Three cheers for the Evening News for its leader headline just before Christmas. “High property prices are not good for the city” it said. To me, it seems so obvious but it is amazing the number of newsrooms around the country which uncritically do the high-fives as they print yet another PR-agency story on the “housing boom”.
The cost of housing in our capital city – whether to rent or to buy – is a major brake on Edinburgh’s ambition to be a more prosperous, more equal and greener city. Money tied up in inflated land values, in decades-old bricks and mortar, is not productive investment. It cramps social mobility, impacts most severely on younger households and sucks attention away from the big transformations we need in transport, energy and food.
So what could be done about rip-off housing costs in the city?
Firstly, we could make much better use of the housing we have. As my Green colleague, Councillor Steve Burgess pointed out last week, there are 5000 long-term private empty homes in Edinburgh. With a bit of help they could be in play to reduce housing pressures.
Secondly, we could make sure that much more new housing is genuinely affordable. Sixty per cent of Edinburgh’s housing need is for homes that are below what the market provides, but planning policy only requires developers to set aside 25 per cent of a development at below market prices.
By contrast, at Meadowbank, the council has turned over land to be developed directly as social and mid-market housing. We need more of that. At the same time, in parts of the city, the only development seems to be purpose-built student housing. The growing student population deserves good quality accommodation, but the model of high-cost, “stack-em-high” blocks does nothing to help students on a budget and needs a better mix with longer-term homes too.
In the private sector, action is needed on soaring rents which are now at £1000 a month on average. By next year councils will have powers to set Rent Pressure Zones, to limit rent rises. I want to see Edinburgh at the front of the queue to use those powers.
Finally, there are lessons for the council’s own 20,000 council homes. No-one has suffered more in the last five years from the attack on low wage earners and on welfare benefits than council tenants. With Edinburgh having the highest council house rents in Scotland, I can see why Edinburgh Tenants Federation has been calling for a rent freeze next year. Over to the council budget decision in February . . .
Making housing affordable is a choice that the city must make.
Alex Staniforth is the Green candidate for Craigentinny-Duddingston in May’s council elections