Changing the way housing is “done”

Edinburgh needs to change the way housing is “done” argues 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 most-densely populated ward in Scotland and almost 40% of residents rent privately: three times the Scottish average. In a city where private rents have soared by 25% 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 Edinburgh Tenants Federation in the last two years to limit inflation-busting rent rises.

And it a problem for the housing market in Edinburgh as a whole. As a report to the 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 5 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 1,000 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 over 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 house-building 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% 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.

This blog was first published in the Edinburgh Evening News on 8 September 2015