UK housebuilders might invest in England rather than Scotland in a blow to the fight against poverty – David Howel

Scotland faces a huge challenge to deliver new homes for families. Everyone should have a roof over their heads, but delivering new homes can be a formidable challenge, especially around our cities where housing need is greatest.
Edinburgh Council’s Poverty Commission concluded that a key driver of poverty was the cost of housing (Picture: Jane Barlow)Edinburgh Council’s Poverty Commission concluded that a key driver of poverty was the cost of housing (Picture: Jane Barlow)
Edinburgh Council’s Poverty Commission concluded that a key driver of poverty was the cost of housing (Picture: Jane Barlow)

It will surprise many people, but Scotland has plenty of room for new houses. Contrary to popular belief, extraordinarily little of Scotland is built on. In fact, only 2.1 per cent of Scotland is built on. Scotland has plenty of land to satisfy all its housing needs.

Even those under-pressure cities are remarkably green. In Glasgow nearly 40 per cent of the city is green space. Dundee is more than 40 per cent with Aberdeen over 70 per cent, and in the nation’s capital around 65 per cent of land is green space. We know this thanks to a project on land use initiated by the European Commission.

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And in a country where housing needs are great, there are increasing reasons to deliver new homes for families. Recently, the Edinburgh Council’s Poverty Commission surprised many by announcing that the key driver of poverty in the city was housing costs. We already know that for many of our young people a house purchase is an increasingly remote prospect. Finding an ‘affordable’ house to rent is no less a challenge.

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I do feel for politicians. We all want to buy a house at a good price, and we want to sell it at a healthy profit, but hackles instinctively rise whenever anyone comes along with proposals to build a house anywhere near where we live. Indeed, but we all live in a house that was built on a field that was once someone’s view.

There has been progress in Scotland where delivery has increased in recent years, but despite that success it has still not reached the levels achieved before the crash of 2008, nor has it hit the 25,000-a-year target set in 2007. So, what’s to be done and how do we deliver more homes for Scotland? And how do we make sure it’s sustainable?

Politically, some of the hardest areas to build in are those closest to existing communities. Indeed, the greenest and most sustainable option would be to simply put most new houses in our big cities. Because cities have the transport and other infrastructure in place, new residents will be more likely to use public transport and the carbon footprint would be low. However, even the ‘greenest’ of Green Party politicians will not be suggesting that approach any time soon, and for many good reasons.

Firstly, there would be open revolts in the leafy suburbs of the likes of Currie and Balerno were the whole area around it to be developed, and whilst it would be ‘green’ in terms of the carbon footprint, it would inevitably change the feel and nature of many established communities.

Secondly, there are so many easier ways of delivering new housing. Blindwells in East Lothian is a new town planned to deliver a sustainable community and ease development pressures in nearby county towns. In Edinburgh, I’ve been supporting plans for a new community at Hatton Village in the west of Edinburgh to create a classic ‘20-minute community’, and where there’s the prospect of delivering low-carbon development using features like ground-sourced heating.

There are many such sites across Scotland, and they are surely a key part of the answer to Scotland’s housing supply challenge. There are of course many brownfield areas that can be developed as well, but to hit the numbers to impact on housing supply a blend of options will be vital.

However, the recent announcement by the Scottish government of the review of the policy that gives a presumption in favour of sustainable development may complicate housing delivery. Thankfully, the Scottish government has backed off the removal of the policy presumption, but it is changing.

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It is not clear what the impact of the change will be. However, the direction of travel south of the Border could not be clearer. Whilst Boris Johnson has backed off the dismantling of the massively successful post-war ‘Town and Country Planning Act’, delivery has been stepped up with an overall target of 300,000 new homes a year.

There are going to be lots of new homes being built in England, and housing delivery will rise further. And what of Scotland? Well, if the new change of Scottish policy steps back from the delivery of new homes, there will be a larger gulf in support for housebuilding between England and Scotland than ever before.

Housing investment is all about the balance between risk and reward for investors. Increase the risk and the investment will go down, reduce the risk and increase the reward and investment rises.

Major UK housebuilders might well decide to invest down south, and that could be devastating news for Scottish families, and for fighting poverty in high-demand areas like Edinburgh. So, the one part of the UK with the most land available for development could struggle to tackle the housing shortage.

Delivering housing isn’t easy, but it can certainly be much easier than it is now. We have the land. Targets have been good for increasing the number of homes being built in Scotland, any move away from them would be – to quote Yes Minister – “courageous”. Delivering homes for Scotland and for Scottish families is a huge, but achievable challenge. Let us hope that all the political parties in Scotland rise to the task.

David Howel is director of Pegasus Consultancy

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