Alex Neil: Forget about the trams and build houses

Housing and Communities Minister Alex Neil.
Housing and Communities Minister Alex Neil.
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Alex Neil’s marching orders for Edinburgh couldn’t be clearer: forget about extending the trams and get on with building houses.

The minister with ultimate responsibility for planning, communities and housing has been thrust into the debate about the city’s future with recent decisions, first to block a plan for 650 houses at Cammo and then to approve a similar-sized scheme at Gilmerton.

But as the Scottish Parliament heads off into recess, the old-school political bruiser is in a relaxed and confident mood, looking forward to a Mediterranean break after a year of the most intensive campaigning in 
living memory.

His remit is, of course, National, but he’s agreed to explain his thoughts on the future of Edinburgh as so many of the big decisions in the next few years are likely to land on his desk.

And he’s quick off the mark to set the context: “There is a special onus on all of us to make sure Edinburgh is in good shape, stays in good shape, continually develops and keeps its place in the international map of the most attractive and cosmopolitan cities in the world,” he says.

“The Registrar General is forecasting that over the next 13 years Scotland’s population could go up as high as six million from 5.3m and Edinburgh is well placed to take its fair share, maybe more than its fair share, of that growth and that will add to pressure for new housing on top of what is already a highly-pressured market place.

“The number one priority is to make sure we get the land in the right place at the right time so we can build the variety of types and tenures of houses we need for Scotland’s capital city.”

Neil is well aware Cammo was a test bed for the whole of West Edinburgh, with the complex mix of 
housing demand, transport problems and green belt sacrifice making it a key issue in the general election campaign. To the delight of locals, he overturned the recommendation of the government’s reporter and called a halt.

Although the rules prevent him from discussing the particulars of any decision within six weeks of an announcement, it’s clear he believed the word of locals – presumably local SNP candidates prominent amongst them – that the roads couldn’t handle a new estate.

“Sometimes nimbyism is an unfortunate description and we must respond to genuine concerns by following the evidence. If the issue is around transport then if local people say it already takes 45 minutes to get into the house, well you have to listen to that,” he explains.

“Despite all the investment, West Edinburgh clearly has a transport issue and it’s not in the interests of current or future residents if we don’t get that sorted. If the big picture is that an area like this isn’t ready to take the volume that might come with three or four planning applications being approved then we need to look at that.”

With trams and a new railway station, presumably this means more road capacity, but later he makes it clear such transport issues are primarily local, even though national government decisions can add to the pressure.

He singles out the Queensferry Crossing as a good example of the Scottish Government investing to keep Edinburgh competitive but does not go into the knock-on effect higher traffic volumes will have on local roads.

“We are taking a very pro-active approach to transport and the bridge is a very good example. Without it Edinburgh would have a question mark over the growth it can achieve,” he says.

But then he adds: “Internally, 
transport leadership very much has to be led by the city council.”

Over at Gilmerton, infrastructure was also the issue, but in that case the council’s main issue was school capacity, even though traffic there at rush hour can be just as bad as in the West. Tellingly, the McTaggart & Mickel scheme was not a prominent feature of the election. It is not mentioned on the campaign website of victorious SNP candidate Tommy Sheppard, for instance.

Approval came with a commitment from the developer to build a new primary school, but left the council with a £7m bill for new places at Liberton High. It appears that following the evidence, as Mr Neil puts it, might be down to who shouts the directions loudest. But despite these inconsistencies, there is clarity about what he expects to see in Edinburgh; growth. He accepts, as it stands, Edinburgh cannot meet its housing targets without building on green belt land and sacrifices will be needed as long as it is done in a measured and planned way.

“There needs to be a balance between how much we encroach into green belt with the number of brownfield sites available. If you just make green belt land available then developers might not use the brownfield sites.”

“But we need as many houses as we can build in Edinburgh of all types,” he says. “For every house not built there is a family waiting to occupy one because the demand is huge.

And so his advice to his colleagues in the city’s coalition administration?

“If I were a councillor in Edinburgh, funding substantial investment in new housing would be a much higher priority than extending the trams in the immediate future because we need a step change in housing of all types and tenures, types and sizes.

“If we can’t house the population there is a real threat to reaching Edinburgh’s economic potential. With housing, the sky’s the limit.”