Alison Johnstone: Time to take stock as we build for the future

Edinburgh does need to create new homes, says Alison Johnstone, but rash decisions and loss of greenbelt land will haunt us for years
File picture: Rui Vieira/PA WireFile picture: Rui Vieira/PA Wire
File picture: Rui Vieira/PA Wire

Edinburgh needs more homes. As a city with almost 1000 homeless households in temporary accommodation and where rents are soaring, it is clearly feeling the pressure.

But the pressing need for homes must not become a free pass for homes in any location, of variable quality and of the wrong type and price.

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What we build now locks in the way the city works for decades ahead and we know, only too well, how rash decisions in the past have had to be unpicked at great cost, both financially and in community terms.

So Edinburgh needs more homes, yes, but affordable homes, which are easy to heat and which form natural neighbourhoods with ready access to public transport, cycling and walking networks and shops and other services on the doorstep. As the 
population gets older and average household sizes smaller, we need a housing stock which flexes with that changing reality.

That is why I am alarmed at the prospect of large swathes of greenbelt land being swallowed up in the south-east of the city and also in the so-called Garden District to the west of the bypass.

It’s not just the lost of greenfield sites that alarms me, though that is bad enough; it is the gradual sprawl outwards of the city in a way that simply does not meet the needs of cities and citizens, either now or 30-40 years in the future. So what is the alternative?

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Well, firstly we need to challenge the claim that 107,000 new homes will be needed throughout south-east Scotland by 2024, with Edinburgh carrying over a quarter of that growth.

I have yet to meet anyone who genuinely believes that 107,000 new homes are required or will be built in the city region.

Building at that level is way beyond anything seen in the past, even in the so-called “boom” years. It is a 
developer’s charter.

Secondly, we need to make much better use of existing land and empty homes.

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I have been outraged that really good housing sites in Oxgangs and Chesser, to take just two examples, have been given over to supermarket or retail park development, the need for which escapes me.

The scale of land lying vacant at the Waterfront and in the Niddrie/Craigmillar regeneration area is significant.

And that is to say nothing of the 2000 long-term empty homes or second homes in the city.

In the next parliament, Green MSPs have committed to a very significant housing programme, focusing on removing perverse tax advantages which keeps land derelict, reducing land costs in existing towns and cities by changes to planning law; and by scrapping the council tax to be replaced with a radical new local charge which will reduce house price inflation.

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Just as importantly, we are the only party to commit to controlling rents in the private sector, allowing good landlords to provide decent accommodation at a fair price, but dealing with the rip-off merchants who prey on the housing shortage.

So Edinburgh can house its citizens without the city expanding its waistline.

Alison Johnstone is Green candidate for Edinburgh Central and top of the Greens’ Lothian list.