Land for new housing: who decides?

At a special meeting of the Planning Committee today, councillors debated the requirement by the Scottish Government, through supplementary guidance, to amend the Strategic Development Plan for the city-region (SESplan region) to accommodate yet more growth in new housing, with far-reaching consequences for the city’s own draft Local Development Plan and greenbelt. Green planning spokesperson Cllr Nigel Bagshaw explains why he could not support that.

I fully understand the background to the Supplementary Guidance and I also appreciate that the Strategic Development Plan itself is no longer up for discussion. We are where we are. However, how the further housing requirement is met is at issue here and there are certain fundamental points which need to be raised. If they are left unsaid, we do a disservice to the many people in the city with profound disquiet about the scale and nature of growth of Edinburgh.

In my opinion, the previous proposals prior to this Supplementary Guidance were bad enough in terms of unnecessary loss of greenbelt, environmental impact, traffic and congestion and the effect on surrounding communities.

But this Supplementary Guidance goes much, much further and will cause even greater damage in all those respects.

And the really sad thing is, is that this loss and destruction is entirely unnecessary because it is based on flawed reasoning, selective conclusions and bias towards particular interests at the expense of others.

Firstly, there is the robustness of figures which underlie the guidance.

The report states that ‘the target is derived from the Housing Needs and Demand Assessment that was prepared for SESplan in accordance with a methodology prescribed by the Scottish Government’.

But that very methodology is unreliable and in the past has seriously overstated future need even during times of boom.

As the Cockburn Association stated very clearly in its response to the Draft Scottish Planning Policy 2013:

‘We agree that the housing need and demand assessment … must be robust. However, we have long been concerned about the accuracy of using extrapolated trend data to forecast housing land requirements. It is important to keep this key issue under frequent review not only to monitor economic changes, but also to identify the trend differences between forecasts and actual out-turn from previous calculations. The assumption appears to be that there is always a demand for more land not less – whereas previous evidence suggests this may not be the case. Once green land is built on it is lost forever.’

Secondly, there appears to be an over-representation of the interests of the private house-building industry, which goes a long way to explaining why the terms of this process are framed as they are:

The SESplan report states at paragraph 2.14 ‘In addition [to local authority consultation] liaison meetings with Homes for Scotland have discussed the preparation of the Supplementary Guidance and HfS have provided information on the housing market to inform the process.’

Homes for Scotland is a lobbying group for volume private-sector house-builders with a vested interest in the release of attractive greenbelt land to meet its needs rather than those of city.

Thirdly, there is issue of using brownfield sites first [ as pledged in the Labour manifesto for Edinburgh in 2012]. The SESplan itself talks of prioritising such sites and the amount of greenfield land covered by the Supplementary Guidance is only between 10-15%. The problem is, though, that there is no means of making sure only brownfield is developed first and also a perceived requirement that the plan must contain some greenbelt land under any circumstances. In other words, “brownfield first” looks like merely an aspiration.

And fourthly, and finally, there is almost Alice-in-Wonderland situation concerning the requirement to provide an ‘effective land supply’

I am well aware that the Scottish Government requires councils to identify a 5-year supply to protect against legal challenges from developers which would lead to free-for-all of piecemeal development over which we would have no control. But to argue to that there is simply not enough land already available to accommodate future household growth is absurd and unrealistic. Yet this is precisely one of the factors underlying the figures set out in this guidance.

So, what we are being asked to ratify here is highly flawed, extremely undemocratic and totally unnecessary.

It is being imposed on us by the Scottish Government to meet business needs rather than the needs of communities and the people of Edinburgh in general.

People need homes. But these homes must be in the places where people want to live and they need to be the kinds of homes which people can afford.

And we do have an option here. Despite the limits on us, we do not have to roll over and meekly accept it. We have time to challenge the figures and change the guidance and still have it in place by the Government’s deadline.

So I would like to move:

1. That we do not agree to ratify the SESplan’s approval of the draft Supplementary Guidance on Housing Land for consultation; and

2. Refer the matter back for further consideration to take realistic account of the flaws apparent in the process.