Edinburgh Council has declared a housing emergency, confirming what we all know – that too many people in the city don’t have access to warm, comfortable homes, which are accessible and affordable.
Many people have rightly asked what it actually means to declare an emergency. We’ve declared a climate and nature emergency, for example, and yet we are still seeing woefully slow progress on this.
Declaring an emergency should inspire us to do things differently. Because clearly the same business-as-usual approach which got us into this mess is not going to get us out of it.
Take the funding we have for council-owned housing, for example. That’s known as the Housing Revenue Account (HRA), and is made up from rents collected from tenants. The HRA pays for council housing, and (part) funds the building of new homes too. Want to tackle damp and mould in council homes, fit adaptations to make someone’s home accessible, retrofit a block of flats to reduce energy bills and carbon emissions, or build more social housing in the city? Well, you better make sure you’re charging council tenants high enough rents to pay for it all.
Greens believe in redistribution. That’s why, for example, when we talk about our response to the climate emergency, we are quick to point out the need for a just transition. Our response to the housing emergency should be no different.
It isn’t right that the council’s delivery of quality homes is dependent on the ability of council tenants to pay. Our response to the housing emergency can’t be built off the backs of tenants who are typically on the lowest incomes, and least able to pay for it. Instead, our response has to look seriously at changing the funding model behind the HRA to ensure it is just.
But it isn’t only in funding council homes where we need to see a new approach. Greens believe we need a whole housing system which is redistributive. That’s a system which sees everyone with a home before some people have two, and which recognises that homes are not vessels for profit for developers and landlords, but places for people and communities.
For us, this work has already begun. Just last week we saw Green Councillors take action to try and increase the numbers of affordable homes in the city – successfully challenging a request from developers to renege on their promise to provide affordable housing in a new development, and pushing forward plans to use compulsory purchase orders to bring empty homes back into use. And, of course, earlier this year our MSPs brought about changes to double the council tax liable on second homes. It’s a start, but we still have a long way to go.
February is budget time, and groups are already busy working on their proposals. Given the declaration of an emergency, housing is set to be a big feature. Greens believe we need to do more than just tinker at the edges of a broken system. Whether those at the helm of the council will agree remains to be seen.
Ben Parker is a Co-Convener of the Edinburgh Green Councillor Group