Lesley Riddoch: Prince Charles getting it wrong on Scots housing

Developers of Prince Charles Ayrshire eco-village quit because they believe the high-spec housing wont sell. Picture: Getty

Developers of Prince Charles Ayrshire eco-village quit because they believe the high-spec housing wont sell. Picture: Getty

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Big private developments are not a good way to addresss Scotland’s desperate housing needs, says Lesley Riddoch

Prince Charles is making headlines for all the wrong reasons again – not over architectural carbuncles but over plans for an eco-village in East Ayrshire. As Scotland on Sunday revealed yesterday, Prince Charles bought the land near Cumnock in 2007 as part of a wider £45 million deal to rescue Dumfries House mansion and its antique furniture collection. Originally he aimed to build more than 700 new homes (later revised to 250) in a “sustainable development” along the lines of his Poundbury estate in Dorchester. But only 31 homes have been built at Knockroon – fewer than half bought by members of the public – despite the investment of £5m and five years in planning and construction. Last year developers Hope Homes quit amidst speculation that the expensive, high-specification homes would never sell in the economically depressed environment of Ayrshire, which nonetheless has a desperate need for affordable housing.

The continuing scarcity of affordable housing in Scotland is a visible indictment of our unfit-for-purpose systems of land ownership, planning and taxation – yet there’s little likelihood Scottish Government reforms will correct the situation and even less that the media will investigate that failure.

Under the current model land developers pay astronomical amounts for land and therefore cut quality, increase density, shrink house sizes and provide relatively few amenities to turn a profit. The modern “big bang” housing development may be a step up from Castlemilk and Easterhouse, but it’s just as unlikely to provide thriving mixed communities. When vast developments are first proposed, a new school’s often thrown in as a sweetener. But if it’s built, neighbouring school rolls decline endangering their own future until the new school also dwindles as one generation of kids leaves school at the same time.

Poundbury in plummy Dorset has the same problem – the NHS and social services are struggling to cope with yet another village full of pensioners.

Generationally and socially mixed small developments in or near existing communities work far better – schemes like the ground-breaking GEAR (Glasgow Eastern Area Renewal) established in the 1980s. With many small housing developments instead of one “big bang”, new families can help save existing schools, pubs, churches and community centres instead of diverting demand and energy elsewhere.

Forty miles south of Knockroon, the West Whitlawburn Housing continues to show what can happen when tenants own and manage housing stock themselves. CCTV cameras mean drug-dealing has been outlawed, eleven lives saved because tenants who have fits, falls or accidents get help fast and non-emergency hospital admissions dramatically reduced because older folk can summon help 24/7.

Can’t Scots get more of that – affordable homes in a resilient and mutually supportive community – instead of more stalled Knockroons?

Well, the Scottish Greens want to repeal parts of the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1959 so councils can acquire land for housing at existing use value for council housing or for sale/transfer to suitable third parties like locally owned and managed housing cooperatives or housing associations.

A Compulsory Sale Order would do much the same thing. It’s an easier to use tool for local authorities than the compulsory purchase mechanism because councils can force sale of neglected land to a third party instead of getting involved in land ownership themselves. Compulsory Sale Orders didn’t make it into the final Land Reform Act but the Scottish Greens are still campaigning for its introduction.

They also want to change the scandalous situation whereby owners of vacant and derelict land are exempt from paying non-domestic rates. Ending that will help the flow of land coming onto the market, reduce land scarcity and thus land prices – though a quicker way to achieve the same thing would be a form of land tax.

Yet the proposal to end tax exemptions on vacant land also got squeezed out of the Land Reform Act, though the Scottish Government’s promised to consider it again.

So will Scottish civil servants ever be sufficiently seized by a sense of urgency about Scotland’s housing crisis to overcome their own crippling fear of legal action by landowners claiming compulsory land purchases breach their human rights?

Councils are hardly itching to get on with compulsory purchases either. During seven OurLand events across Scotland in the last four weeks, the same complaints have been raised about distant, over-large, over-cautious councils who thwart community priorities and fail to embrace genuinely sustainable larger projects.

In April 2014, for example, South Lanarkshire Council rejected plans for a new cooperatively owned and run new town called Owenstown because it wasn’t on the development plan. The £500m investment – based on Robert Owen’s New Lanark – was made possible by smart thinking some years earlier when a charity bought 2,000 acres of cheap farmland. Their aim was to transfer the rise in land values after planning permission was granted to 8,000 new residents, not commercial developers and create affordable, high-quality housing with the social facilities of a real town not a giant, faceless housing estate. Remarkably 3,200 new homes, new jobs and two new schools were offered at no cost to the public purse while the Scottish housing waiting list stood at 160,000. Yet, after four frustrating years, local planners rejected the plan and didn’t explain why.

It’s crazy to think Scotland’s housing needs can only be delivered in large, dormitory-like housing estates by land developers.

If HRH wants to back true sustainability he should support the call for genuinely radical land reform in Scotland.

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