Steve Burgess: We need radical ideas to build on

Homes are not being built at a price people can afford. Picture: PA
Homes are not being built at a price people can afford. Picture: PA
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THE OLD model is demonstrably failing so Edinburgh needs to change the way that housing is ‘done’, says Steve Burgess

This week voters go to the polls in the Leith Walk by-election. I’m sure votes will be cast on many different grounds. On schools or on transport. On the state of the streets or on local services. Perceptions of the candidates will come into play, as will general views of the parties and what they stand for.

One issue that I hope matters is housing. Leith Walk is the mostl densely populated ward in Scotland and almost 40 per cent of residents rent privately: three times the Scottish average. In a city where private rents have soared by 25 per cent since 2009, I am sure all those tenants will be interested in Green proposals to tackle insecurity of short-term tenancies and the affordability of rents.

However, affordability of housing costs is not just a private rented problem. It is an issue for council tenants in Edinburgh as well, with the highest rents in Scotland, prompting vigorous campaigns by the Edinburgh Tenants Federation in the last two years to limit inflation-busting rent rises.

And it is a problem for the housing market in Edinburgh as a whole. As a report to the city council’s housing committee this week makes clear, decent housing is increasingly beyond the reach of people on ordinary incomes, with private developers increasingly focusing their building on the high end of the housing market.

So it is hardly surprising that the official analysis for the city says that two-thirds of all newly-arising housing need, in the next five years, is for homes at below the costs at which the market is currently building.

That is a colossal market failure. The private sector is failing to build homes at a price people can afford. And it is failing to deliver in numbers, as well, with as few as 250 unsubsidised homes built per year. Compare that to well over 1000 homes per year provided through public intervention.

Developers will often complain about planning failures or shortage of land. This is misleading. There is scope for more than 10,000 new homes on already identified sites. Developers are failing to bring those sites forward, perhaps because they rather like the fact that residential land values in Edinburgh have more than doubled in the last five years. Tragically, our private housebuilding industry makes profit through hoarding land rather than building homes.

I believe that this is a wake-up call to the way housing is “done” in the city. We have inherited a model which assumes that the private sector will provide most housing, with the public and housing association sectors carving off a small part of that. That is enshrined in planning policy where generally, in any new development above a certain size, 25 per cent has to be “affordable”.

That model is failing – on numbers, on prices and on the kind of quality needed for a low-carbon future. I think it is time to recast housing supply. That will require new models of housing provider working alongside tried and tested models like council housing and housing associations. It will require new powers, such as compulsory sales orders to release hoarded brownfield land. And it will require new emphasis on the kind of compact neighbourhoods where community services can thrive.

That would be something worth voting for.

• Councillor Steve Burgess is the Green spokesperson on housing