Sunday, 29 June 2014

Affordable housing...can we afford it?

Regular readers of these ramblings from the Borders will know that local statistics on homelessness recently showed the number of applications for help have risen sharply over the last two years, in defiance of the national downward trend in most of the rest of Scotland.

The latest revelation that the number of 'affordable' homes completed in the Scottish Borders Council (SBC) area in 2013/14 fell well below the required level will have done little to ease the problems of those classed as homeless and will have frustrated the efforts of the housing sector to bring about improvements in the supply of social accommodation.

A Borders housing strategy prepared by the council estimated our region would need 564 new homes in each of the five years from 2012 to 2017, including 103 in the so-called 'affordable' category. That figure represented a significant increase on the 81 social sector completions in each of the preceding five years.

But a mere 72 completions were achieved in 2013/14, according to a performance report from the council. Now SBC, which ceased to become a housing authority in 2003 and hadn't built a single council house from its formation in 1996, is to lead a housebuilding programme for 2014 to increase supply.

The 2003 sale of its 6,700 tenanted houses to Scottish Borders Housing Association means the council, together with five other local authorities who chose the stock transfer option, is not eligible for Scottish Government grant funding worth, in total, some £80 million. This enabled local authorities to build almost 3,300 new homes in a single year.

Meanwhile Scotland's Registered Social Landlords (RSL), including four Borders-based organisations, are finding it more difficult to borrow from the private sector to pay for housing programmes. Between them the 162 RSLs in Scotland have combined borrowings of £3.5 billion and are making interest payments of £120 million each year.

The increased cost of borrowing is said to be having a detrimental impact on the ability of RSLs to deliver sufficient numbers of affordable homes. So an increasing number of councils have been seeking permission from Scottish Ministers to borrow substantial amounts of cash to be "on-lended" to housing associations.

Loans totalling £13 million from SBC to local landlords are expected to pay for 160 homes for rent in several communities. And there could be more of this type of arrangement in future following a Scottish Government Finance Circular which means local authorities will not need to seek the permission of Ministers to on-lend to RSLs for affordable housing projects.

The sale of Borders council houses barely a decade ago resulted in the UK Treasury wiping out the £81 million of loan debt owed to the Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) which financed their construction in the first place.

Now the resources of the PWLB are required to solve the latest Borders housing problems, and a council with no houses has been arranging the loans on behalf of third parties. We must hope there is a positive outcome for all concerned.

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