Donald Anderson: Here’s what’s really causing the housing crisis

Greenbelt land near North Berwick in East Lothian (Picture: Jon Savage)
Greenbelt land near North Berwick in East Lothian (Picture: Jon Savage)
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Some greenbelt areas are anonymous farmland that could be used for much-needed new houses, says Donald Anderson, former leader of Edinburgh City Council.

“We all live in a house built on a field that was once someone’s view.” That was said a few years back by a chair of planning in Perth as he brilliantly explained why he was supporting a development on greenbelt land in the face of vociferous objections from local residents. It wasn’t an easy thing to say and it’s not getting easier for politicians to do that.

In 2007, when the build rate in Scotland was 23,000 homes a year, the Government target was to deliver 35,000 homes a year. In the aftermath of the recession and more than a decade on, the current build rate is currently running at about 17,000 a year, far, far fewer than everyone accepts is needed.

The issues influencing housing delivery in Scotland have been clearly set out by trade body Homes for Scotland in a modestly titled paper called ‘Delivering More Homes for Scotland; barriers and solutions’. It lays out the problems affecting the delivery of more houses, but also more importantly solutions. There is support for continued help for those struggling to get on the ladder, the allocation of sufficient developable land where people want to live, improving long-term borrowing to fill the infrastructure gap, getting the right balance of big and smaller sites, the creation of new ‘New Town Development Corporation’ type models to help deliver large-scale development, more support for small-scale housebuilders and much more. The shame is that this sensible and thoughtful contribution to the debate isn’t more widely heard. Please read it. It’s one of the most important contributions to the housing debate for many years.

READ MORE: Lack of supply pushing up house prices in Scotland

Infrastructure’s a huge issue, with housebuilders providing both the expertise and the funding to deliver the infrastructure that growing communities need. Despite the attention, so-called ‘landbanking’ is not an issue. There have been at least two inquiries into the issue south of the border which have found no evidence of it and, to my knowledge, there has never been a significant substantiated case found in Scotland – it’s lack of infrastructure that causes long delays on allocated sites.

The views of the community also have a significant impact on housing delivery. Turns out we all think that we’re being overwhelmed by development. An Ipsos Mori poll found that people in the UK believed that 47 per cent of the country is “densely built on”. In fact, the figure is only 0.1 per cent. That fact was last year’s Royal Statistical Society’s statistic of the year (no, I didn’t think you’d have heard about it). Turns out the urban environment accounts for only around six per cent of land use in the UK and two per cent in Scotland. We may have a housing shortage in Scotland, but there’s certainly no shortage of land to build on.

Then there’s the ‘greenbelt’. Hands up, I had a pretty shallow view of that before I was elected as a councillor. Common perception is that this just shouldn’t ever be built on, but in fact it’s just a tool to guide land use so that there must be a demonstrable need before such land can be released. New homes are just such a need.

Green space is indeed a precious resource, but some greenbelt is anonymous farmland that members of the public never get access to. Developing some of that land will help protect the more important and sensitive sites that just shouldn’t be built on.

Covering six council areas in the south-east of Scotland, the Strategic Development Plan (SESplan) is in its second iteration. Everyone knows the upward pressures in terms of house prices and the population boom in an area with some of the fastest-growing communities in Scotland. However, housing demand figures from the original period of the plan from 2012-30 have been rejigged with the effect that the delivery figures have come way down.

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In Edinburgh, the council has adopted some of the most radical and innovative policies to create 2,000 affordable houses each year through the creation of a housing company, specific loan funding and working in partnership with a range of public and private organisations, but the actual target for SESplan is 1,200 affordable homes a year. Changing the housing figures was described by John Boyle of Retties, one of Scotland’s leading housing experts, as being like “accepting and supporting the case for the Queensferry Crossing, but then deciding to only build it two thirds of the way across the Forth”.

This is probably because that in order to meet the targets, more greenbelt needs to be released. That’s understandable but restricting supply will only delay the city’s plans for affordable housing and push prices even higher. And it’s young people who are paying the price for the lack of supply for sale and rent.

One young lawyer I met at a property conference recently described how he had to get a valuation on his ‘modest’ Leith flat that he had bought only two years earlier. Around 30 and working for one of the most successful law firms in the land, he and his other half had good salaries. Turns out that its value had risen by so much that they couldn’t have afforded to buy their own flat at today’s value. “That,” he said with a mixture of anger and concern, “is the real issue that politicians need to address.”

The planning reporters’ decisions on SESplan are due imminently. These will have a profound impact on the availability and affordability of houses in one of Scotland’s most vibrant areas. Whatever the decisions, the debate about creating enough homes for sale or rent by people of all ages must continue.

The laws of supply and demand apply to housing as with everything else. As Homes for Scotland has set out, we need to clear the obstacles and improve delivery. We also need to help the public to better understand the issues, and help the politicians make the right decisions, so everyone can buy or rent a high quality home of their own.