The Scottish Government has issued a consultation on its proposed Housing (Scotland) Bill.
Despite everything contained in the Bill, the one thing that has grabbed all the headlines has been the proposal to end the rights of new tenants to buy their council home at a discount.
'Right to Buy' (RTB) was a flagship Conservative policy, and it is interesting to note that looking back at the tory manifesto of the time, more attention was devoted to housing than any other subject, and some critics have subsequently pointed out that it did nothing to address homelessness, but simply promoted home ownership as the best housing tenure.
It is a policy that certainly has its detractors, and it polarises political opinion with alarming speed, especially in Scotland.
Housing pressure group 'Shelter' has blamed RTB for a shortage of social housing. To be fair, former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith's policy think-tank has also mooted this as a reason for the shortage too.
Personally, I think this view is rather simplistic. What people forget is the fact that those entitled to buy their homes were long term tenants anyway, and it seems likely that they would have continued to stay there whether they bought it or not. So it is unlikely that these properties would have become available to others, even in the medium term.
Of course, it could be argued that where a tenant died, then the property would go to the next person on the housing list, but this is not the case either as the tenancy can be inherited, so the waiting list would be no shorter.
We should also bear in mind that former council houses generally attract a lower price than its private sector equivalent. What this means is that a family who otherwise might be be forced into the social housing sector because of high property prices, might be able to afford the lower price of a former council house.
What the arch critics of RTB invariably fail to comment on, is the fact that council house sales have funded immense rolling programmes of investment in the remaining stock, such as new bathrooms, kitchens, double glazing and the like. Improvements that would have been extremely difficult to fund without the capital receipts of house sales.
Current thinking is now promoting 'mixed tenure' housing developments as the best way to promote sustainable communities, so that each development would have homes for sale, rent, and perhaps shared equity homes contained in it.
Seems like a fair argument to me, but one that would largely fall by the wayside if RTB was scrapped altogether on what seems to be purely ideological grounds.
If my sources in the Scottish Government are correct then the First Minister is playing the numbers game and is pushing for as many houses to be built as possible. Sounds great doesn't it?
Let's take a closer look at this though. Affordable social housing has to be paid for, and with severe financial constraints, this money is hard to come by. If local authorities are obliged to undertake prudential borrowing (as has been mooted), to pay for it, then this will have severe consequences on rent levels, making a mockery of affordable rents.
In areas where family income is predominantly low, then these increases could well drive people either into poverty, or onto benefits. In turn, the benefits bill, which is already rising, will be burdened even further. It is unlikely in these times of economic hardship, that housing benefit levels will continue to go unchecked in the longer term, and may not cover the higher rents required to service the debt of building the houses in the first place.
To maximise the use of available land for house building, there may also be a temptation to build as many properties as possible onto it. We have seen this in already in the private sector, with developers throwing up huge numbers of flats for the would be 'buy to let' sector. To do so however, would be simply making the mistakes of the past, and bear in mind, the cost of demolishing these previous mistakes can now cost as much as constructing them at the time.
So where am I going with this? Well, I would argue that the investment we make in housing today, needs to be done with a long term view. We should not simply build houses as cheaply as possible to make up the numbers. We must take a more holistic view on housing in general and acknowledge the positive effect that good housing standards have on health and communities.
As for RTB, well the Tories in the Scottish Parliament are arguing simply for its retention. Personally, I think the argument needs to be a bit more sophisticated than that though. RTB should be retained, but the discount element should be scrapped. Where a social housing development is built, we could look at only a percentage of them being available for purchase by tenants. We could also look at a replacement policy, so that the capital receipt of a council house sale is used to fund the building of a new council house for rent.
Promoting ideological policy on the back of simplistic arguments for or against RTB will ultimately do our communities a grave disservice.