As MSPs returned to Holyrood this week I was pleased to welcome Tuesday’s Programme for Government.
The SNP’s flagship policy for this Programme for Government is increasing the Scottish Child Payment from £20 to £25 from November. That money goes straight into the hands of those who need it to keep children out of poverty.
During recess I held numerous surgeries and meetings with community groups that are struggling to support people through the cost-of-living crisis. I’ve heard from constituents who are begging their council to cut off their energy supply to avoid being landed with bills that will soon be more than their monthly rent.
The levels of fuel poverty being forecast, not least in Orkney and Shetland, are a grim reminder of the reality that is present across this region. People will be sitting in cold, damp homes, surrounded by renewable generation – hydro-electric, and onshore or offshore windfarms – that provides green electricity to the rest of the UK, wondering how on earth they are going to pay for the rising cost of their own bills.
Things are bleak, and it is correct to say that the biggest levers of power that can change the situation — those relating to energy policy, social security and borrowing powers — lie with Westminster. However, that has not stopped the Scottish Government from putting money right into folks’ hands and doing what it can to support individuals.
While the First Minister made many announcements of significance to folk across the Highlands and Islands, the one that I am most delighted to see is a rent freeze. I am extremely relieved that this freeze will be introduced ahead of the new Housing Bill. That is the right thing to do. It prioritises people’s safety and security over private financial gain, and it will save lives. I feel for those who have had their rents increased in recent months, but I hope that folk can see the value in the peace of mind that is provided by not having further increases at a time when very few can afford them.
I’m also glad to hear that the Housing Bill will deal with protections in the long term as well as addressing short-term lets and other housing pressures, which are devastating communities in the Highlands and Islands. If these communities are to stand any chance of continuing, and if employers, including the NHS, are to be able to recruit in those areas, folk need to be able to find an affordable place to live. Sadly, in many of our towns that’s just not possible right now.
I want this region to diversify and to be a key player in Scotland’s place on the world stage. That is far from out of reach, but we need support to retain the people we have and, right now, only those on the highest of salaries can live and work in and contribute to those communities. Housing is absolutely at the heart of that issue, and Tuesday’s announcement recognises that.
This is a regular column by SNP MSP Emma Roddick. All Highlands and Islands MSPs have been offered the same space in The Orkney News to share their views.