We must end homelessness. We have a housing crisis. We must build more homes and make them cheaper to rent.
We all agree with these aims for the council. But if you want to do something about it you need to have a workable strategy. Regrettably, our council is much better at the bold vision than it is with the delivery of better outcomes.
The vision says we will “Deliver a programme to build at least 10,000 social and affordable homes over the next five years, with a plan to build 20,000 by 2027.” But it doesn’t say how this will be achieved and the strategy that backs it up talks of “challenges” in finding both land and funding. It’s optimistic projection doesn’t quite reach the 10,000 “affordable” housing completions needed to meet the pledge by 2022.
The truth is that Edinburgh has never seen more than 680 council and housing association homes completed in any year of the last 22 and the average is just 376. But more worryingly for this plan is building capacity, with peak completions of new homes across all tenure types at 3588 in 2004/5. Even with the private sector building to peak market demand there are only five years in the last 22 when more than 2000 new homes were completed in the city.
The call to build more council housing is, itself, fraught with danger. I have no difficulty with providing social housing but I remember the bad old days of the 1980s and 1990s when council housing was the political plaything of the left in Scottish politics.
We would swing from vote buying rent freezes pre-election to huge increases the year after to make up money. Standards dropped and repairs were poor as tenants became the political plaything of councillors seeking an electoral fiefdom and happy trade unions. This was a thing of the past with the move to social housing being provided by housing associations but it seems the SNP have forgotten about the bad old days as they insist that new housing is built to be administered by councils.
But most worrying of all are the contradictions of this council administration’s wider policies and their slavish adherence to their allies in the Green Party.
We have even had the spectacle of councillors suggesting refusing planning permission for sizeable developments of new homes because they are unhappy with the amount of bike parking.
And private developers are often made to feel like pariahs with some of the planning committee naturally disposed against them. How does that solve a “housing crisis”?
They also find it impossible to balance the “community aspirations” they whip up with the realities of the need for more housing land supply and greater housing density in a constrained city. And even their tram line doesn’t go to Granton where the biggest new housing site has been identified.
It is time to sit down and revisit this taking a strategic approach. First and foremost, our various transport, planning and housing policies should link in a coherent way. Second, we need to find new ways to train more construction professionals if we are ever going to accelerate housebuilding. And finally, we need to work much better with partners like private developers and housing associations as the most obvious lesson is that the council can’t succeed on housing on its own.
Cllr Iain Whyte is the Conservative group leader at Edinburgh City Council