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Independence can’t come soon enough

January 2013

2013 is going to be a busy year for Margaret Burgess, Scotland’s new Minister for Housing and Welfare, as she attempts to mitigate the impact of Whitehall’s welfare changes on some of the UK’s most deprived communities. But, as she explains to Brian Baker, she’s relishing every minute of the job.

Margaret Burgess
Minister for Housing and Welfare
Scottish Parliament

Margaret Burgess was appointed Scotland’s Minister for Housing and Welfare in the September 2012 cabinet reshuffle.

Elected to the Scottish Parliament as the representative for Cunninghame South in May 2011, her swift promotion was welcomed by many who had noted her thoughtful and knowledgeable contributions in parliament.

Burgess has a portfolio of responsibilities which include many of the distinctive elements of devolved policy. In the next few months differences with England and Wales will become greater as the SNP administration attempts to mitigate the impacts of Whitehall’s welfare reforms and implements new rules on homelessness. Looking ahead there may also be further restrictions on Right to Buy and reforms to the private rented sector, which plays an increasingly significant role in the cities.

Burgess is delighted that the Government has been able to provide local authorities with more tools in the fight against empty homes. Later this year, they will be able to use the provisions of the Unoccupied Properties Act 2012 to double the rate of council tax on some residential properties which have been vacant for over 12 months. “We have over 25,000 homes empty and 140,000 people on waiting lists,” she says. “This is a tool for local authorities to use. Some will want to do so, some not.”

A consultation on possible further changes to Right to Buy legislation took place in the autumn of 2012. Burgess is very clear about what is up for discussion. “The consultation on the Right to Buy was about whether there should be further restrictions. We are looking closely at the future of it and talking with stakeholders.

“We will not re-instate the Right to Buy for new homes. Early in the last decade a cap on the amount of discount was introduced in Scotland. The Scottish Government has not yet formed a view about the future of that.”

Sustainable Housing Strategy

2013 will also see the launch of a new Sustainable Housing Strategy, which is likely to be published in the first half of the year and will include new standards for energy efficiency. These might be challenging for RSLs. The strategy is likely to emphasise off-site manufacturing which the Government perceives as a niche economic opportunity for Scotland.

Burgess is aware of the scale of the retrofit challenge and says that on a lot of properties work will have to be done in phases. “The Scottish Government is determined to get our fair share of the resources directed by the UK government for this,” she says. “We have a National Retrofit Programme which will be funded from the Scottish Government budget at £65 million and we hope to lever in at least £120 million in energy company obligation money.”

Welfare cuts

The Scottish Government has partnered with local government to try to address the welfare cuts. Burgess says that the £9.2 million which they have added to money being transferred from the DWP will bring the total available through the new Social Welfare Fund to around £33 million in 2013.

“We cannot put back the £2 billion a year which will be lost to the Scottish economy by the cuts but where we can mitigate we will,” she says. “We think the Westminster reforms will impact negatively on our social landlords and on vulnerable people in society. We don’t think the bedroom tax is necessary and would like tenants to have the option to have the rent paid direct to the landlord.”

With a referendum on independence now only two years away, the minister, a former SNP group leader in local government and a member of the party all her adult life, takes the opportunity to inject a bit of politics into our conversation.

“We could align our welfare benefits system to housing and other policies, including employability, much better if we had control of the welfare system,” she says. “We will put all these issues to the people in the referendum.”

The 2007-11 minority administration sought new means of funding social housing production and the SNP has continued along this path since winning a majority in May 2011. In their 2011 campaign for re-election they set a target that 30,000 affordable homes would be built by the end of the parliamentary term in 2016, 20,000 of them for social rent. Burgess says they exceeded their year one target.

Building affordable homes

“We are looking at everything we can for affordable housing build,” she explains. “This government will have spent £760 million on housing by the end of the control period. Our objective is to build as many homes as we can with that money.

“We have been actively pursuing several funding models and ways to lever in finances to make our money stretch. But it is up to each RSL to see what is most appropriate for them and their own risk assessment. We are very pleased that many RSLs have taken up options in the last year. We set up the National Housing Trust initiative in 2010 to show what could be done by using leverage and it is on target. We have over 650 NHT homes committed. We said we would get 1,000 and we are on course for that.”

Building by councils has re-started during the last four years and Burgess is confident this will continue. “Councils are now building again because they are no longer losing their stock.”

Homelessness

On homelessness, Burgess has inherited responsibility for overseeing significant change. As from 31st December 2012 the Homelessness (Abolition of Priority Need) Order 2012 has been in force. This requires local authorities to offer settled accommodation to the unintentionally homeless.

Burgess says: “We won’t have figures till June but we are on target. Our October 2012 statistics showed that already 93 percent of people were being assessed for settled accommodation”.

Here Burgess draws on her experience as the manager of the Citizens Advice Bureau in East Ayrshire and warms to her theme. “Homelessness prevention work and early intervention is the absolute key,” she says. “A lot of good work is being done by RSLs and local authorities in keeping people in their home.”

At the end of the interview, Burgess admits to finding the job “a bit busier than l thought it would be” whilst emphasising how much she was revelling in it.

“A house is a building. It is a home when people live in it and make it one. This job deals with people I care about. That’s what drives me to do this,” she explains.