Council misses obvious conclusion of Edinburgh’s soaring population – John McLellan

When the revival of the Borders Railway was under discussion, one of the main arguments in favour was how it would encourage housebuilding along the route and boost the economy in places like Galashiels and Gorebridge. The evidence is there to be seen in places like Newtongrange, where new estates have sprung up.

By John McLellan
Thursday, 4th April 2019, 7:00 am
The housebuilding industry recognises that there is not enough land to meet demand
The housebuilding industry recognises that there is not enough land to meet demand

In the last few weeks we have been told the tram to Newhaven is essential for connecting the thousands of people set to live along the Waterfront with the rest of the city in a sustainable way, even though the line doesn’t go to Granton where most of the new homes will be built. So the case for the Granton Spur to Roseburn is already being dusted down.

It’s perhaps odd then, that Edinburgh council’s administration was quiet about a plan to build a new estate of 3600 homes at Riccarton with Curriehill Station at its heart. In 2017-18 there were only 69,340 journeys to and from the station (compared to three million at Haymarket and just short of 24 million at Waverley) which lies on the Carstairs line and, unlike the Borders railway, is a double track route and so has far greater potential as a commuter line.

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The estate proposed by developer Wallace Land Investments is next to Heriot-Watt University and with plans for 900 affordable homes it could provide new accommodation for staff at all levels. Yet the university’s comment was a somewhat half-hearted: “We welcome economic generation that benefits the wider community around our Edinburgh campus and remain fully engaged in Edinburgh City Council’s planning process.”

Lib Dem MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton was concerned about traffic impact on the Newbridge roundabout and if the estate could sustain a health centre, but more pointedly it was “a speculative proposal designed to bounce councillors into surrendering more greenbelt land”.

The distinct impression is that this proposal is less than welcome, even though the National Records of Scotland projects Edinburgh’s population will increase by 24,000 people by 2026 and there are already 12,000 people on the council’s waiting list for a one-bedroom flat. In other words, if the council could magic up 12,000 flats tomorrow, that still wouldn’t deal with the families on the waiting list or the 24,000 people about to join the housing queue.

According to the council’s 2018 Housing Land Audit there is enough “unconstrained” land for 22,153 new homes which will meet the city’s housing needs and if so there would be no need to sacrifice greenbelt land. The audit says the supply target between from now until 2026 is 10,094 homes, but there is a backlog on the delivery of 22,300 new homes which should have been built by the end of this year.

But the council’s target for new affordable homes is 20,000 to be built by 2027, which is just about possible if nothing except affordable flats and houses are built, and a separate report acknowledges the full demand of all types of homes could be as high at 46,000.

Building up is not an option both to preserve the city skyline, but also because all current advice is that to avoid the mistakes of the past and to retain a sense of human scale, accommodation blocks should be no higher than nine storeys.

All this being so, the need to free up constrained land such as that at Riccarton might be unavoidable.

The conclusion everyone in the housebuilding industry has reached, except the council as yet, is that there is not enough land available to meet housing demand, especially when the NRS expects the Edinburgh population to expand by a further 37,000 to 583,135 by 2041, 27 per cent of the total Scottish population growth.

Those people will need to live somewhere and if there isn’t much interest in a site with a railway station four stops from Haymarket then it’s hard to see where else might fit the bill.

Right-to-Buy still divisive policy

Thanks to Right-to-Buy legislation, from 1980 until its abolition in 2016 around half a million Scottish households transferred from local councils or housing associations to the people who lived in them.

Until 1980, Scottish councils owned 55 per cent of all housing, in Glasgow 65 per cent which gave the old Glasgow Corporation an enormous amount of control over how people lived; any colour as long as it was Corporation green.

Despite ending three years ago, the policy remains a political football and is simplistically blamed for creating the housing shortage, as if half a million homes don’t have people living in them even if they are privately rented.

Freed from council diktat, owners can make their own choices rather than wait in a queue for over-burdened council staff or approved contractors to appear.

Right-to-Buy was a great liberator but has not come without problems, especially where equities are low or negative and ownership is mixed, but Edinburgh now has a good policy of consolidating ownership by buying or selling isolated flats to create fully private or council-owned blocks.

Home ownership isn’t for everyone and some people prefer the reassurance of renting from a big organisation as long as they have security.

The expansion of social housing to meet rising demand and ensure everyone has a decent place to live is therefore welcome, but less so is the politically-driven distrust of private development and an ugly ideological disdain for aspiration with which it is increasingly accompanied.