Big interview: Nicola Barclay, head of Homes for Scotland

Nicola Barclay believes that when it comes to building new communities, it is important that everyone should think longer-term, rather than just about the  temporary impact. Picture: Neil HannaNicola Barclay believes that when it comes to building new communities, it is important that everyone should think longer-term, rather than just about the  temporary impact. Picture: Neil Hanna
Nicola Barclay believes that when it comes to building new communities, it is important that everyone should think longer-term, rather than just about the temporary impact. Picture: Neil Hanna
Four miles south of Edinburgh's city centre, builders have been at work for 18 months at Liberton, much to the dismay of some of Nicola Barclay's neighbours. Disgruntled denizens suggest that the former Alnwickhill Water Treatment Works should have been turned into a park, rather than the location for up to 300 new homes. After all, who wants to live next to a construction site for three or more years?

“I don’t mind, but some of my neighbours do,” says Barclay. “When they talk about building a park, I explain to them that Scottish Water really needed to sell this site on to raise money to help build its new treatment facility, and they needed to get the maximum return possible.”

It’s a debate for which the head of Homes for Scotland is well-equipped. Having worked in all aspects of the industry – from sales to land purchases and planning – Barclay fully understands the various obstacles that have led to a near-40 per cent shortfall in the number of new houses needed each year to keep up with demand.

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She can speak at length about the vexing nuances of the planning system, or the economic realities that drive a land transaction. But when it comes to what’s really holding back building, she believes the explanation is more emotive.

“There are a lot of pinch-points, but overriding all of it is the perception of new-build housing, and how people feel about new homes being built around their communities,” she says.

“Unfortunately, the places where people want to live are usually alongside the places where other people already live. It is always very difficult for those in the existing communities to cope. They see all the downsides, but no one talks to them about the benefits.”

The common litany of drawbacks includes increased pressure on transportation, schools and other public services brought by an influx of new residents. These arguments are additionally fuelled by a general aversion to change, as many would prefer to keep their local environment in stasis.

Now just over 100 days into her new job as chief executive of Homes for Scotland, Barclay wants to change attitudes by turning the conversation on its head. Rather than focusing solely on overcrowding, she would like to discuss the potential benefits that shops and businesses can reap from a larger local catchment. A community of expanded and diverse housing also paves the way for multiple generations of families living in the same area, creating a network of support among relations.

“There are all of these things that we rely on to keep communities alive,” she says. “We have got to think longer-term, rather than just temporary impact.”

Raised on the outskirts of Edinburgh, Barclay graduated from Currie High School with no intention of going to university. She spent two years piercing ears at Robert Anthony Jewellers on Rose Street before going to Austria to work as a nanny.

While in Austria, Barclay’s mum started sending out university prospectuses which eventually persuaded Barclay to pursue further education. She decided to return home to study at Heriot-Watt University, choosing a course in town planning almost by happenstance.

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“It was really by chance that I fell into it,” she says, “but I am a very practical person. I knew I was not going to do something very high-thinking, but with town planning I realised that I could walk out of a lecture and see all the things we were talking about right in front of me. It is very real, and in the buildings all around you.”

She joined Wimpey Homes as a sales adviser after graduating in 1994, and two years later signed on with Stewart Milne’s land buying department.

She later moved to Bryant Homes, where she remained in land management, and after six years there joined AWG, where she advised smaller builders on start-up financing. She landed her first board-level position as director of land at Macfarlane Homes in 2006, where she stayed until the crash of 2008 that eventually sucked multiple smaller builders – including Macfarlane – into administration.

“After that I took some time out at home with my children,” says Barclay, who has a son and a younger daughter. “Part of that time I spent getting my son out of bed to study for his exams, which thankfully went well for him.

“It was a very nice place to be after the roller-coaster of the property crash.”

She joined Homes for Scotland as a part-time member of the planning team in 2009 before securing a full-time position with Scottish Futures Trust, the government body charged with delivering value for money in public infrastructure. Her main role there was advising the NHS on how to extract maximum returns from the disposal of redundant land and property, much of which found its way into the portfolios of housebuilders.

“I learned a huge amount while I was there but I think the thing I learned the most was the public sector mindset,” she recalls. “In the private sector we talk all the time about profit, but that was almost taboo in the public sector – there it’s all about ‘public value’.

“I think it’s important to understand the different points of view that people bring to a discussion. To be successful, you need to see where other people are coming from.”

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Although quite happy at Scottish Futures Trust, she was persuaded to re-join Homes for Scotland as director for planning in May of last year. She says she had “no idea” at that time that chief executive Philip Hogg would soon leave, opening up the chance for a quick promotion.

The handover started in December before she officially took up the chief executive post in February, providing a seamless transition for the trade body’s ten staff and 200 members in the run-up to the Scottish elections. Looking at the new shape of Holyrood, Barclay believes the resurgent Conservatives will keep the business agenda to the forefront as the SNP pushes further ahead with plans to expand the country’s stock of affordable housing.

“For us it is very much a waiting game at this point, but I am cautiously optimistic that we will continue to have the good relationship we had with the previous government,” she says.

The goal is to get the industry back to pre-recession levels of housebuilding, which have fallen from about 25,000 annually to roughly 15,500 in the latest reading. It is hoped that the independent review of Scotland’s planning system, the results of which are expected within the next few weeks, will help ease the flow of housing delivery. Barclay says building more new homes is the only sustainable solution to surging house prices that have kept more and more first-time buyers waiting ever longer to join the property ladder.

A report in March from an annual review by the Bank of Scotland found that houses in Scottish cities are at their least affordable level since 2009, with prices rising from 5.25 to 5.36 times gross average earnings during the previous 12 months. Although still below the peak of 6.12 times earnings reached during the last housing boom, the figures have been steadily rising for the past three years.

Barclay cites the case of her own son Jamie, now 23-years-old, who secured a good job upon graduating from Bristol University but is still sharing an apartment out of financial necessity with three friends.

While long-time residents are quick to raise objections to new building proposals, those such as Jamie who do not yet own a property are not as well represented.

“I think a lot of it comes down to who is having the conversation,” Barclay says. “I really want the people who want to buy houses, but can’t, to get their voices heard as well.”