SL&E conference

Sarwar wants ‘better’ rent cap as Forbes hints at change

Anas Sarwar addressing the Scottish Land & Estates conference (pic: Terry Murden / DB Media Services)

Rural communities and businesses were told they would not be left behind in the formulation of government policy as a landowners’ conference heard calls for clarity on land reforms and action on housing.

Labour leader Anas Sarwar said it was essential for parliament to recognise that housing is not simply an urban problem and that “right across Scotland we have a lack of supply.”

He also criticised the planning regime, comparing the 78 weeks average approval in Glasgow to 16 weeks in Manchester.

But he defended the controversial rent cap which was introduced by the SNP-Green government.

“The rent cap was right, but it was badly designed,” he told delegates attending the Scottish Land & Estates conference in Edinburgh. “We need proper regulation but one that attracts investment.”

His comments came a day after Economy Secretary Kate Forbes hinted to Daily Business that the rent controls are under review.

During her visit to the National Robotarium at Heriot-Watt University yesterday, Ms Forbes was asked if she would change or abolish the rent controls.

New data shows rents rising in Scotland at a faster rate than anywhere else in the UK and investors fleeing the country for more favourable returns. Ms Forbes indicated that she was mindful of the effects of the current housing policy on investor intentions.

“We have got to get the right balance here,” she said. “The population is struggling with the cost of living and it is extremely difficult for many to make ends meet, particularly those living in rented accommodation.

“We have to balance that alongside the fact that we need to increase the supply of houses. That means having the right policies in place to attract that investment. Clearly these are all policies that need to be kept under review.

“The housing bill is at the very earliest of stages and the committee is about to take evidence and I like to be led by the evidence.”

Anas Sarwar joked that he was in unfamiliar company at the SL&E conference (pic: Terry Murden)

At the SL&E conference Mr Sarwar was asked if he would resolve current concern over a proposals that would lead to the fragmentation of land holdings.

He said that if he was in government he would seek greater collaboration with those who live and work in rural areas and “make sure people are not forced away” by a lack of opportunity or housing supply.

While declaring himself “unashamedly pro-business” he admitted that addressing the event was unfamiliar territory for a Labour leader but he noted that land reform was a driving pillar of the late Labour First Minister Donald Dewar’s policies.

“The potential is huge if we work together through collaboration and partnership,” said Mr Sarwar.

Tackling these issues would mean pushing power out of Edinburgh into local communities, he said. He repeated Labour’s desire to “de-clutter” the economic development landscape to help boost the economy.

Jim Fairlie: things feel less secure (pic: Terry Murden / DB Media Services)

Jim Fairlie the Agriculture and Connectivity Minister, came under pressure from the floor over spending priorities. Mr Fairlie said the government had been forced to make difficult decisions during the pandemic and cost of living crisis.

“Things undoubtedly feel less secure than they have for as long as I can remember,” he said.

In line with First Minister John Swinney’s decision to benchmark every policy against its affect on the economy, Mr Fairlie said there was a need for a “re-set across everything we do as everything we do should help make Scotland a better and more prosperous place.”

Dee Ward, chairman of Scottish Land & Estates, said: “I believe that now is the moment for the Scottish Government to reset its relationship with rural Scotland, better understand the positive work we are undertaking to deliver benefits for everyone, and create an evidenced based environment for legislation that supports our work to continue delivering these benefits now, and in the future.”

In the Holyrood chamber Tory shadow housing secretary Miles Briggs raised a topical question on average rents in Scotland increasing at a higher rate than anywhere else in the UK.

“Official figures highlight how disastrous the SNP’s rent control policy has been, with average rents rising at a higher rate in Scotland than anywhere else in the UK.

“The Scottish Conservatives – and the sector waned them – that rent controls would decimate the market, leading to higher bills for tenants and reduced capacity, but SNP-Green ministers ploughed ahead regardless. Tenants are now paying the price for that arrogance.

“Now the SNP are planning to double down on rent controls with their flawed housing bill. They must urgently revisit it, and take a more flexible approach to rent regulation. Paul McLennan promised he would listen to stakeholders as the bill progresses but, until now, he and the SNP have repeatedly failed to do so.

“Having finally declared a national housing emergency last week, the SNP must act to alleviate Scotland’s homelessness crisis – not make it worse.”

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