Edinburgh bin strike: Just as this dispute will end, so too can we end homelessness – Ewan Aitken

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“Embarrassing” is the word I have heard used most often about the impact of the bin strike on Edinburgh.

It’s an interesting word to use about the consequences of industrial action. Usually people use words of blame, anger or frustration when discussing the consequences of strike action on themselves or the general public.

There is, of course, some of that flying about, but not in the same way as usual. Instead, it’s as if people are seeing the city as their home, and responding to the ways it’s not as they would want it be, both to live in and to welcome our many visitors.

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Uncomfortable as this feeling is, it does speak of Edinburgh as a city many of us are proud to live in, and where welcoming others is important to its citizens, which is something to feel good about.

Of course, silver linings notwithstanding, the sooner it’s sorted the better, although Edinburgh Council faces many challenges to doing that – the end of the dispute rests on collective negotiations among all 32 council authorities, and on the willingness of the Scottish Government to provide the resources to end things amicably.

The road to the solution is complex and requires reaching agreements with many folk at the table.

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While we wait for the situation to be resolved, Edinburgh faces many other challenges, not least homelessness, which statistics released by the Scottish Government this week put in sharp relief.

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Edinburgh's waste workers clear mountains of rubbish as they return to work following strike action (Picture: Lesley Martin/PA Wire)Edinburgh's waste workers clear mountains of rubbish as they return to work following strike action (Picture: Lesley Martin/PA Wire)
Edinburgh's waste workers clear mountains of rubbish as they return to work following strike action (Picture: Lesley Martin/PA Wire)

Edinburgh has a homelessness crisis: 47,000 people experienced homelessness in Scotland last year, a six per cent increase amongst adults, 17 per cent for children, with a 20 per cent rise in homeless households, which now stand at over 2,400 (this is the number of households, not people, in temporary accommodation, and it doesn’t include those who are homeless but not in temporary accommodation).

Despite some good work and collaboration across charities and the city council, the rise continues.

Sorting the bin dispute might be complex, but it’s still less of a challenge than sorting homelessness.

The cost-of-living crisis means the challenges are only growing. The average length of time spent in temporary accommodation in Edinburgh is now 15 months, largely because there's not adequate affordable housing to move on to.

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This is a challenge for many reasons, not least that 12,000 houses are being used for holiday lets, not only removing them for use by people experiencing homelessness but also driving up rent in the city.

Legislation to reduce the number of holiday lets is urgently required, but we also need rent-control zones in many areas in the city, and significant public sector intervention into land prices so the cost of building affordable housing is, well, affordable.

Of course, none of these are themselves magic bullets, nor do they tackle the root causes of homelessness; poverty, family breakdown, social isolation, mental health challenges. But when we take a holistic approach, and prioritise cooperation, we can make progress, even if it often feels unbearably slow.

The bin dispute will end, and one day, I believe we can also end homelessness in Edinburgh. It’s very complex and requires deep collaborations across public, business and third sectors but, while it will take longer than fixing the bins, I know we can make it happen.

Ewan Aitken is CEO of Cyrenians

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