Independence or affordable homes: What’s more important? – John McLellan

Edinburgh Council needs to get its priorities straight with more than 20,000 affordable homes needed by 2032, writes John McLellan.

By John McLellan
Thursday, 1st October 2020, 7:00 am
High house prices and rents are a problem for many people in Edinburgh (Picture: Ian Georgeson)
High house prices and rents are a problem for many people in Edinburgh (Picture: Ian Georgeson)

Paying to keep a roof over our heads is an issue which affects everyone in Edinburgh; people on low incomes struggling to pay high rents or finding enough money for a deposit is common, but even the apparently comfortable might have little income left after the mortgage goes out and never clear the debt until forced to sell up.

The Edinburgh Poverty Commission report published yesterday put the spotlight on the cost of housing and identified tackling the housing shortage as the most important factor in reducing relative poverty and inequality. The problem, as the commission’s impressive chair Jim McCormick readily admits, is achieving it.

Having served on the Lord Provost’s Commission on Social Exclusion in the 90s, I was sceptical about the value of yet another council study into Edinburgh’s social problems, likely to produce another set of compromises which only scratch the surface, or just demand more public money. As a Conservative councillor we expected a bit of Tory-bashing, but while there is criticism of welfare reform that is far from the whole story.

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Instead, Dr McCormick has identified housing supply and an overhaul of public services – which might actually save money – as the key to a better future for all Edinburgh people and while the report’s implications have still to be studied in full, its mature and balanced approach to the problem has a better chance of broad support than a highly politicised charge sheet others might have preferred. The council might have commissioned the report, but the council does not, and will not have all the answers.

Dr McCormick recognises the need to challenge assumptions and barriers to the building of new homes as a major issue, something which has been clear for at least the past three years, but the city’s administration has not addressed. In 2017 the SNP-Labour coalition set a target of delivering 10,000 new affordable homes in five years and 20,000 in ten, but did not explain how it would be achieved. Although housebuilding has indeed accelerated, the current delivery rate of 900 affordable homes a year isn’t close to the goal.

Admittedly drawn up before the pandemic, a major study of housing supply in January for the new local development plan identified a demand for 53,455 new homes by 2032, but settled on the need for 43,000 with 20,800 of them affordable. However, land audits show there is only room for 22,696 without running into difficulties, such as understandable local resistance at Moredunvale or Inch Park to suggestions that houses might be built on open space.

Now, the snappily titled draft Regional Spatial Strategy for South East Scotland, agreed by the six local authorities and released only last week, confirms Edinburgh needs space for 47,000 new homes by 2032. But with the majority of the city’s planning committee resolutely opposed to any development where grass grows, there is no solution in sight.

There are good examples of well-designed developments across the city, but they are attractive because they are relatively low-density and a sense of place has been built into them. You can spot houses in those developments where a sense of community is absent by the number coming on to the market. Acceptable developments need space, as the council found when forced to reduce the density in the Meadowbank redevelopment design.

But the clear message from Jim McCormick is the priority must be housing delivery, so the question is, what compromises will the Council make and who pays?

Still, the city’s housing convener says, “there is nothing more important than independence”, so at least we know where her priorities lie.

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