Jane Wood: ‘housing doesn’t feel like a priority sector’ (pic: Terry Murden)
Interview: Jane Wood, CEO, Homes for Scotland
If the Cabinet Secretary for Housing Shona Robison is feeling a draught it could be because the chief executive of Homes for Scotland is breathing down her neck. Three months into her new job and Jane Wood is wasting no time putting down a few markers with the Scottish Government.
Already she has issued a list of 12 key points she wants to focus on, almost all of them emphasising her main cause for concern: that the housing sector isn’t regarded highly enough as a contributor to the economy and to social wellbeing.
“It is astounding to me that there is so much that people don’t know or value about home building,” she says, running off a fact file of the numbers of jobs it supports in Scotland (80,000), its contribution to the Scottish economy (£3.4 billion) and that poor housing costs the NHS £2.5bn.
There are plenty more, but a vital one for the government to chew over is that despite all the pledges and photo calls with ministers holding spades on building sites, the country is still 100,000 homes short of what it needs.
She says: “When I told people I was taking this job the reaction was: ‘What? We need more houses?’ There is a general view that we have enough, and that houses are bad for the environment. Yet only 2.1% of the land is built on.”
She feels that some of this negativity seeps into government thinking, with housing “lost” as it cuts across a number of portfolios, from communities to local government.
“Housing doesn’t feel like a priority sector,” she sighs. “I would like to see it as part of the solution to growing the economy.”
Wood may share the frustrations and neglect of her members, but her long experience working in the business behaviour, third sector and government policy arena, including a long spell at Business in the Community where she regularly worked alongside the former Prince Charles – “a man of great vision” – makes her hopeful that housing will get the attention it deserves.
Wood has set out her areas of focus (pic: Terry Murden)
It will, however, require some major shifts, both in attitudes and in action, which are held up, she says, by the complex set of regulations and authorities that surround it. Everyone in the sector knows that it has to answer to many demanding voices.
Progress will be slow, but already she has been invited on to the board of the Housing 2040 initiative. She believes that being at the top table of discussions will be vital. She has also had meetings with the Cabinet Secretary and has written to the CEOs of all 32 local authorities.
“There is a huge lack of resource at local government level. No consistency in planning or in training, as well as a shortage of planners. It takes an average 55 weeks to get planning consent.
“We have great relationships with the local authorities and we have to talk about the challenges they face.”
But any improvement at local government level will depend on policy and budgeting decisions at Holyrood and she says it is crucial that ministers understand, for instance, that rising costs hit margins which may then determine whether houses get built, especially in the lower margin affordable sector.
It may be government policy to have a quota of affordable homes included in every development, but Wood says no one seems to have a definition of “affordable”, except that it includes homes for rent. The private sector is responsible for a third of these homes, rising to 90% when its contracts with social housing providers is included.
‘The government has an affordable homes target but is reluctant to look at the all-tenure figure’
“The government has to recognise the rise in costs that are impacting on the sector and what this means for housing policy,” says Wood.
She reveals that because of these cost increases some builders anticipate reducing their affordable housing activity. It will put a further squeeze on the provision of new homes, enough to have Wood shaking her head.
“The government has an affordable homes target but is reluctant to look at the all-tenure figure. We have said 25,000 homes need to be built each year but the government has never committed to it.”
On top of that came the rent freeze, announced in the First Minister’s Programme for Government as a measure to help tenants cope with the rising cost of fuel bills. Landlords, who say they were not consulted, were unimpressed, arguing it will make matters worse.
“At the moment, it is a short term solution,” says Wood. “We applaud government for responding to a critical problem. But we are concerned that if this becomes the longer term direction of travel it will impact on investment in the market.
“Rent controls always create a shortage of rentable properties and a decline in the quality of properties, and worryingly for us it could mean building properties becomes riskier. It feels to me like it will reduce the number of homes and increase prices.”
It looks like it is already happening. The Scottish Property Federation told Daily Business that because of the rent freeze a multi-million pound investment into the sector has been put on pause.
“Yes, I’ve heard about that, too,” says Wood.
Occupation: CEO, Homes for Scotland
Educated: In Malta and Germany (father was in the forces)
Career highlights: Boots (head of corporate affairs); Scottish Business in the Community (CEO); Business in the Community (Edinburgh and London); BT Group (nations and regions director); Homes for Scotland (CEO).
What are your memories of working with the former Prince Charles at Business in the Community?
He was always very involved. He was one of the first to put his head above the parapet on climate change and sustainable businesses. He was ahead of his time and it was all authentic. Many of us aspire to work with people who inspire others and he was absolutely one of those. He drove the third sector economy and now he has had to give it up he will be a huge loss.
What was your first job?
William Low (supermarkets) in St Andrews
Interests outside of work?
I am an avid reader. Everything from pulp fiction to philosophy. I am a non-executive director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. It is a huge privilege.
What annoys you?
Cruelty, unfairness, people being disingenuous
If you were to invite three people, living or deceased, to join you for a fantasy dinner party who would you choose?
Virginia Woolf, Bertrand Russell and Dylan Thomas