John McLellan: Rooms in need of view

Students are not all the party animals many landowners fear when occupying their HMOs. Picture: David Moir

Students are not all the party animals many landowners fear when occupying their HMOs. Picture: David Moir

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How many people have noticed that planning is apparently no longer a Scottish Government function?

There was a planning minister until last month, the well-regarded Derek Mackay, but in Nicola Sturgeon’s new-look administration the position is no more. Instead we have a minister for community empowerment, a loaded title if ever there was one.

Ms Sturgeon has had to reassure the business community that her administration is still pro-enterprise, but the signal in this move is clear – the interests of communities, however they may be framed, are now enshrined in the name of the department ultimately responsible for deciding what projects should or should not go ahead.

And as we have seen recently in Edinburgh, the views of vocal community activists are not always aligned with the broader civic or national interests and rarely with those of businesses.

The new minister for local government and community empowerment is Edinburgh Central MSP Marco Biagi, one of the growing number of new-breed SNP politicians following in the footsteps of so many of their Labour predecessors in never having had a job outside party politics since leaving university.

So what is the new minister’s track record? He was a vocal opponent of the Caltongate plan, famously asking how long the Old Town could be called old. But high on his agenda is forcing private student housing companies to build affordable housing for non-students too. Most recently, he opposed construction of student flats at Lutton Road in Southside on this basis.

Maybe he has a point, that such developers should do their bit to make sure there are affordable places to live for people working at universities as well as those studying, but his 
description of “rip-off corporate developers” could hardly be described as an even-handed approach to the subject.

Like the recent furore over the St Leonard’s Homebase plan, the argument is based on avoiding over-concentration of students in a particular area, which is fine when it comes to traditional homes where a young, transient population can make life uncomfortable to say the least for long-term residents.

In the pork barrel of local politics, student accommodation is becoming a football in the chase for votes, with Edinburgh East MP Sheila Gilmore leading the charge for Labour. But the bigger prize is the higher education sector which is increasingly vital for the city’s economy.

Managed accommodation in new sites is part of the solution, not the problem; it puts students into a controlled environment and decreases student demand for houses in 
multiple occupation (HMOs), the bane of settled flat-dwellers’ lives. Thanks to managed accommodation, places like Marchmont have become less attractive for private student lets and, despite the growth of student numbers, now have a much more stable population.

Further, making life more difficult for those providing private managed places is another obstacle in the lucrative global competition for overseas postgraduates (the UK government’s paranoid immigration policies don’t help either) who quickly need to find reliable, convenient places to stay. If it’s not available, they go somewhere else.

And these people are not like the cast of The Young Ones; few Evening News readers will have been in a lecture theatre packed with Far Eastern postgraduates, all shelling out more than £20,000 a year to study here, but wild party animals they are not I can assure you. In recognition of the importance of this market, Edinburgh University is now building a £110 million postgraduate accommodation and outreach centre on Holyrood Road, which is fine according to Biaigi because Edinburgh University owns the land and is a charity. Whether that is a consistent argument when it comes to local concerns about concentration is another matter.

More than once, Biagi has expressed his mistrust of private landlords and private student accommodation providers now sit firmly in that bracket. Those who would object to them, and there are plenty of them in Edinburgh, will find encouragement from his elevation. Anti-development activists too will be cheered by the change in title. Would something like Craighouse or Edinburgh Accies’ rugby ground developments, both approved in the teeth of ferocious local campaigns, be approved by a community empowerment department as opposed to a planning department? Or indeed something like the Beauly-Denny power line, again the subject of vigorous local opposition but deemed to be in the national interest?

Development just got a little bit more complicated.

TIME’S UP FOR COCKENZIE CHIMNEYS

Nostalgia might be a reason to hang on to the Cockenzie chimneys and the rest of the old power station complex, but it’s about the only one.

Some locals might regard it fondly, but for visitors it is a blot on a landscape which should be at the heart of the future strategy for putting tourism at the heart of the local economy.

Battersea it isn’t. Golf, Robert Louis Stevenson and John Muir are the keys to attracting visitors from around the globe and a relic of the industrial past is a chain across the door.

THANK GOODNESS FOR FOOD BANKS . . THOUGH WE SHOULDN’T NEED THEM

According to figures for food bank use in Edinburgh released this week, we have seen the city plunge into a crisis of biblical proportions in the space of two years. Despite a steadily improving economy, Trussell Trust statistics show an astonishing surge from just 604 people helped in 2012 to 10,704 this year, a staggering leap of about 1700 per cent.

By comparison, the latest Edinburgh Economic Outlook report shows the number of people claiming the job seeker’s allowance has fallen to just two per cent, but the more important number when it comes to foodbank use is the 11.1 per cent of working age people on benefits.

The Trussell Trust, which is behind five food banks in the city, cites the number of working people on low wages as the most significant factor in the upsurge combined with what they describe as a huge rise in the cost of living, in particular food and fuel.

But does the cost of living claim stand up to scrutiny? According to the Consumer Prices Index produced by the Office of National Statistics, food prices have dropped 1.4 per cent since last year and are considerably lower than in the middle of 2011. So too is clothing, slightly cheaper than it was a year ago, by about 0.2 per cent.

Similarly, motor fuel has come down in price more or less steadily since 2011, in fact it’s five per cent cheaper than it was at the start of 2010, and with oil prices tumbling it should stay low for some time.

It has not been a good year for wages, with the median figure for full-time workers (the amount at which there are as many people below as above) up only 0.1 per cent since last year to £518 a week. That’s a real terms decrease of 1.6 per cent when total inflation is taken into account.

The biggest problem remains with domestic energy, a whopping 3.2 per cent more expensive than it was a year ago and we’ve still got the winter to go. Yet the wholesale price of gas has fallen over 20 per cent in the last year. Explain that, Scottish Gas. Investment in infrastructure? Isn’t that Scotland Gas Networks, a separate company, or SGN as they now like to be known?

It’s the same story with electricity where the wholesale price to suppliers fell 12 per cent by the middle of this year, but the cost to the consumer rose 4.4 per cent. No wonder Ofgem referred the power companies to the Competition and Markets Authority and some of them could be broken up as a result of the report when it’s published next year.

But discouraging though many of these figures undoubtedly are, they do not fully explain the scale of the increase in food bank use we have witnessed in the past two years. Nor can the low use of the service prior to 2012 mean that families were not struggling to get by.

But negative or otherwise, the amount of publicity food banks received in the past two years as they became a political football in the referendum would have cost thousands in advertising and cannot but have raised awareness. I knew little about the work of the Trussell Trust until about three years ago.

Few would argue in a city as wealthy as Edinburgh that it’s acceptable for any family not to have enough money to put food on the table, but so too is it unreasonable to think that no-one can ever avoid falling on hard times, or to expect every individual to make the right choices with what they’ve got.

Nor should it be by definition wrong for organisations other than the government to provide help and support when necessary, just as long as people know where to get it in time of need.

Thank goodness for food banks and long may they continue.

• See www.trusselltrust.orgfor more details.