The Scottish Government declared a housing emergency this week, but describing what’s in front of your eyes isn’t enough is it? The Scottish Fire Service could turn up at a house and declare a fire emergency, but the important question is what they’re going to do to put out the flames. And so it is with the Scottish Government on housing: what are they going to do?

I have a suggestion: something they could pretty much do right now. Something the people of a community that badly needs housing have been asking them to do for years. Something that could be up and running within weeks. And most importantly, something that could make an important contribution to the severe lack of social housing in Scotland. And yet the government has been dragging its feet on it.

Let me tell you a bit more about it because it concerns a place I know well: Victoria Road primary school in Aberdeen. A lot of my relatives went to the school before it shut in 2008 and what happened next to the building is a familiar story. Neglect, decay, rain, storms, vandals, fire, council says “it must be demolished!” You know the score; it happens all over Scotland again and again.

The Herald: The Scottish Government say we are in a 'housing emergency'The Scottish Government say we are in a 'housing emergency' (Image: free)

But Victoria Road is in the Torry area of Aberdeen and the people there aren’t having any of it. Like a lot of other communities that have more than their fair share of deprivation, it’s been the victim not only of neglect but dirty and damaging development that wouldn’t happen elsewhere. The old part of Torry flattened for oil terminals. A huge incinerator on the edge of the community. Plans to wipe out half the local park to build an industrial estate. They’re hacked off with it and who can blame them.

Victoria Road school could be different though, because for a while now there’s been a very good plan to turn the building into social housing, which is badly needed in Torry just like elsewhere. One of the big reasons for the need is residents buying their council houses, but under-investment has also played its part and whatever the underlying reasons, the crisis is clear. There aren’t enough houses, the waiting lists are long and we need to do something in communities like Torry and do it quickly.

The Victoria Road scheme is a good example of one of the things we could be doing. The council’s original plan, back when some people assumed the booming property market in Aberdeen was eternal, was to sell the school to Barratts who would knock it down and build new houses. But not only would it have destroyed a fine granite building that could last for another hundred years and more, the property market in the city went into decline and that was the end of it.

Fortunately, a group of residents formed a development trust and came up with some plans to turn the school into social housing. They then got Grampian Housing Association interested and the association bought the school for a minimal amount of £4,000 and adopted the trust’s plans for 55 council homes in the school and adjacent buildings. The houses would range from one to four bedrooms and there’d be a community space as well, ideally a nursery.

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This is undoubtedly good stuff and for a while it was looking like it would happen. The original estimate was £6m (which has since risen to £12m for all the reasons we’re familiar with) but a builder got involved who said (and still says) they could be on site in two months and both the local council and the government expressed support and why wouldn’t they: it injects much-needed council housing into a part of Scotland that needs it and (bonus) it helps to maintain Aberdeen’s extraordinary granite heritage.

Of course, £12m is a high price and repurposing an older building is always going to be more expensive than knocking it down and putting up cheapo new ones in its place. But cheapo new buildings last 30 or 40 years at best whereas a granite building like Victoria Road, with proper care, will last longer than sandstone or brick or pretty much anything else, meaning any investment won’t need to be repeated in a few decades’ time. And there’s a plan to do the scheme in phases when the money is available, to keep costs manageable.

The Scottish Government is also going to have to start proving what it’s going to do about the emergency it has declared. Just before saying cheerio, Humza Yousaf announced an £80m increase to the affordable housing budget over two years, but check the small print: the announcement came a few weeks after the government cut the affordable housing budget by £200m, meaning the £80m isn’t investment, just a slight reduction to dis-investment. It’s that kind of thing that needs to change.

The Victoria Road scheme, I’d like to suggest, would be a really good place to start taking action. The government did attend a meeting on the subject in February with the development trust, the council, the local MSP and so forth, but in case the message didn’t get through, here it is again. There’s a housing emergency, communities like Torry are in desperate need of social housing, there’s a social housing scheme ready to go, so get behind it and ensure that it happens. It won’t end the emergency – there’s a long way to go. But it would be a good start wouldn’t it?