I’m particularly delighted to be here today when you are celebrating your 25th anniversary. The association plays a vital role in making its members’ voice heard at local and national levels and I want to congratulate members past and present on your success.
In the Borders I have built up close working relationships over many years with the Eildon, Scottish Borders, Berwickshire and Waverley Housing Associations. Their pro-active, constructive engagement with me and other parliamentarians is a model which I commend to you all. They don’t miss and hit the wall when there are difficult issues to discuss.
But, equally they provide me with useful, indeed invaluable, insights into policy issues beyond housing itself and I very much value the relationship. That ‘extra mile’ of engagement with elected representatives is something across party and across the country that we all appreciate - so thank you to everyone for the efforts you make.
I understand that recently the Forum was successful in raising sufficient funding to enable research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation to proceed later this year. The research which will look at a minimum income standard in Scotland’s rural areas and should provide solid empirical evidence for what we already know anecdotally - that living in a rural community is more costly than living in an urban community. I look forward to seeing the results, which I’m sure will be of interest to departments in both the UK and Scottish governments, mine included.
Scotland’s many and varied rural and island communities are vital to the life-blood of our nation. Yet they are not without their challenges. I understand those challenges. I live and breath the reality of life in rural communities in Scotland. I live in Galashiels and am proud to represent one of the largest rural constituencies in Scotland. One of the other largest rural constituencies in Scotland is represented by a certain Danny Alexander. So, I don’t think anyone could disagree when I say that the challenges of Scottish rural communities life are well understood at the heart of the UK government.
As I have travelled tens of thousands of miles across Scotland in the past two-and-a-half years as Secretary of State, I have also valued the chance to visit housing projects in different parts of the country. Your association has witnessed enormous changes in Scotland in the last 25 years. Devolution and the creation of the Scottish Parliament has transformed the policy-making environment in Scotland for your association and for every other part of civil Scotland. I have championed devolution all my life and I am proud to continue to champion Scottish devolution.
As you look back today, it is only natural that you should also want to look forward to the next 25 years. The independence referendum will hardly have escaped your attentions. Di [Alexander] has told me that part of your discussion today will focus on the potential impact of independence on Scotland’s rural and island communities. I hope you will forgive me if I say that I do not intend to speculate on that issue today although I am happy to take questions at the end.
I am confident that the people of Scotland will vote to retain Scotland’s place within the United Kingdom. In other words, I am confident they will vote for devolution rather than independence. In any case, it is the Scottish government which is seeking to change Scotland’s status within the UK. It is for them to set out what an independent Scotland might look like. So what I want to do today is to focus on issues closer to home. I want to focus on what the UK government is doing to address the challenges of rural and island communities in Scotland and to address the challenges which so many of you and your tenants face.
As we move into shorter days and the winter weather, there are fewer greater challenges than rising energy costs. The recent announcements from some of the major energy suppliers are disappointing news for customers. I understand all too well that rising energy prices are hitting many households hard at a difficult time. But let me highlight a number of positive steps which the government is taking and which all of us can take too.
In the short term, the easiest ways to keep energy bills down are to get people paying the lowest possible tariffs and to reduce the amount of wasted energy, by taking advantage of offers available on free or discounted home insulation.
I would urge all consumers to shop around and check their energy deal. When they find a better deal, vote with their feet and take their business elsewhere. That is why government is working with Ofgem to make sure that households have clear information on their bills about the supplier’s cheapest tariff and the savings they could make by switching. Ofgem will have new powers to force suppliers to compensate customers if they’ve lost out as a result of a company breaching a licence condition.
‘Collective purchasing and switching’ is another great way to beat rising energy costs. We have been pushing to make it easier for people to club together to get a better deal on their energy. I would urge you to consider this option for your tenants. The government has also launched a £5 million competition for the most innovative local authority or third sector schemes.
But I understand completely that there is only so much that can be done to reduce costs by way of switching. The government is also making sure that the most vulnerable households get direct financial help from their supplier. Over 1 million pensioners will get £130 off their fuel bills this winter as part of the Warm Home Discount scheme, with the wider scheme helping around 2 million households this year.
And direct from the government, all pensioner households under 79 will get £200 Winter Fuel Payment this winter and those over 80 will get £300. Annual payments for pensioners worth up to £300 have already been paid out to an estimated 12.7 million older people in more than 9 million homes.
Let me also highlight one initiative which I want to praise as a great example of a rural housing association working in partnership with other government agencies for the benefit of its members and its members’ fuel bills. Berwick Housing Association is building a three-turbine community wind farm at Hoprigshiels Farm, near Cockburnspath, in what will be the first wind farm developed by a Housing Association in the UK. Uniquely, all profits will go to community or charitable projects. The wind farm will power around 4000 households and provide income for both Berwick Housing Association and Community Energy Scotland, helping to build new homes and supporting local community projects. This is a project that I commend to you all.
Beyond the difficult issue of energy prices, let me touch on some wider issues affecting the rural economy. Post Offices play a vital role in our rural and island communities. That’s why I am delighted that the coalition government took the decision not to repeat the closure programmes of the previous administration. This government is investing £1.34 billion to ensure that there are no more closure programmes, and that the network remains at around its current size of at least 11,500 branches across the UK.
On the wider issue of connectivity, everyone here today will be acutely aware of the importance to rural communities of reliable, fast broadband connections, whether for business or in the home. Out of a UK-wide programme totalling £513 million for the roll out of superfast broadband in rural areas, Scotland is due to receive £100.6 million. At the same time, UK-wide investment of £150 million will improve the coverage and quality of mobile voice services.
Turning to incomes, I know from my own constituency that it’s often the case that incomes in rural areas are lower than in urban areas. That’s why I’m particularly pleased that the Coalition government has progressively raised the personal tax allowance for low earners. The increases announced to date will benefit 2.1 million Scots, and take 162,000 low income individuals out of tax from April 2013, many of whom live in rural and island communities.
But while it’s important to help low earners, it’s equally important to help people into employment in the first place, particularly our young people, many of whom will be tenants in your properties. Tackling this issue takes a concerted effort across Scotland’s two governments and across all delivery agencies. Let me highlight, however, the government’s Youth Contract which for the next 3 years will bring vital support for unemployed young people, helping them to prepare for work and find jobs.
The Youth Contract provides additional work experience and sector-based work academy places. There is a place for every young person who wants one before they enter the Work Programme. Extra help from Jobcentre Plus is also available as well as wage incentives of up to £2,275 each available to employers who recruit 18 to 24 year olds from the Work Programme for at least 26 weeks. In the same way that I would take the opportunity to encourage businesses and employers across Scotland to consider apprenticeships or internships, I would urge you to consider whether your organisations could offer work experience opportunities to young people in your communities.
Turning to welfare reform, I know that members from this forum, and more widely the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations, have voiced concerns about particular policies which will affect your services and the people who use them, such as the new under-occupancy rules for housing benefit, or the switch to direct monthly payments of housing costs to tenants as part of Universal Credit.
I recognise the challenges that we face collectively, and the range of opinions on these policies.
Nevertheless I welcome your engagement with us on these issues and I would encourage you to engage in the design and implementation of welfare reform in Scotland, either directly with the Department for Work and Pensions, or through other government channels via the Scottish government or Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA).
In addition, my colleague David Mundell will be holding a Scotland Office-sponsored roundtable with housing associations early in the new year at which I hope many of you can be represented. The government is committed to working with you to tailor the implementation of the reforms to Scottish needs wherever possible.
Finally, let me return to one constitutional policy issue which I feel the Forum should be aware of. You will be aware of the passing of the Scotland Act 2012 earlier this year, the largest transfer of fiscal power from London to Edinburgh in 300 years. We must not lose sight of the significance of that legislation as our attention starts to focus on the referendum in two years’ time.
I want to draw your attention to one particular provision within that Act, and that’s the devolution of stamp duty. The Scottish government recently consulted on its proposals to introduce a replacement ‘Land and Buildings Transaction Tax’. This is a matter which will be of great importance to housing associations. If you have not already done so, I would encourage delegates here today to engage in the development of that legislation to make sure that your voice is heard.
So, to sum up, what I have said today illustrates some of the supports the UK government is providing to housing associations and their tenants in Scotland. I recognise that the ‘big debate’ on Scotland’s constitutional future will be at the front of everyone’s minds.
But let’s not forget that we owe it to everyone to ensure daily business - in whichever sector we work - carries on as usual.
As Scotland faces up to that big debate, I am confident that the Forum will enjoy another 25 years of working and thriving within a strong devolved Scotland which is part of a strong United Kingdom.