John McLellan: Mix it up for stability

Homes in the Hyvots had to be demolished when a mineshaft collapsed. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Homes in the Hyvots had to be demolished when a mineshaft collapsed. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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This week the residents of new homes in Ferniehill are celebrating the completion of the most sudden area improvement programme in living memory forced upon Edinburgh City Council.

I remember it well when, just over 13 years ago, the houses on the edge of Gilmerton started to break up as the old undetected mineshafts below collapsed. Yes, good people of Ferniehill, it was me who came up with Tumbledown Terrace on the front of the Evening News to describe the crumbling district.

It resulted in the demolition of 388 homes in Gilmerton, Moredun and the Hyvots, many of which had become notoriously difficult for the council to let.

In their place came 800 new or refurbished homes, half in private ownership and the rest rented by the Dunedin Canmore not-for-profit housing association which created a mix of houses, flats and apartments for the elderly which are already proving popular.

What a pity the total housing stock transfer proposal in 2005 was so badly botched. Had that plan to put 23,000 homes in community ownership not been defeated, those people would have benefitted from a £2 billion programme of investment and the kind of approach Dunedin Canmore has been able to bring to the Hyvots.

Remember housing stock transfer was not yet another capitalist plot but a well-devised Labour proposal, passed by then housing minister Malcolm Chisholm and spear-headed by Councillor Sheila Gilmore, now the Edinburgh East MP. The failure was one of communication, founded on an apparent belief that in the statutory ballot the tenants would happily follow the example of their Glasgow counterparts and vote to move out of council control.

Instead, they were persuaded by the opposition that the state should keep the houses and there was no reason why the government could not wipe out the council’s housing debt and the £2bn invested there and then. Fast forward to today and some of the same interests which killed that plan are fighting tooth and nail against projects like Caltongate.

Some of the plans eventually did manage to go ahead, like the demolition of the Gracemount flats. A notorious haunt for drug addicts, they are being replaced by attractive and manageable houses and flats, made possible by including homes for private sale.

I lived across the road at the time and the change in the district is remarkable; turning the Marmion pub, where a drinker was gunned down in front of the regulars, into a Tesco Express was a help.

Across the road, Southhouse and Burdiehouse have been transformed, but the biggest challenges still facing the city lie in the big three which would have benefitted most from housing transfer – Wester Hailes, Pilton/Muirhouse and Craigmillar.

At the heart of all these plans is the creation of a housing mix where before there was nothing but council rents. Home ownership is not for everyone; some people simply can’t cope with the responsibility of managing their own properties but they still need a place and a structure which is comfortable and secure like anyone else.

But no-one has come up with anything better than increased home ownership for stabilising and improving communities, in which ownership encourages responsibility and pride. That is not to say those qualities are absent in the rented sector, but there are more examples than you can shake a half brick at to show monolithic state ownership is a disincentive for many.

It’s not just types of ownership, but the social mix too. Edinburgh has long kept income apartheid to a minimum and people of different backgrounds live cheek by jowl; up in Liberton, the 90s estate at the old convent for families with comparatively high incomes is part of the mix next to Gracemount and the Inch.

That can be part of the plan for Craigmillar and the other estates too, although don’t expect JK Rowling to up sticks from Barnton when the “New Life in Niddrie” brochure flops on to her doorstep.

The other aspect of this is work. Home ownership drives small businesses because people go straight to them with repair jobs, rather than waiting in a queue for the corporation to get round to it. And look what a mess the city council got into over statutory repairs; £9m of bad debt and counting.

No, nothing is perfect and no-one wants another property bubble, but prices can only be properly controlled by adequate supply. Thanks to the crash, in one quarter in 2010, only eight new homes were completed in Edinburgh and construction only really returned to steady growth at the beginning of last year.

Home ownership leads to demand for services, which creates jobs, which creates prosperity, which stabilises communities which is what we all want. The doomsayers who criticise anything other than local authority control need to accept that.

But well done the council for letting it happen and to Canmore for turning Tumbledown Terrace into a place people want to live again. It shouldn’t take collapsing mineshafts to make it happen on a grander scale elsewhere.