Disappointment at SNP plan to keep the Council Tax

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John Finnie has expressed his disappointment after the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, announced that she plans to keep the Council Tax if re-elected.

Successive SNP manifestos have included a pledge to scrap the discredited tax, and the Scottish Government set up a cross-party Commission on Local Tax Reform, on which land expert Andy Wightman represented the Greens, to examine possible alternatives.

But this morning the First Minister announced that the Council Tax would stay.

John urged Nicola Sturgeon not to give up on her party’s long-stated opposition to the tax, and to move instead to support the Scottish Green Party proposal of a Land Value Tax.

He said:

“I was dismayed to see Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement that she intends to abandon her long campaign against the Council Tax.

“In 2007, she said ‘Labour’s hated Council Tax is totally unfair, and any tinkering with bands won’t make the system any fairer.’ I think she was right then, and it is extremely disappointing that now she’s planning to stick with the Council Tax after all.

“The Council Tax is regressive, it’s unfair, and it makes Scotland’s housing crisis worse by penalising development and repair. It has to go.

“The Scottish Greens enthusiastically took part in the Scottish Government’s cross-party Commission on Local Tax Reform to find an alternative to the Council Tax, contributing our proposal for a Land Value Tax (LVT).

“A Land Value Tax would be payable only on the value of the land itself, not any buildings on top. That means householders wouldn’t be penalised for improving their homes, Landowners would be incentivised to make use of land – for example, for much-needed housebuilding – rather than idly owning land as nothing more than a financial speculation.

“Not only would LVT raise the money we need to save services and jobs, it would tackle the blight of derelict land, alleviate the housing crisis, and help to redress the gross wealth inequality that still exists in Scotland.

“The Commission on Local Tax Reform called Land Value Tax ‘promising’. I urge Nicola to take another look at this promising idea before she gives up and gives in to the hated Council Tax.”

Please sign the Scottish Greens’ petition to scrap the Council Tax – click here.

John tells Government: We need real rent controls

John Finnie backs Living Rent Campaign, holding placard reading "It's time for rent controls".John Finnie MSP has called on the Scottish Government to extend proposed rent controls to new private tenancies, not just to renewals of existing ones.

John said real rent controls are “urgent” in the Highlands and Islands, where rents are rising faster than in any other part of Scotland and are now £23 per month higher than the national average.

According to estate agents Your Move, the average monthly rent in the region was £569 in November 2015, second only to Edinburgh and Lothians at £635; the average Scottish rent was £546. Rents in the Highlands and Islands rose by 5.8% in the year to November 2015; the next fastest-growing region was South at 3.1%.

John’s call came as the Government’s Private Housing (Tenancies) Bill, which provides for the reintroduction of rent controls, received its first debate and vote in the Scottish Parliament. MSPs voted overwhelmingly, 88 votes to 13, to endorse the principles of the Bill after it was debated on Thursday 21 January.

John was one of the first MSPs to join the Living Rent Campaign to press for rent controls, scrapped by Margaret Thatcher’s administration in 1988. Campaigners were jubilant when Nicola Sturgeon announced last year that she would reintroduce controls, but current Scottish Government proposal would only limit rent rises during existing tenancies.

John warned that this “giant loophole” would leave landlords free to increase rents as much as they wanted for new tenants, and may even encourage landlords to evict existing tenants in order to sidestep rent controls. He said:

“The cost of renting a home in the Highlands and Islands is racing ahead of the rest of the country, driven by buy-to-let and holiday-home speculators for whom houses are first and foremost investments, not homes.

“The result is greater poverty, greater depopulation, and more desperate tenants forced to accept poor-quality homes or unscrupulous landlords.

“Nowhere is the case for rent controls more urgent.

“But the Government’s first draft would only control increases in rent for existing tenants – landlords could still hike up the rent as much as they want for new tenants.

“Given that the majority of rent increases do happen in between tenancies, this version of rent control would do little to rein in the soaring cost of keeping a roof over your head.

“Even worse, applying it to existing tenants but not new ones would be a big incentive for landlords to kick out their current tenants so they could sidestep the rent control.

“I’m delighted that the Government has brought forward this Bill to improve tenants’ rights, a huge victory for the Living Rent Campaign and the many others who have worked for it. It could be a major step in the direction of reclaiming our houses as homes for people, not just financial investment opportunities.

“But if this this giant loophole isn’t closed as the Bill moves forward, it could turn into a huge missed opportunity.”

John also called on the Government to make rent controls reflect the quality of housing, incentivising landlords to make repairs and improve energy efficiency, and to include a hardship clause in eviction rules so that eviction orders could be delayed for tenants who are dealing with circumstances such as pregnancy, illness, bereavement or recent unemployment. He said:

“We need to tackle the poor quality of much of our housing as well as the raw cost. According to Government figures, almost half of tenants across the Highlands and Islands live in fuel poverty, a quarter of private rented homes are “lacking modern facilities”, and 13% are “below tolerable standard” – more than twice the Scottish average.

“As is done in the Netherlands, maximum rents should be lowered for homes that fail housing quality standards, have poor energy efficiency or are awaiting repairs, giving landlords a much-needed financial incentive to make improvements.

“The present version of the Bill gives a tribunal no discretion at all in issuing eviction orders in some situations, such as when there are rent arrears. Tenancies aren’t like any other business deal – people’s homes are at stake – so we need more flexibility and compassion for difficult situations. The Bill should include a ‘hardship clause’, allowing the tribunal to postpone an eviction to allow tenants facing difficulties time to arrange a repayment schedule, or to find a new home.”

John welcomes campaign win on rent controls

John Finnie backs Living Rent Campaign, holding placard reading "It's time for rent controls".

Presenting her Programme for Government at Holyrood yesterday, Nicola Sturgeon announced that the Scottish Government would bring in new laws to allow local rent controls in “rent pressure” areas. John has welcomed the announcement, which is a big early victory for the Living Rent Campaign, of which he was one of the first MSP supporters.

The rent control measures will be included in a Private Tenancies Bill, which will also provide opportunities to make other improvements to the security, affordability and quality of housing in the private rented sector.

John said:

“I very much welcome the fact that the Scottish Government will join the growing voices across Scotland in calling for rent controls. I await the detail of what exactly how these new controls will be implemented. An opinion poll found that 60% of the population supported some form of rent controls, let us hope that the final proposals will not disappoint them.”

“That the Scottish Government is willing to implement some form of rent control is testament to the strong campaign ran by the Living Rent Campaign, amongst others. The issue of high rents is not merely an issue for the central belt and urban areas. Across the Highlands average rents are higher than the Scottish average and rising fast than anywhere else except Glasgow. It is vital that we have truly ‘local’ rent controls to tackle local rent problems.

“Rent controls are of course by no means a silver bullet to tackle the issues facing the Highlands, and Scotland, but they are a vital step in bringing about fairer housing.”

You can read more in John’s article for the Living Rent Campaign, The Highlands and Islands need rent controls.

Green jobs plan promises renaissance for Highlands and Islands

Cover of the Green MSPs' report <em>Jobs in Scotland's New Economy</em>.
Click to download the Green MSPs’ report Jobs in Scotland’s Green Economy (PDF).
John Finnie has warmly welcomed research from the Scottish Green MSPs which shows how the Highlands and Islands could share in 200,000 new green jobs in strengths such as renewable energy, oil and gas decommissioning, home insulation and forestry. John said the Green proposals would mean a “renaissance” for the economy of the Highlands and Islands.

The report, Jobs in Scotland’s New Economy, calls on government to capitalise on Scotland’s engineering skills and natural resources to put the country at the forefront of the new industries that will replace oil and gas. It was published this week by the Green MSPs Patrick Harvie and Alison Johnstone.

John said:

“The energy industry is key to the Highlands and Islands, from our oil and gas expertise in Orkney or Nigg, to our pioneering of wind power and marine renewables.

“We all know oil and gas won’t last for ever, and we owe it to the workers in that industry to have a plan that uses their skills to build the energy economy of the future. We owe it to our young people’s future to generate jobs in industries like forestry and home insulation that can’t be shipped away to a head office central belt or London. I’m very grateful to the Green MSPs for this research that shows just how exciting that future could be for the Highlands and Islands.”

Offshore renewables in the Islands and West Highlands

“Scotland has perhaps the greatest engineering tradition in the world, and one quarter of the European Union’s entire offshore wind and marine energy potential, most of which lies off the shores of Shetland, the Western Isles and the West Highlands, and most of which goes unused. Relying on multinational businesses has brought us delays to the interconnectors the islands, underdevelopment of renewables and the pointless push to drill oil we won’t be able to burn. The Greens’ report proposes bypassing corporate inertia by setting up a publicly-owned renewables company to drive forward offshore wind, tidal and wave energy developments, with the profits coming back to the people.”

Reforestation

“Much of the Highlands remains scoured clean of its natural woodland. Only 17% of our land is forest, compared to an EU average of 37%. The report proposes increasing our forest land by half, creating around 17,000 jobs in timber, tourism, recreation, and harvesting the biomass that would supply a renovated and publicly-owned Grangemouth for the production of biofuels and bioplastics.”

Insulating homes

“The Green MSP Alison Johnstone has already persuaded the Scottish Government to make insulating homes a national infrastructure priority. That’s especially important in the Highlands and Islands, where we have above-average fuel poverty and below-average housing stock. By creating jobs, cutting bills, and reducing ill-health, making all our homes energy efficient would be one of the most effective investments the Scottish Government could make.”

Oil and gas decommissioning at Nigg

“With 470 North Sea platforms and 10,000km of pipeline coming to the end of their lives in the next 30 years, we have an opportunity to become a world leader in decommissioning. We would create thousands of jobs in decommissioning our own fields, before exporting those services to other oil and gas fields around the world. Fabrication yards like the one at Nigg would have a new lease of life, potentially employing many more skilled workers than at present. But when the massive Brent Delta platform is decommissioned this year, the work will go to Teeside – we need decisive action if Scotland is to take the lead.”

Putting Orkney at the centre of the marine economy

“Orkney is poised to become an international centre for the marine economy, with a fantastic location and its legendary natural harbour in Scapa Flow. It’s already home to the European Marine Energy Centre, and the investment proposed by the Greens’ plan would expand that to a high-tech marine campus with hundreds of jobs in research, fabrication and maintenance. However, no new industry thrives without government support, and the bailout of Grangemouth contrasted with the collapse of EMEC-based Pelamis shows we still haven’t quite got our priorities straight.”

Seize the opportunity

“The Highlands and Islands’ colossal green energy potential can create the high-quality jobs that will underpin a fair economy and a fair society, but none of this will happen by accident. We need decisive government action, while we can still reap the benefits of being first into the race, to make sure that these enormous opportunities don’t pass us by.”

The report makes a wide range of policy recommendations, including:

  • Creating a publicly-owned renewables company to encourage offshore wind, tidal and wave developments
  • Prioritising North Sea decommissioning work
  • Taking the Grangemouth refinery and petrochemicals plant into public ownership
  • Converting Grangemouth to make and use synthetic gas to enable a long-term future
  • Launching a national insulation retrofit programme
  • Launching a large-scale reforesting programme
  • Making available support packages for fossil fuel workers to aid their transition to new sectors

The Highlands and Islands need rent controls

This post first appeared on the website of the Living Rent Campaign.

John Finnie backs Living Rent Campaign, holding placard reading "It's time for rent controls".The Highlands and Islands is an expensive place to live. You probably know that our big distances mean higher transport costs, and our wilder weather means bigger fuel bills. You could probably guess that our workers’ wages are well below those in the central belt. But it might come as more of a surprise to learn that rents in the Highlands and Islands are well above the Scottish average, and rising faster than anywhere but Glasgow.

According to a study by estate agents Your Move (PDF), the average rent in the private rented sector in the Highlands and Islands run at £563 per month, £14 higher than the national figure. In the last year, our rents have risen by 4.3%, only a fraction behind the 4.6% increase in the Glasgow and Clyde area.

There is a tendency to think of housing pressures as the preserve of overcrowded urban centres or their hastily-built suburban schemes. In fact, the housing crisis here in the Highlands and Islands is as acute as anywhere in the central belt.

Our rents are soaring, driven by buy-to-let and holiday-home speculators for whom houses are first and foremost investments, not homes. The result is greater poverty, greater depopulation, and more desperate tenants forced to accept poor-quality homes or unscrupulous landlords.

We must reverse that trend, so that everyone can expect somewhere safe, secure and affordable to live.

The housing crisis is a complex problem that will have complex solutions, but I believe that a system of rent controls is an essential component of our response.

Rent controls were effectively abolished in the UK by the Thatcher government’s 1988 Housing Acts, but rent controls live on in other countries, including in several cities in the United States. The policy is making a strong comeback, with Berlin the most recent major city to extend its rent controls. A UK opinion poll last December found that 60% support rent controls, and less than 1 in 14 people oppose them (opposition among the Scottish subset of the poll was a virtually negligible 1 in 33).

Here in Scotland, we await the report – due imminently – on the Scottish Government’s second consultation on a “New Tenancy for the Private Sector,” which asked respondents for their view on bringing back rent controls. In the meantime the Scottish Parliament has received a petition, organised by the grassroots Living Rent Campaign and signed by 8,000 people, calling for the reintroduction of rent controls.

The Living Rent Campaign’s proposals not only take on the raw cost of renting, but also the poor quality of much of our housing. This is a particular problem in the Highlands and Islands, where almost half (48%) of private tenants live in fuel poverty, 26% of private rented homes are “lacking modern facilities”, and 13% are “below tolerable standard” – more than twice the Scottish average.

Using a points system similar to that in place in the Netherlands, maximum rents would be lowered for properties that fail housing quality standards, have poor energy efficiency or are awaiting repairs, giving landlords a much-needed financial incentive to make improvements.

Rent controls are by no means enough on their own to solve the housing crisis – and no-one is saying they are. We need to build many, many more council houses; we need secure, indefinite tenancies that allow tenants to put down roots; we need to ban discrimination against prospective tenants on the grounds of their welfare or immigration status; and we need much tougher minimum energy efficiency standards to wipe out fuel poverty – all of which has been proposed by the Scottish Greens, and found at least some support in other parties.

What rent controls will do is make an immediate impact in the lives and expectations of many thousands of tenants. They will reduce the burden on families in hardship, encourage young people back to depopulated communities, and restore sanity to the housing market. Most of all, they will begin the process of reclaiming our houses as homes for people, not for money.

I’m very proud to be one of the first MSPs to put my name to the Living Rent Campaign’s pledge to back rent controls. Please write to your MSPs, your MPs, MEPs and Councillors, and the candidates for the next Scottish Parliament election, asking them to do the same.

John urges council chiefs to invest pension funds in affordable homes

John Finnie speaking at an Edinburgh University building occupied by students in protest at fossil fuel investments
John speaking at an Edinburgh University building occupied by students in protest at fossil fuel investments
John Finnie has written to the Chief Executives of the six Highlands and Islands local authorities, urging them to follow the lead of Falkirk Council by investing a portion of their pension funds in building social and affordable housing.

John has also lodged a Parliamentary Question asking that the Scottish Parliamentary Pension Fund – the pension fund for MSPs – follow Falkirk Council’s example.

Falkirk’s Local Government Pension Scheme Fund has invested £30 million in the Housing Fund for Scotland, managed by Hearthstone Investments. The Falkirk investment is expected to fund the construction of over 300 affordable homes, and the Fund aims to raise a total of £150 million and build over 1,000 new homes.

John has been campaigning to divest public sector pension funds from destructive industries like fossil fuels, weapons and tobacco, and encourage socially useful investments like affordable housing and renewable energy. He has criticised the trustees of the MSPs’ Scottish Parliamentary Pension Scheme for refusing to take action on unethical investments, and recently supported Edinburgh University students in their protest against the university’s investments in fossil fuels.

John said:

“Public authorities invest billions of pounds in pension funds, and that money could and should be helping to fund the investment we need in everything from affordable homes to clean energy. Our pension funds can do good for society as well as growing strongly to provide for our retirement.

“The dedicated public servants who pay into council pensions aren’t just numbers on a screen. They’re real people who need homes, schools, hospitals, a healthy environment and jobs for their families. It makes no sense to invest their money in things which undermine those needs when it could be helping to fulfil them.

“I believe most people – especially people who have chosen a career in public service – don’t want to be bankrolling oil companies, the arms industry and Big Tobacco. Falkirk’s investment proves there are alternatives; I hope other councils and the Scottish Parliament are paying attention.”

John’s letters to the Chief Executives of Highlands Council, Argyll & Bute Council, Moray Council, Orkney Islands Council, Shetland Islands Council and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar read:

Dear Chief Executive

Can I commend to you the approach taken by Falkirk Council which has invested £30M of its pension fund into Hearthstone Investments Housing Fund for Scotland. The Housing Fund for Scotland will help provide for more affordable housing across Scotland.

I believe that such investments which aim to provide a real community benefit ought to make up an increasing share of our public pensions, encouraging moves away from the investments such as tobacco and fossil fuels which damage our health and our environment and the arms which causes so much devastation in communities abroad.

I would be grateful if you would examine the example of Falkirk and consider investing the some of the Council’s Pension Fund in a similar manner.

Kind regards,

John Finnie MSP