Ben Wray: Don’t panic, but Ruth Davidson may have just done us a small favour


CommonSpace columnist and Common Weal head of policy Ben Wray says progressive Scotland should treat the Scottish Tory leader’s venture into housing policy as a challenge

RUTH DAVIDSON has done all of us in Scotland who hate the Tories a favour – she’s helped shaken us out of our sleepy complacency when it comes to housing.

For if we don’t have better ideas than the Scottish Tory leader on improving housing for everyone, then what are we really involved in politics for?

It’s easy to ridicule a Tory talking about housing solutions, and I’m not against doing that – these are the people that created what Davidson herself called the biggest housing crisis since the Second World War. No one seriously believes it’s credible that they could be the same people to fix it, or that they genuinely want to.

READ MORE: Ruth Davidson calls for new Scottish towns as critics blast Tory record on housing

That may well be necessary comment – but that’s the easy bit. The far more interesting way to rebuke Davidson is to take her speech as a challenge: what are the limitations of her argument, what’s our alternative policy prescription?

In her speech last week Davidson avoided all of the housing issues which impinge upon her core support’s vested interests: the huge concentration of land ownership in the hands of the rich, the need for mass public housebuilding to address the inherent inequality of a privatised housing market, and the need to rein in landlords charging sky-high rents while providing shoddy accommodation. 

Despite the rhetoric about a property oligarchy, her policy prescriptions mainly revolved around targeting changes in government through the planning system. The banks, the property developers and the landlords were all missing from the Scottish Tory leader’s fire – funnily enough.

But, once again, critique is not enough. The challenge is to show we have a systematic alternative to a Tory approach to solving the housing crisis.

Common Weal is seeking to take this challenge up in a serious way. Not through empty soundbites about affordable housing and five-year building targets, but through building a credible, transformative plan for housing, communities and places in Scotland.

READ MORE: Housing convention for “progressive Scotland” to precede SNP conference

Our first step in doing that is a major convention on 7 October in Glasgow, which we launched on Tuesday.

The convention will be a starting point for bringing together some of Scotland’s best thinkers on this issue to develop ideas on the full range of issues – land, planning, construction, architecture, cost, tax, design, and much more – which housing impinges upon, and developing that vision collaboratively.

We have picked 7 October specifically because it is the day before the SNP’s annual conference, and we hope to attract delegates to come a day early and join the discussion, then hopefully take some of those ideas into the party’s internal debates.

The idea of the convention is to avoid the trap of segregating the housing issue in to one of two silos: the gritty economics and policy of addressing housing need on the one side, and the visionaries in the urban design and architecture world looking at how to create beautiful places on the other side.

This separation splits apart what is in the real world a unified crisis – the economic and alienation crisis of our homes, communities and places. 

The convention will start a 12-month Common Weal project to develop a credible, coherent policy vision for the transformation of homes, communities and places in Scotland. 

It is the same systemic problem of housing being treated as a financial asset rather than a social good which creates unaffordable housing and homes with insufficient space and light; which creates gentrification and the lack of access to local amenities and public services in housing estates; and which creates dangerously poor health and safety and communities stuck on a motorway on the edge of cities with no access to green space.

So our convention will put economists in the same room as urban designers, planners in the same room as campaigners, academics in the same room as service providers.

The convention will start a 12-month Common Weal project to develop a credible, coherent policy vision for the transformation of homes, communities and places in Scotland. 

We don’t want to reinvent the wheel – we know there’s lots of good work that has and is already being done in Scotland on the issue. Our aim is to promote the best of the ideas which are out there and build and develop further the ideas that still need more work.

The Programme for Government contained many positive signals, not least the increased urgency in which the Scottish Government looks to be trying to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping and the examination of a Land Value Tax, but a much more comprehensive overhaul of the housing system still needs to be pursued.

The Grenfell Tower tragedy – conspicuously missing from Davidson’s speech – should have been the only wake-up call we need when it comes to just how unjust our current housing model is. Let’s get to work together on addressing it.

Picture courtesy of the Scottish Parliament

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