John McLellan: How will we pay for affordable housing?

Josh Littlejohn launches his Sleep in the Park initiative. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Josh Littlejohn launches his Sleep in the Park initiative. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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With the promise of performances from Liam Gallagher, Amy McDonald and John Cleese, and the incentive of helping to end homelessness, the Sleep in the Park event in Princes Street Gardens on December 9 promises to be the hottest ticket of the year.

Except there won’t be tickets and entry to the sleep-out show will be gained by raising £100 or more for the campaign organised by Social Bite entrepreneur Josh Littlejohn. So if the target of 9000 is reached it stands to generate over £1m for Littlejohn’s ongoing campaign.

Alasdair Rankin has warned of the possible need for redundancies at the council.

Alasdair Rankin has warned of the possible need for redundancies at the council.

It’s easy to dismiss Littlejohn’s scheme as a jolly night out for the bleeding-heart middle classes, and indeed some homelessness campaigners have already reacted with a degree of cynicism, but with more than 3000 officially homeless people in Edinburgh at least he’s using his ever-expanding A-List contacts book to do something about it.

All political parties agree that housing and homelessness is a priority but there is less agreement on how they should be addressed. The Scottish Government’s programme announced this week includes a pledge to deliver 50,000 affordable homes, 35,000 of them for social rent, within the next four years. This will require a near doubling of the completion rate because on average just 6800 affordable homes have been completed annually in the past five years, and although the Government says it expects 10,000 to be finished this year, the affordable completions have risen by only three per cent.

Only around 16,500 homes of any kind were finished in Scotland in 2015 and 2016, so the entire industry needs to do little except build affordable homes until 2020 to hit the target.

The SNP is pledging £590m in this financial year for affordable housing, but even if money and skilled labour are no object there is still the lengthy planning system to negotiate. The aim is to “streamline” the system, with “simplified planning zones” and a promise to “modernise” compulsory purchase orders, which sounds chillingly like forced sales of undeveloped land in private ownership. And if a vague commitment to “give people a greater say in the future of their places” turns out to be a community right of appeal then planning could go from slow to crawl.

In a keynote speech last week, Ruth Davidson supported a faster planning system and also called for the revival of the new town approach, both of which will be needed if longer term goals are to be achieved. But despite her assertion that people are not “natural nimbys” it’s also recognition of the conflicts involved in tacking on large housing projects to mature communities whose concerns are not just about the impact on roads and schools but threats to their community’s character, such as at Newcraighall.

The Granton Waterfront, where so many of Edinburgh’s housing hopes are still pinned, can be a new town if the whole area is properly master-planned. And while planning objections might be less of an issue, infrastructure costs certainly are and how they can be uncoupled from the cost of the houses to keep prices down has yet to be fully explored.

When housebuilders don’t have to pay for roads, schools and surgeries or subsidise trams, then perhaps homes could be truly affordable. And another good cause could benefit from Josh Littlejohn’s charitable schmoozing.

Money’s too tight to mention

Now we know Edinburgh Council is projected to overspend its budget by £11m, it shines a new light on the spending commitments being made in the first flush of the new administration’s enthusiasm.

For example, the council has yet to identify where it will find a shortfall of about £8m in the tram completion budget and a similar sum is still needed to cover the cost of the reconstruction of the sports facilities at Meadowbank.

In fact, a report to the finance and resources committee this week revealed that there are gaps totalling £80m for a variety of major projects. On top of that some £50m will need to be found to address maintenance backlogs and health and safety issues.

Over the next five years, it is estimated that savings of around £140m will be needed by 2022-23, and that is only if pay deals can be kept below a budgeted two per cent increase which will cost £2.6m a year, something which will be harder to achieve now the Scottish Government has signalled the end of its public sector pay freeze.

Finance convener Councillor Alasdair Rankin has at least been honest enough to say that this could mean more redundancies, but will it stop his colleagues supporting uncosted grand-standing pledges for extra money to the Festivals or fanciful projects like Citizens’ Income studies? Or reconsider the U-turn on outsourcing domestic waste collection? No, thought not.

ScotRail chain letter leaves a nasty taste

The new Haymarket station bike racks have been such a success they are regularly full, leaving cyclists little option but to chain their bikes up to nearby signs and lampposts. There are no signs to say this is prohibited, but it clearly irritates someone, presumably a ScotRail employee, who has taken to fixing unofficial notices to bikes not on the racks, including mine.

“Leaving cycles in this area is not allowed,” it said without further explanation. “Further disregard for this notice will result in chain/cable being cut and lost property charges being made.”

But here is what Scotrail’s website says about cycling: “Keep fit, have fun, and do your bit for the environment. Combining a bike ride with train travel is a brilliant way to see the country.” Funnily enough, it doesn’t mention criminal damage or anonymous, unsubstantiated threats.

Plugged in but not switched on

I was intrigued by a claim on the SNP’s website that “Scotland’s road network will be converted to electric and hybrid vehicles by 2032”. Apart from anything else, I wasn’t aware a different kind of road was needed for these cars, but a quick check of the official Programme for Government revealed that the promise was actually to “phase out the need for new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2032”.

But does that mean phase out demand for new internal combustion engines, which is not the same thing? And how will this be achieved when the Government is not in control of the technology, availability or price? It might be possible, but in essence it entails expanding the network of publicly available charging points and with only three in East Edinburgh there is some way to go.

Lights, camera, inaction

The SNP’s programme for government includes the creation of a new Screen Unit as part of Creative Scotland with an annual budget of £20 million, and with the £30m a year the BBC is promising to spend on its new Scottish television channel, there will be a lot of public money sloshing around to fill film and TV producers’ pockets. The irony is that sitting on Culture Minister Fiona Hyslop’s desk is an entirely privately-funded plan for a much-needed major film studio near the City Bypass at Damhead for which she has publicly expressed support. As the song says, what you waiting for?