Edinburgh can’t ask for too much from property developers – John McLellan

Edinburgh’s demands of housebuilders may prompt them to look outside the city, pushing up property prices and exacerbating transport problems, writes John McLellan.

Saturday, 18th January 2020, 7:40 am
Edinburgh's property prices and rents have been rising sharply in recent years

It’s unlikely that Edinburgh City Council’s communications department has a hotline to The Economist magazine, but with immaculate timing the magazine published a stinging critique of the housing market the same day as the authority released its vision for the Capital’s development in the coming decade.

The housing market had failed, said the magazine, because of “a lack of building, especially near the thriving cities in which jobs are plentiful. Fiddly regulations protect an elite of existing homeowners and prevent developers from building the skyscrapers and flats that the modern economy demands.

The resulting high rents and house prices make it hard for workers to move to where the most productive jobs are, and have slowed growth.”

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It sounds a lot like Edinburgh, where a combination of planning difficulties, the advance of short-term letting and population growth have limited supply and pushed up prices and private sector rents. Council rents are amongst the highest in Scotland and key workers like nurses and teachers are forced to live in cheaper neighbouring authorities with all the commuting headaches that entails.

Land is in short supply and the best estimates in Edinburgh Council’s Choices paper published on Thursday are that a minimum of 43,000 new homes, of which 20,800 should be affordable, will be needed by 2032 but there is only enough effective land for 22,600. A further 7,500 could be built on “constrained” sites which still leaves a minimum shortfall of 17,600.

The council’s preferred strategy of increasing density while delivering “quality open space”, which presumably means taller blocks, might find favour with The Economist but a “significant” programme of compulsory purchase orders to make sure there is enough land sounds like a threat to private land-owners and businesses.

Judging by the sites identified for potential housing development, I’d be very concerned if I ran one of the big car dealerships along Seafield Road.

So too will the proposal to increase the number of affordable homes on any new estate from 25 per cent to 35 go down like a breeze-block balloon with housebuilders.

The presumption is that Edinburgh is such an economic hot-spot that developers will go along with whatever restrictions are imposed, but it risks giving them an incentive to look for more opportunities beyond the city boundaries with authorities which continue to prove more than accommodating. It would still leave Edinburgh with a transport problem and continue to push city prices up even higher.

The Choices proposals will be discussed this Wednesday and then go out for consultation before a plan is finalised by the autumn, although such are the highly optimistic targets which Edinburgh Council set itself that wriggle room for compromise is close to non-existent.

Road to hell, part one

It must be the strategy season in Edinburgh, with the Tourism Strategy eventually being published on Thursday some days after extensive briefing to the Edinburgh Evening News, and the City Mobility Plan discussed the same day.

Like the Choices paper, neither will be finalised until a consultation exercise has been conducted, but with all three documents feeding off each other and referring back to the city administration’s broad policy commitments, the general direction should be clear.

Certainly as far as tourism is concerned, the council has pulled the plug on any active promotion of Edinburgh as a destination with the scrapping of Marketing Edinburgh to save £1m a year which will not be reinvested in promotional activity, while quietly expecting VisitScotland to keep up demand.

The Tourism Strategy document explains there will be a shift “from driving growth to managing growth”, but a senior officer apparently put it more succinctly at a community meeting this week by noting that “the tourism strategy is radical... no more tourists”.

Similarly, the mobility plan makes it clear that private motoring will no longer be welcome through the city centre, so it seems the aim is an overall calming of the city centre which will appeal to many local residents, as will new restrictions on short-term-lets.

But with pressure remaining on rents and property prices, if the aim of creating a much more pleasant environment is achieved then there is a strong possibility that the potential effect of all the strategies together will be to drive property prices up even higher. If the goal is to create sustainable communities then there are none more sustainable than the wealthy.

But there is a long way to go, and even before the week was out there was confusion about whether or not the mobility plan included fully pedestrianising George Street, with New Town traders insisting this was not included and then administration councillors insisting it was.

There are not many references to business sustainability in the new strategies, and as the old saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Road to hell, part two

The road to hell might also be laid by a legal opinion from constitutional law QC Aidan O’Neill that the Scottish Parliament could legislate for a second independence referendum, but rather wisely added that his view would need to be tested in court.

The Scottish Parliament has the power to pass whatever legislation it likes, but the question is whether it would be legally enforceable and that’s where the courts would come in. This week First Minister Nicola Sturgeon reacted angrily to the comparison made by Labour leadership candidate Lisa Nandy between the SNP’s campaign and Catalonia, but Mr O’Neill’s view has an inevitable similarity with Catalonian separatists who held a non-binding referendum which was boycotted by most pro-Spain supporters and which Spanish police tried to suppress with force.

While the UK Government would not send in the riot police to stop people voting as the Spanish Government did, Mr O’Neill’s opinion will increase pressure on Ms Sturgeon from her own side to act unilaterally and that would in turn put the courts on a collision course with either side.

Unionists would shun an illegal referendum, so where would that lead?

The anger on display at the All Under One Banner march in Glasgow last weekend (and the utter hatred for the 25 per cent of the Scottish electorate who voted Conservative) would only be the start.

Oops apostrophe!

And of angry protets, when Extinction Rebellion protestors attempted to blockade the Leith Street offices of fund managers Baillie Gifford this week, they unfurled a banner which read “MSP’s pensions invested in ecocide”.

I immediately wondered who this MSP was and why the demonstrators didn’t just approach him or her directly.

Whether they will succeed in stopping investments in Shell, their target, is one thing, but they have unwittingly contributed to the demise of the Apostrophe Protection Society whose founder, 96-year-old journalist John Richards, finally admitted defeat and recently announced its closure.