IT WOULD make a niche Scottish parlour game: guess what “emergency” the SNP will declare next. If the criterion is crises that have peaked on their watch, then it’s a pretty large field.

We’ve already ticked off “climate”, “drugs deaths” and, just last week, “housing”. How about an ambulance emergency, or a prisons emergency or a culture emergency? Or, wait, I’ve got it - a ferries emergency?

It’s an odd notion, isn’t it, that a problem you have been unable to solve in 17 years as the party of government (and may have actively exacerbated) should suddenly become manageable because you publicly acknowledge it?

Odder still that the crises in question should be presented as divorced from the policies you have introduced (or failed to introduce) and accompanied by an air of astonishment. This despite the fact they fall directly within your remit, and have been brewing for years.

It’s not as if campaigners didn’t warn the SNP about the impact of successive cuts in funding to the Alcohol and Drug Partnerships before the death toll started its sharp rise, or that Shelter and other housing charities haven’t been highlighting the increase in homelessness, and the undersupply of affordable housing required to address it.

Yet, earlier this year, the Scottish Government cut £196 million from its affordable housing programme. You have to ask yourself: what did ministers expect to happen?

Every declaration of an emergency is first and foremost an admission of failure. And unless it comes with a fully-funded plan of action, and a commitment to change, it also risks being an admission of defeat.

Like Scotland’s drug deaths toll (still the highest per capita in western Europe), our record on housing ought to be a source of shame. According to Shelter Scotland, almost 10,000 children are now "trapped" in temporary accommodation, a rise of 138% since 2014.

It also found there had been a 10% increase in households becoming homeless compared to last year.

The Herald:

Child poverty

Homelessness is inextricably linked to child poverty. Successive SNP leaders have declared the eradication of child poverty as their main goal. And yet last week’s decision to acknowledge the scale of the crisis, while welcome, didn’t even come of the SNP’s own volition.

In November, the party (then in coalition with the Greens) voted down a Labour motion declaring a housing emergency.

Although five local authorities including Glasgow and Edinburgh have declared their own housing emergencies, with eight more said to be hovering on the brink, it took the ending of the Bute House Agreement, the loss of its majority, and the prospect of losing a second Labour motion to force John Swinney’s hand.

Not the most auspicious of starts. But now the emergency has finally been declared, what difference might it make? Again, the party’s track record is not encouraging.

In 2019, Nicola Sturgeon declared a climate emergency, yet successive SNP governments failed to do enough on home insulation, or peat restoration or the improvement of public transport. The publication of a promised climate change plan was delayed until - earlier this year - Humza Yousaf was forced to renege on the party’s target of cutting emissions by 75% by 2030.

The Herald:

Drug deaths

In 2021, after it was revealed a record 1,264 people had died drug-related deaths in 2019, Sturgeon declared a drug deaths emergency. This time, the declaration came with a pledge of £250m over five years to improve services.

Since then, some progress has been made with a sanctioned drugs consumption room due to open in Glasgow later this year. But campaigners say there is a continued lack of recovery services, which the Tories are trying to address with their Right to Recovery Bill, tabled last week.

And so to homelessness. So far, the Scottish Government’s declaration of a housing emergency has not been backed up by increased funding or new policies. Instead, Social Justice Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville laid the blame on Brexit, “economic incompetence”, and a 9% cut to Scotland’s capital budget.

Her proposed solution was for “all parties to work together to make progress and to unite behind calls for the UK Government to reverse the cut” - a long-shot given the Tories’ obsession with austerity and their distrust of the SNP. 

Up to a point, the Scottish Government is right. The roots of the current housing crisis lie in Margaret Thatcher’s 1980s right-to-buy policy which saw the bulk of the UK’s most desirable council housing stock sold off, and the future supply of affordable socially-rented homes falling to privately-owned housing associations.

Thatcher’s government went on to introduce assured shorthold tenancies (short assured tenancies in Scotland), which gave more power to landlords, leading to more properties being bought up to rent out.

Property and private rental prices have continued to rise (according to the Institute of Economic Affairs, average house prices have more than quadrupled in real terms since the 1970s - more than any other OECD country). This, combined with the failure of successive UK and devolved governments and local authorities to provide sufficient new affordable housing, has led to the current crisis.

The Herald:

Positive action

The SNP has taken some action. Scotland was the first country in the UK to scrap right-to-buy legislation (followed by Wales and Northern Ireland), stemming the flow of social housing into private hands. It has replaced short assured tenancies with private residential tenancies strengthening the rights of renters.

Its new Housing Bill contains proposals for stricter rent controls (which will help in the short term, but which, some claim, will disincentivise private landlords and reduce supply in the long term).

It is interesting to note one of Labour’s big, and most radical, manifesto promises is “a blitz of planning reform” aimed at “delivering the biggest boost to affordable housing in a generation”. With planning devolved, what more could and should the Scottish Government be doing on this front?

The SNP’s record on house-building remains better than the Tories’. The UK Government’s Regulator of Social Housing reported a decrease of 225,102 genuine social rented homes in England and Wales since 2012, with more than 1.2 million of households currently on housing wait lists.

And yet, the SNP’s £196m cut to the affordable housing programme equated to 26% - a much higher percentage than the cut to its capital grant. This is a choice, and for all choices there will be consequences.

In January it emerged, from briefing notes obtained by Labour, that the Scottish Government’s target of delivering 110,000 affordable homes by 2032 was at risk.

Two months later, statistics showed affordable housing starts and approvals in Scotland had hit a 10-year low. This may explain why - shortly before resigning - Humza Yousaf announced £80m over two years to buy up empty homes for social provision.

Rural spotlight

The problem is especially acute in rural Scotland, where, as broadcaster and journalist Lesley Riddoch has pointed out: “The expansion of second homes post-Covid and the relentless conversion of long-term rentals into holiday lets has made almost every rural home unaffordable for local people.” 

We are, of course, in the early days of Swinney’s administration. We should give him time to produce a reset on housing and other issues.

Last week, in a hugely reassuring move, he set up a £1.5m fund to clear the school dinner debt. Sufficient food is a basic human right, and the SNP should be lauded for its attempt to guarantee it to all Scottish children. But so, too, is a secure roof over your head.

If the party is truly committed to ending child poverty, then it needs to do more than repeat what we already know: that we are, indeed, in the midst of a housing emergency. It needs to find a way to fix it.