John McLellan: Council must up its game on new housing

Only a week after this column questioned whether the city's SNP-Labour administration's housing programme was ambitious enough, an independent analysis for the Scottish Government has confirmed it is not.

Thursday, 26th July 2018, 6:00 am
South-East Scotland needs 30,000 more new homes by 2030 than originally estimated

The recommendation, which ministers must consider before finalising the development framework for South-East Scotland, is that 30,000 more new homes are needed by 2030 than originally estimated and more land needs to be allocated for housing.

The Homes for Scotland trade association’s planning director Tammy Swift-Adams said the new advice “breaks a damaging recent trend of development plans that don’t make adequate provision for much-needed new homes”.

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To put the new estimated target of 94,000 homes in the region’s six council areas in context, in 2017 there were 6500 completions which at that rate would leave a 10,000 shortfall by 2030. Edinburgh completed 2000 last year, so without acceleration the target will only be met by building around 70,000 homes in the surrounding areas.

The top end of the city council’s ten-year estimate is 46,000 new homes, leaving 50,000 properties to be built elsewhere and the majority of people working in the Capital. Their transport needs will not be met by a three-mile tram line in Leith and more houses on the other side of the City Bypass or M9 without a comprehensive infrastructure plan, which means more cars, more congestion and more pollution.

Edinburgh is still wrangling over a plan to build 1400 houses at West Craigs, partly because of transport problems, even though the Scottish Government has indicated it will grant permission. But at the same time the council has accepted that 5000 new homes can be built in Winchburgh as part of the City Deal.

In East Lothian, work on the Blindwells new town of over 3000 homes near Prestonpans is now under way, yet all the City Deal promises for transport is £120m for the Sherrifhall Roundabout, which was planned anyway, and £20m for West Edinburgh.

The recent report by property consultants Rettie to which I referred last week demonstrated that the current rate of completions in Edinburgh is running at around 800 short of annual demand. I said Rettie’s 20-year projection of 56,000 new properties looked conservative and so it has proved.

The administration claims it has “one of the most ambitious” housing plans of any local authority, which is meaningless if the city continues to fall behind expected demand. Now it is beyond doubt that even if every brownfield site in the city is developed to maximum capacity the latest targets cannot be met, so what’s next? Just repeating that the council is very ambitious isn’t going to put a roof over enough heads.

The concept of driving the next stage of Edinburgh’s expansion along development corridors based on transport links has been around for years but never fully embraced and the result has been piecemeal construction and unpopular schemes granted on appeal. The alternative to accepting the challenge is for the city to turn its back on growth, which might suit the Greens but it’s unlikely to find favour with the Scottish Government.

Privately, the house-building industry’s view is that Edinburgh does too much talking and not enough walking and it has much more positive relationships with the neighbouring authorities. Top of their wish-list from Edinburgh was a call for sites to be brought forward, but it was dismissed out of hand by the administration.

The new assessment makes the obvious point that shortfalls now will only increase the problem later, but clearly as the easier sites are used up it will get even harder. Tough choices need to be faced now and the council needs to accept commercial developers are not the enemy but the part of the solution.

I hear SNP-Labour administration figures were unhappy with last week’s article but presumably they didn’t know about the new Sesplan report. I doubt that’s made them happy either.