John McLellan: SNP-Labour coalition coming up short on affordable homes

Much store has been placed by the SNP-Labour administration on its laudably ambitious plan to deliver 20,000 new affordable homes in the next ten years, but the question is not whether it is deliverable, but if it is ambitious enough.

Thursday, 19th July 2018, 7:00 am
The 'house-building beast' of Fife and other councils near Edinburgh put the Capital to shame on affordable housing (Picture: PA)
The 'house-building beast' of Fife and other councils near Edinburgh put the Capital to shame on affordable housing (Picture: PA)

The 20,000 target is one of the highest-profile commitments in the 52-point plan unveiled in June last year and has been re-emphasised ever since, with a detailed plan for the first phase to build 8,000 in five years unveiled in November.

But now we are a year into the programme, is it on target? With progress simply described as “on track” it’s hard to tell, especially as it’s not entirely clear whether the commitment is to build the homes or deliver a plan to build the homes, which is not the same thing.

The original promise was to “deliver a programme to build at least 10,000 social and affordable homes over the next five years, with a plan to build 20,000 by 2027”, but does this mean the 8,000 homes in the November announcement represent a slippage of 2,000, or there is an expectation that other agencies will fill the gap?

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Council leader Adam McVey’s report last month just referred to “thousands” of new affordable homes and, in the council chamber, only the top line figure of 20,000 was mentioned. The broader picture was outlined in a report to November’s housing & economy committee which put demand for new homes in the next ten years at anything between 38,000 and 46,000, but with two-thirds of that demand for affordable properties, the 20,000 target could actually be up to 10,000 short.

The need to accelerate delivery is accepted, but the latest report from property and development experts Rettie shows the rate of house completions in Edinburgh actually dropped two per cent in 2017 compared to an average increase of five per cent across Scotland. By contrast, completions in East Lothian rose by 54 per cent to 919 homes, 253 of them affordable (according to latest Scottish Government figures), which house-builders ascribe to a more positive attitude towards them in Haddington than they find in the City Chambers.

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In 2017, 1,999 new homes were completed in Edinburgh, but with 646 in West Lothian and 549 in Midlothian, more new homes were built in the neighbouring authorities, illustrating the accusation that Edinburgh effectively outsources its house-building to other councils and puts more strain on transport infrastructure as a result. Throw in the house-building beast of Fife where 2,244 houses were completed last year, mainly on the south coast, and no wonder a new Forth bridge was needed.

Affordable housing follows a similar pattern, with Edinburgh’s completions in 2016-17 standing at 1,109 compared to 967 in the rest of the Lothians, and 609 in Fife.

The Rettie report also compares the projected annual increases of households compared to the expected annual number of completions over the next 20 years and again it doesn’t make good reading for the Capital, with 2,803 new households anticipated every year against around 2,000 completions. With a deficit of 800, house prices and rents are only going to go one way.

But compared to the council’s ten-year demand estimate, Rettie’s total 20-year projection of around 56,000 new properties looks quite conservative, so either Rettie is underestimating demand from 2027-37, when the city population is expected to reach 600,000, or the council is exaggerating.

Either way, building 20,000 affordable homes in the next ten years will still leave a need for about 20,000 more in the following decade. This means the master-planning in areas earmarked for development – Granton, the South-East Wedge and the airport area – is already out of date and there is no use Edinburgh sticking its head in the sand or, worse, trying to restrain economic growth. The neighbouring councils prove every year that if the Capital doesn’t meet demand they certainly will.

Garden tax may not cover its costs

Only two days left before the council’s cut-off for registering for the garden tax and the new fortnightly collection. Word from inside Waverley Court is it’s already chaos.

Predictions were for an uptake of only 46 per cent, but given the tortuous online registration system they’ll be lucky to get that and the problem then will be whether the system raises enough money to cover the implementation cost. How long before £25 becomes £35? I give it a year.

Nicola Sturgeon needs to have a word with Adam McVey
Following so closely on the resignation of Councillor Gavin Barrie, Councillor Claire Bridgman’s decision to quit the SNP once again exposes the bitterness at the heart of the senior partner in Edinburgh’s administration. We in the Conservative Group had our own departure recently, but by contrast neither Bridgman nor Barrie had any particular political beef but instead are the victims of rivalries which are not about principle but with personal advancement. Council leader Adam McVey is either party to or powerless to control this nasty little feud, but either way it suggests an assumption in the SNP leadership group that it can do what it likes thanks to the acquiescence of the Labour and Green parties. And after publicly trying to bounce an SNP Cabinet minister into a national policy change, maybe the First Minister will ask someone to have a quiet word about the mess on her doorstep.

Swords into ploughshares, barracks into homes

The UK Government built Redford Barracks in the 1900s and has maintained it ever since, but having outlived its usefulness the Ministry of Defence is selling up. It’s disappointing but predictable that the local SNP MSP Gordon MacDonald recently condemned this as an “asset strip” but he was correct to say that the sale will have “extensive consequences for Edinburgh”. However, managed properly, those consequences should be positive and a council working party is now looking at plans to create 700 new homes on the site, in line with the SNP-Labour administration’s programme to build 20,000 new affordable homes.