure the long-term good condition of shared property. I am therefore keen that we frame this debate as one that concerns public infrastructure rather than private property.
The law is further complicated, as Dr Frankie McCarthy, from the school of law at the University of Glasgow, helpfully outlined at a recent meeting of the cross-party group on home energy efficiency and renewable energy. She observed that in law there is no such thing as a building; there is a set of individual flats, plus some common parts. Therefore, there is fragmentation of ownership.
Dr McCarthy went on to point out that the rules of ownership are not standard. Default rules are set out in the Tenements (Scotland) Act 2004, but title deeds might well say something different. She said that the strategic areas of a tenement, such as the walls, roof and foundations, are not always owned by the same people.
In addition, Dr McCarthy advised that no management is built into the tenure system. In principle, all owners are responsible, but in practice nothing in Scotland’s system of land tenure relates to owners associations, an obligation to meet, maintenance plans or sinking funds. In general, management is reactive at best, and although repairs and maintenance can be done with a majority vote, improvements require unanimity.
We used to do things a little better. In the members’ business debate that I mentioned, I talked about my visit to the City of Edinburgh Council chambers, where I found a small, dark room full of cabinets, which contained index cards that noted inspections that the council had made to tenement property across the city until around the early 1980s. We used to have systems in place, and we need to review the legislation and ensure that such an approach is brought back.
I am pleased that the motion and the amendments largely say the same thing. The Greens will support them all.16:16
It is always hard to follow Andy Wightman in a debate such as this. I am very much one of those members of the Scottish Parliament who learns at the knee of the maestro in this regard—[Interruption.] I put on record my thanks not just for his speech in this debate but for the assistance that he has given me on land and ownership matters—[Interruption.] I should also thank the Conservative members who are contributing.
I ask everyone to be quiet. I think that Mr Wightman would like to hear this. [Laughter.]
Despite their outburst, I am grateful to Conservative members for bringing today’s motion before us. Housing is important. I am also gratified to hear that they will accept the Government amendment, because I think that it would be wrong to pre-empt the outcome of the expert working group’s consideration of this critical area.
The shadow of Grenfell falls far and wide across our housing policy landscape. If we ever needed a reason to concentrate minds about building integrity, property repairs and upgrades and the need for safety checks, it is to be found in the ashes of that fire. I was proud yesterday to sign the proposal that David Stewart has lodged for a member’s bill on the installation of fire protection systems in properties of a certain size.
I was gratified by the responsibility that the property factor industry showed in the aftermath of the Grenfell fire. The Property Managers Association Scotland rushed to assist the Scottish Government in its efforts to ascertain how many buildings were exposed.
Property management is an important structure in the theatre of housing delivery in this country. By and large, factors act responsibly and offer solutions to everyday problems of communal living, whether we are talking about stair lighting, security, cleaning or insurance. They also have a place in the foothills of our democracy, in that they help to establish residents associations, through which people can work together to make their communities better and address common problems.
As is the case in any sector, there are rogue elements in the factoring trade. Members have expressed concern about factors’ responses to residents’ concerns, the collection of unpaid fees from paying customers, incremental charging increases and exorbitant one-off management fees. Such fees are often the subject of our constituency office postbags. In that regard, I can offer a great deal of support for the proposal in the Labour amendment that co-operatives step in as an alternative to factoring.
The thrust of the amendment that I lodged, which was not selected for the debate, was twofold. First, it was about the sustainability of and improvements to properties. Secondly, it recognised the backlog in repairs that are needed to our housing stock. Graham Simpson articulated that point well, when he talked about the critical repairs that are not being seen to in 28 per cent of our housing stock.
The point is that the cost of those repairs runs to billions of pounds, and someone has to pay. Invariably, up to this point, that someone has been the people who are slapped with a statutory charge notice, which is not something that anybody would expect or want. Andy Wightman—the maestro—talked about the sinking funds, or the owner-contributed repair funds, that can soften the blow that will inevitably come with that aspect of communal living, particularly with ageing stock.
This debate is very important and I am very glad of the consensus, which I did not necessarily expect, but that is a measure of the importance that the Parliament places on the issue. We need to get this right and to consider the recommendations of the cross-party working group when they are published. I am very gratified that the minister confirmed that his Government is willing to bring forward legislation, should that be required.16:21
I thank members for their speeches so far and remind everyone that I was a councillor at the City of Edinburgh Council for 12 years. For all of that period, I chaired the council’s governance, risk and best value committee, and I spent many hours listening to evidence about what had gone wrong during Edinburgh’s tenement repair scandal. We need to learn lessons from that scandal, not just in Edinburgh but across Scotland.
Edinburgh, like other cities, has many tenements. Many of them are ageing and require maintenance, and many require safety measures to ensure the safety not just of their owners but of those who walk on the pavements. When things go wrong, it affects the wider community. As Graham Simpson mentioned, RICS has mooted the idea of there being regular health checks on buildings. We would welcome that, but it would be a challenge. Andy Wightman was right: up until the mid-1980s, every tenement in Edinburgh was checked regularly and detailed records were kept.
The issue is then what happens if the tenement is not being maintained correctly. We can have all the good wishes and aspire to tenements being kept in the right order but, unless local authorities are willing to use the correct sanctions and enforcement, we will simply end up with lots of notices being put on buildings but no enforcement or action being taken. It is not easy to enforce such measures in places such as Edinburgh, where lots of landlords do not live in their properties. Many people—particularly Adam Tomkins and Gordon Lindhurst—know much more about tenement law than I do. It is a complex area, but we need to consider new legislation, because the law is, at best, unclear.
That takes me to my next point, which is that factoring can help. The first flat that I bought in Edinburgh was a modern flat, and a factor was imposed on us. That actually worked well—the flat was well looked after and was clean and tidy, at least outside if not inside. However, that was expensive. There was no choice with our factor—it was simply imposed on us through the title deeds, but that has not been the tradition, particularly in Edinburgh. Many flats in Edinburgh do not have factors, and I sure that all Lothian and Edinburgh MSPs will have had letters from constituents—perhaps older people—who are trying to get the stairway of their flats cleaned but are not able to do that because other people will not.
Factoring is the way forward but, as I have said, the right sanctions—and the enforcement of those sanctions—must lie behind that. People must also have a choice about who their factor is, and individual flat owners must have a say in how the arrangement works rather than someone else imposing that on them.
I, too, welcome the debate and the consensus in the chamber on these issues. However, before we pat ourselves on our backs too much, I should make it clear that, although analysing the difficulties is easy, coming up with the solutions may be a lot harder.16:25
I, too, very much welcome the use of this time for this important debate, which builds on the momentum of the Tenements (Scotland) Act 2004, the Housing (Scotland) Act 2014, my members’ business debate in January and the establishment and work of our working group thereafter.
It is always good to start with a definition. Other members have talked about how inclusive the idea of a tenement is. The definition in the 2004 act is:
“a building or a part of a building which comprises two related flats”
“are designed to be ... in separate ownership; and ... divided from each other horizontally”,
which means that a tenement must be a block of four flats or more.
It is important to emphasise that point, because it is a big issue that is relevant not just to the larger tenements that I and many of my constituents live in but to housing in different parts of Scotland, including in rural areas. We are talking about a quarter of Scotland’s domestic housing, which is about half a million homes. It is a huge issue for us to consider.
Housing is crucial, because it really matters to people’s quality of life whether their communal stair is in good condition or whether there is a secure lock on the door, and it really matters if the roof is in good condition—not just for the building’s integrity but for the wellbeing of all the owners or tenants who live in the property.
As has been said—it was very well said by the previous speaker—housing is a complex area of law and policy, with local government and national Government involvement as well as private law dealing with deeds and people’s rights, so we need to think carefully about how we proceed. The current powers help. The under-one-roof allocations policy and the missing shares service are making a difference, but there is more work to be done to deal with the issues that we are all aware of through our casework and the wider points that stakeholders make to us.
The group in which I have been working with other MSPs, experts and stakeholders is looking for new solutions not just to repair and maintain our housing stock but to enhance it. Energy efficiency and related matters, which have been mentioned today, are important in that regard.
We are looking at the issue in three main ways. First, we need to think about who initiates and organises works and how we get people to pay for that. Factors are one way of managing works, but do we need to consider other mechanisms for facilitating owners’ decision making and the instruction of maintenance work? Do we need a new standard entity for owners to organise within, which would help them to connect and communicate with each other? Such an organisation would create the necessary leadership and structure for collective decision making.
The second area that we have touched on is inspections. We could have regular inspections, with the aim of moving away from a repairs-based approach and towards a maintenance-based approach, so there would be less need for repairs. A record of inspections could be included as part of the home report, as properties are passed on.
The third area is finance, which covers sinking funds and credit unions. I welcome the suggestion that we include co-operatives, too. We need to think about a set of arrangements for the long term and think the issue through thoroughly, as has been said, to come up with solutions that will last and will make a difference in the medium and long terms.
I could say a lot more, but I will conclude by saying that is great to see the Parliament coming together to play its part in helping our constituents to come together and maintain the urban and rural integrity of Scotland now and into the future.
I call Daniel Johnson, to be followed by Gordon Lindhurst.16:29
It is with huge pleasure that I stand to speak in this debate after Graham Simpson, Ben Macpherson and Andy Wightman. I am sure that others from the working group will be speaking, too. Indeed, we may be forming the world’s geekiest boy band: we might not be pretty to look at, but we are all singing in harmony on this issue. I apologise for the bad joke.
Housing is a hugely important issue, and, as he opened the debate, Graham Simpson was absolutely right in two regards: he set it in the context of wider housing issues and the scale of the maintenance and repair that need to take place. All too often, the housing debate is dominated by definitions and sees people splitting hairs between one form of housing and another, citing telephone numbers without any regard for levels of demand or the level of housing need.
As a point of historical principle, Labour members view housing as a right. That is part of Labour’s legacy and history, and it is an important part of our future politics. The market-based thinking around housing, which views it simply as a commodity, has failed. While incomes have largely remained flat, rent—especially in Edinburgh and Glasgow—has risen by almost a third in the past decade, and the amount of mortgage-owned property has fallen by a quarter in the same period. Rent is outstripping incomes and housing poverty is a very real issue. The opportunities and expectations that people might have had a mere decade ago are becoming no more than dreams for all too many.
If we view housing as a right, we must also accept Andy Wightman’s language and view it as public infrastructure. There should be a sense of common as well as private ownership of property. We must also recognise the issue of mixed tenure and occupancy. Over the past few decades, the picture has been about not just tenement living in the traditional sense but a wide variety of different properties. Critically, within those properties there are multiple forms of ownership and tenure. There may be council tenants, owner-occupiers and private tenants, and, with the proliferation of small private landlords, the issue of maintenance becomes hugely problematic.
There is a real case for change, and I welcome the fact that the working group will be looking at the issues that Ben Macpherson set out very well. The concept of individualised ownership in the way that people own tenemented properties does not take into account the fact that they are collective owners of a building. There is a sense of common ownership of a single building that is not captured in the law, yet that is the fundamental point that needs to be captured and addressed in law.
I thank the tenement action group, whose work has been a positive starting point. It supplied the working group with a list of seven key points that it would like to see addressed. Those range from simple things such as having the contact details for all the owners in a stair available and freely shared—the identity of owners is publicly available but the means of contacting them is not—to issues around sinking funds and debt recovery. It is critical that we go from a situation that is more about enabling owners to get compensation and make arrangements for common repairs on a one-off basis to a situation in which there is on-going preventative maintenance. That is what we need to see.
My time is up, although I could go on for much longer. Fundamentally, we need to see a change in the law, as the matter is far too important to ignore. Our housing belongs to us all and we need to make sure that it is properly maintained.
I call Richard Lyle, to be followed by Gordon Lindhurst.
Did I get that the wrong way round? Okay—I call Gordon Lindhurst, to be followed by Richard Lyle.
I am ready, Presiding Officer.
Richard Lyle is ready, so we will let him speak. [Laughter.]16:34
Thank you, Presiding Officer. I welcome the opportunity to contribute to a debate on an issue with which I am very familiar, having served as a councillor on Motherwell District Council and, subsequently, on North Lanarkshire Council for some 36 years. Housing is, of course, a core role for local government. I hope that today’s debate will provide me with an opportunity to address that point, which the Conservatives have raised.
At the start, I mention the fact that there has been a marked and sustained improvement in the quality of housing in Scotland. Indeed, the latest Scottish housing condition survey showed a continued long-term trend of improvement in levels of disrepair.
It is important to note that problems can affect newer buildings as well as older ones, and that they occur right across Scotland. However, there is recognition that disrepair is worse in older tenement buildings. I believe that the Scottish Government recognises that there can be particular difficulties in dealing with common repairs in tenements, which requires co-operation between owners and can cut across tenures. From my experience in councils, I know for a fact that trying to fix issues where there are council properties and private owners or landlords is hard. It takes longer and it is a headache, at times. The right-to-buy legislation allowed people to buy their property, but it created multi-owner problems. Some owners—particularly those who are elderly—do not have the finances to renovate. Such are the problems that we must address.
That said, it is important to point out that although we in the SNP must not be complacent, the improvement in levels of disrepair is absolutely a reflection of the positive actions that the Government has already taken—from new powers that were introduced in the Housing (Scotland) Act 2014, to our work on consulting on improving conditions standards in the private rented sector. Draft regulations are proposed for later this year. Councils can use those powers to pay for repairs then recover the costs from owners who have not contributed. I encourage them to do that.
In thinking about housing conditions, I was reminded of my time as a councillor, during which I was faced with Bison-style flats in my ward, which had the most horrendous dampness and were in poor condition. Talk about green—those flats had very green walls. Through my engagement with the authority at the time, the flats were subsequently demolished and replaced with new high-quality buildings. Although that earned me, among many others, the nickname “Demolition Dick”, it is now paying dividends in Bellshill. I am sure that dampness is an issue that must also be considered when we look at the state of disrepair of some properties.
In North Lanarkshire, we now have an excellent capital investment programme. I say sorry to Mr Simpson, but I have to agree that North Lanarkshire Council is working with us and that it is working with private owners. It will be surprised that I am saying that. I do not believe that there is a monopoly on good ideas, so I welcome the Government’s commitment to looking at all possible solutions.
Many ways to address the problems have been raised in the Scottish Government’s common housing quality standard forum, including sinking funds and five-yearly tenement surveys. Suggestions have also been made by the RICS, the Built Environment Forum Scotland and the Chartered Institute of Housing. I am sure that they are ideas to which the Government will listen.
It is clear from today’s debate that we all wish to solve the problem. Thanks to the Scottish Government’s support for local authorities, as well as because of legislation, progress is being made—progress that is very welcome and should rightly be recognised.
I thank Mr Lyle for being ready to speak. Gordon Lindhurst is next.16:38
It is, indeed, a delight to be allowed an opportunity to speak in the debate. I am not sure whether I can match Richard Lyle’s speech; I certainly cannot match the nicknames that he says have been given to him.
This is an important and welcome debate—there are few issues more important than our housing stock. Indeed, the Scottish Conservatives consistently ask the Scottish Government to be more ambitious about house-building, but that will be in vain if our current stock is left to crumble around us.
Homes are places where we spend huge amounts of our time—private time with family and friends in warmth and comfort, if the conditions are right. If they are not, it can have far-reaching negative consequences, including on health.
The tenement buildings of the old and new towns play an important part in Edinburgh being a world heritage site. Of the 48 per cent of housing in Edinburgh that was built pre-1945, 56 per cent of it is flats. Across Scotland as a whole, it is said that 68 per cent of all dwellings are in some degree of disrepair.
I have been fortunate to have experienced living in a tenement in Edinburgh, but I have also been unfortunate, as have others, in trying to have necessary common repairs carried out. Unlike Andy Wightman, whom Alex Cole-Hamilton described as a “maestro”, I have more generally been met with complete and utter lack of interest, rather than threats of violence or harassment. Given that sort of background, it is easy to see how easily tenements can start to decay when only some people are prepared to stump up their fair share.
As has been recognised by many organisations, including the RICS, cosmetic changes can seem to be much more attractive to a homeowner who can experience the almost immediate—depending on the workman—and tangible benefits of showering in a new bathroom or making dinner in a newly fitted kitchen. However, if their block is not maintained, the risk is greater of its being condemned, further down the line, as unfit to live in. That was described by Dr James Simpson—who initiated the tenement action group—as the “plateau of good repair”, which describes how failure to maintain a building regularly can be hugely inefficient.
Helping people to see that is all well and good, but today the Scottish Conservatives are encouraging the Scottish Government to think about what can actually be done to deal with Scotland’s tenement housing stock. Even mandatory building health checks will only be as effective as they are accurate and easily enforceable, as Ben Macpherson pointed out. Public buy-in and acceptance of the checks are also essential, and the checks must be affordable. A box-ticking exercise simply will not do. I think, for example, of the problems with energy performance certificates.
A culture of factoring, including a mandatory system for new-build flats, could mean that owners would be able to maintain buildings from the very beginning, and to keep buildings on the sunny plateau that I mentioned. As we have heard today, some factors do a superb job, but others leave an awful lot to be desired, as Graham Simpson pointed out. The fact that 70 per cent of complaints against factors were upheld last year is deeply concerning. That tells us that the current system is not working in the interests of home owners, as it ought to be. Factoring needs to be transparent and accountable, with bad factors being identified and dealt with.
The future of our housing stock will not be determined simply by how many houses we build now; it will also be determined by how we maintain what we have. It is imperative that the Government review the current system and take effective steps to protect our housing stock now.16:42
As others have said, there is a lot in the Conservative motion that I can agree with—not least the basic statement of the fact that we have a problem with common repairs to tenement properties. If I am going to declare an interest today, it is that I am an owner-occupier in an estate of about 270 privately owned ex-council tenements. I paid about £25,000 for my flat in 1990, and it is probably now worth between two and three times that. However, during those 28 years, there has been no substantial maintenance work done and, as far as I am aware, not even a thorough inspection.
We have factors in place and I have no complaint about that. They arrange common buildings insurance and grounds maintenance, as well as charging what I think is a fairly modest administration fee. However, even then, some owners have substantial arrears, and the factors have said that they have more problems with owner-occupiers than they do with landlords who let out their property. There can also be a lack of understanding that the admin fee does not go into maintenance work or some sinking fund.
The problem in our estate is an unwillingness or an inability on the part of owners to pay for regular checks and maintenance, so the estate—which won an award for refurbishment by Bellway Homes—has basically been deteriorating for the past 29 years, and it looks as if it will keep deteriorating for the next 29 years.
Just on Monday, another resident in the estate—obviously, a constituent—phoned me to see whether we could arrange a public meeting, maybe change the factors, or take some other action to move things forward. I explained to him that we had a large public meeting, but could not find six residents to form a residents committee. However, I will meet him next week to go over things again.
Given that there is a problem, what are we going to do about it? We could say that it is private matter and that Parliament should stay clear of it. Some good things are going on at the moment, but they are often on a very small scale. Some of the housing associations in my constituency are working with Glasgow City Council to purchase few of the worst flats in the hope of improving a whole close, but inevitably that is happening on a small scale. From speaking to property managers, housing associations, RICS and others, it seems to me that there is a widespread feeling that things need to change. That is why Ben Macpherson has led on setting up a working group and why a number of back benchers are keen to look at the options.
I have two main questions. First, what is the model that we are aiming to get to? Could there be a voluntary scheme of regular inspections, which would make owners and potential purchasers aware of problems with their properties and, we would hope, encourage them to take action? Alternatively, does there need to be an element of compulsion, possibly including a requirement for factors, or at least more formal self-factoring, which I think is what the Labour amendment proposes in talking about “co-operative arrangements”?
Secondly, how, and how quickly, can we move to such a desired model? Especially if we agree that we need some level of compulsion, how do we cope with the many owner-occupiers who just do not have savings to pay a hefty maintenance bill and who do not have sufficient income to borrow commercially? We would need to look at innovative methods, such as interest-free loans that are repayable only when a flat is sold or transferred, which I think the SFHA mentions in its briefing.
With any of those options, there are likely to be costs to home owners, and that has the potential to be politically challenging. If one party went into an election with such a proposal, I fear that it could cause it problems. Therefore, this is an issue that would benefit hugely from cross-party agreement, and I hope that the working group, together with the Government, can look through the various alternatives and come up with something on which there is broad consensus, in relation to the model that we are aiming for and the timescale for implementing it.
We move to the closing speeches.16:46
John Mason talked about the need for cross-party co-operation and agreement, and today we have seen that there is cross-party agreement that something needs to be done. As others have done, I welcome the fact that the Conservatives have used their time to have this discussion on what is an important issue.
Ben Macpherson and Daniel Johnson both spoke about definitions. I am told by the Scottish Parliament information centre that
“A ‘tenement’ is defined broadly in the legislation to include, for example, modern blocks of flats, the so-called ‘four in a block’ properties and buildings which have been subdivided into flats.”
Graham Simpson gave the example of his constituent Sophie. I think that many people who live in flats, four-in-a-block properties and traditional tenements have that sort of experience. Interestingly, a few weeks ago I was contacted by a councillor in Dunfermline who told me that there is a real problem there in Touch and in Golfdrum Street, where there are owner-occupiers and council tenants living in the same block. The problem is that Fife Council is unable to get work done due to people not having funds. I have more detail from SPICe, which I have sent to the head of housing at Fife Council, asking him to look at the issue and advise where there are weaknesses in the law so that we can look at them.
John Mason asked what we are trying to do and how quickly we are trying to do it. We need to ask those questions of the minister. The minister said that councils have powers to step in and pay missing shares where an owner cannot be found or where an owner is unwilling to pay, but there may be financial constraints on councils in doing so. Given that there is cross-party agreement that the issue needs to be tackled fairly quickly, we need to get the council housing conveners round the table with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to start a discussion about the issues for local authorities. Some authorities use the missing shares law and some do not. Let us find out what that is about and what other issues there are. I am sure that there is consensus across local councils that we need to do something on the issue.
I extend an invitation to Alex Rowley to come to the next meeting of the working group, when I shall reveal what every Scottish council told me in answer to the questions that he has just asked.
I would be pleased to do so, and I am certain that Labour’s housing spokesperson, Pauline McNeill, will also want to hear what Graham Simpson has to say.
As Pauline McNeill said, there are issues around whether we need more powers and more investment. We also need to be clear that with ownership comes responsibility when people live in the types of tenement that have been mentioned. Andy Wightman made an important point about health promotion and the stress and anxiety that can be caused to tenants, which we need to take on board. He also made the very important point that, if investment goes into those tenements, they will last for centuries; if it does not go in, we will need to build more houses—never mind the 50,000 affordable houses that the Government plans—to replace those run-down tenements.
It is in the public interest that we resolve this matter. There is consensus in the chamber to do so and I urge the minister to work with everyone to try to find a solution.16:50
I am pleased to close this debate on Graham Simpson’s motion, which I welcome. I was a bit surprised to hear discussion today of parliamentary boy bands and the exploits of “Demolition Dick”, but we never know what we are going to get when we come to the chamber.
I will concentrate on the issues that have been raised today. Mr Rowley made a very good point about talking to council housing conveners, and I assure him that this subject will be on the agenda for my next meeting with them.
Mr Johnson asked which local authorities use the missing share powers. The civil servants have come up with an answer quite quickly—probably because it saves them time, as they will not have to write to him. Eight local authorities currently have a policy in place for missing shares, and seven have used the powers; they are South Ayrshire, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, Aberdeen, East Lothian and East Renfrewshire. Inverclyde has the policy but has not used the power yet, as far as we are aware. I want to move from that eight to all 32 authorities, if they need to use the powers, and Mr Rowley and Mr Johnson can be assured that I will raise that with housing conveners when I next meet them.
Mr Lyle mentioned the common housing quality standards forum, which is a very important body that has not been mentioned very often today. I welcome the fact that he raised the forum. I reiterate our intention to consult later this year on conditions issues, including those that were identified through the CHQS forum.
Mr Simpson concentrated in his opening remarks on the property factors regime, and I welcome the meetings that I have had with him about his constituency issues. If anyone else has such issues, I ask them to contact me, because I like to keep on top of them and to find out how to resolve such cases. Mr Simpson knows that we will consider improvements to strengthen the property factors regulatory regime. We accept that most factors provide a good service, but some do not.
Mr Simpson also mentioned repeat offender property factors at the tribunal. I do not want to go into too much depth today about the First-tier Tribunal, because it is an independent judicial body and it would not be appropriate for me to comment on such cases or the tribunal’s decisions.
Housing associations have been talked about, particular by Ms McNeill. I completely agree with her that housing associations do excellent work in maintaining their properties. The new missing share powers for local authorities will be extended to them and I hope that they, too, will have the ability to use those powers.
Mr Wightman and Ms McNeill talked of a short-term approach, and I agree that, in the review work that is being done by the group and elsewhere, we must look at long-term sustainable solutions, whether through legislation or other approaches. I completely and utterly agree with Ms McNeill that, during the course of that work, we must think about the costs to owners, because we might come up with amazing schemes but, if folk do not have the ability to invest, it will not happen. The work that we are doing in our pilot schemes in Glasgow, Perth and Kinross, and Argyll and Bute will inform us about how we can help more in that regard.
I apologise to the members who took part in the debate whom I have not mentioned, but I will mention Ben Macpherson, whose members’ business debate has moved the issue on apace with the working group and today’s debate.
It is extremely important that we all continue to talk to one another about these vital issues. Although we have concentrated for much of today’s debate on buildings, the reality is that the debate is all about people and how we get it right for them the length and breadth of Scotland.16:56
I appreciate that we are getting near to 5 o’clock, but I will try to get through as much of my speech as I can. Possibly to the intrigue of members who have just entered the chamber, I say to Mr Stewart that the less we talk about “Demolition Dick” this afternoon, the better. Other than that, it has been a short but useful debate.
I perhaps should declare an interest in that, despite my increasing years, I am not yet a home owner. I am perhaps somewhere between being a member of generation X and a millennial. There are many people stuck in an endless cycle of paying high rents because the financial world collapsed and stopped lending money. However, today’s debate is not just about the difficulties that a generation of people who rent property face but about improving housing conditions for those who own their property, especially those who live in communal buildings, often with quite mixed ownership.
As MSPs, we know more than anyone the disparity of housing quality in Scotland. After all, our careers are predicated on knocking on many of those doors and asking for our jobs.
When I was a member of the Equalities and Human Rights Committee, as part of our inquiry into human rights in Scotland, Ben Macpherson and I visited a housing estate in Leith, not far from the Parliament, where residents were living in quite unacceptable conditions. There was dampness, poor wiring, graffiti and drug paraphernalia in the communal areas. It took a huge amount of advocacy and the residents coming together to lobby the council for the council to accept not just that the conditions were unacceptable but that the housing breached the residents’ basic human rights.
To give the council credit, the situation there has improved and that community is now much safer, cleaner and more vibrant, but others have less of a voice. How many people do not know what their rights are or what recourse is available to them when things go wrong?
The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors found that a substantial proportion of our housing stock is at risk from a lack of maintenance, which it described as a “condition cliff edge”. It concluded that the Government simply has to address the maintenance agenda or future generations will not thank us for passing on those problems. I do not disagree. If 44 per cent of homes in Scotland failed to meet the Scottish housing quality standard, why have 17 councils not issued a single work notice in the past five years to require owners to carry out remedial work? Why are they so reluctant to use the powers that the Housing (Scotland) Act 2006 gave them?
Much has been said today on the issue of factors. We want a system of compulsory factoring for new-build flats and increased regulations for the sector that improve the culture of property management in Scotland. MSPs deal with a tremendous amount of casework relating to problematic factors. I will not name names, but there is a problem. There is a pattern of bad behaviour, such as factoring contracts being sold from one company to another, factoring companies fabricating competitive quotations and giving work to preferred suppliers in often dubious circumstances, and factors being reluctant to collect revenues from every tenant in a block for upgrades or restorative repairs. Some tenants are getting little for their money—standards are deteriorating in communal areas and gardens, and facades are ageing and in need of upgrade, despite promises to improve them.
Daniel Johnson rose—
I will give way if I have time.
Briefly, Mr Johnson.
Does the member agree with us that co-operative structures and owners associations could act as an alternative to factoring?
I ask members to keep the level of general conversation down.
Mr Johnson makes a good point. Factoring should be compulsory on new-build flats, so that factors are in place from the beginning, but I agree that, if neighbours and communities can work together to form communal groups, that may be the right way forward.
Graham Simpson gave an excellent example of what happens when factoring does not go well. One of his constituents took matters into their own hands, at their own expense, because they had no other choice. People should not have to do that. Fees are taken month after month, and the response from factors is often aggressive, nonchalant and unhelpful. That is not anecdotal—when I have written to factors, they have taken that tone with us MSPs, never mind with their own clients.
This is not an anti-factor debate; there is good practice out there. Factoring is not a rogue trade, but it is a trade with rogues, so we need to do more for our constituents. We are calling for a more robust complaints system and for a tribunal process that has real powers of compliance. Ultimately, a process is needed to remove factors that consistently fail in their duties and are repeat offenders. If the volume of casework that we get on the matter is not proof enough of the need for change, goodness knows what is needed for intervention.
I will sum up what the Conservatives are asking of the Government today. We ask for mandatory health checks on buildings; compulsory factoring schemes for new-build flats; a beefing up of the complaints system for factors and a review of the status quo; increased regulation of factors; and a transparent register of factors with ratings to flag poor performance and poor practice. What more can the Government do to ensure that councils are able and willing to use the powers that are at their disposal? We should also take a frank look at whether housing legislation is fit for purpose.
I do not label any of those asks as particularly partisan, so I hope that the Government will reflect on the debate; otherwise, as RICS warned us, future generations will thank us little for passing on the problem.