Why more council house provision gets my vote - David Alexander

This time next week Scotland will go to the polls in the latest round of local council elections.
David Alexander
Head of DJ alexanderDavid Alexander
Head of DJ alexander
David Alexander Head of DJ alexander

Sadly, if past experience is anything to go by, the numbers are likely to be a minority of those entitled to vote and of those who do make the effort, their decision is likely to be based on national, rather than local, issues. Municipal elections should be about the physical condition of school buildings, potholes on roads and the efficiency of the drains – not Scottish independence or how culpable our Prime Minister was in attending a party at No 10 Downing Street during lockdown.

Frustratingly, if the population took more interest in local elections, their vote could actually make a difference in several areas one of which, of course, is housing.

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One outcome I would like to see after next Thursday’s election would be the construction of more council housing – such as the various developments currently ongoing by North Lanarkshire Council. The private rental market does an excellent job in meeting the accommodation needs of most renters but there is still a substantial minority of the population on lower incomes for whom social housing is the best long-term solution. As this tenure is “subsidised” surely it is better and fairer that the money comes from local/national taxation rather than the alternative – which seems to be developers part-funding the “affordable homes” they are now frequently required to build in order to receive planning permission for new sites. Thus the cost is met either by the company’s shareholders or by buyers of units on the main, “non-subsidised”, main part of the development.

I am also hoping, after the election, for a more liberal local interpretation of the planning laws and their relation to green belts, and issue on which Edinburgh provides an important case study. With the exception of large council schemes such as Wester Hailes and Muirhouse, the residential area of Edinburgh has only marginally expanded since the 1960s – despite, during the interim period, the desire of families to move from flats to low-density units, preferably with their own garden and front and back doors. There is simply not the current space within the current built-up area to meet this demand in which case some expansion over that currently permitted, is surely desirable. The alternative, it would seem, would be to build 10 or 20 miles away and require Edinburgh-based employees to commute, in many cases by car. Not very “green”, is it?

And let’s not forget that the current demand for development sites on the periphery of Edinburgh is not just changing social mores among the native population but a consequence of a successful and growing local economy which is attracting new talent from other parts of the UK and overseas. Something to be celebrated rather than concerned about, I would have thought.

Another effect of the local elections which could impact on Edinburgh (and Glasgow too) is the issue of rent controls, something the minority coalition “partners” in the Scottish Government are particularly keen on.

Let me be clear: rent controls are at or near the top of any league table of “unintended consequences”. While profitable, residential letting is not a licence to print money for most landlords as some critics of the system would claim. Rents are based on market forces – i.e. the balance between supply and demand. Landlord and rental property regulation has increased substantially over the past decade. Much of it has been positive but many will see rent controls as a step too far and sell up. If the buyers are owner-occupiers this will reduce the stock of rental properties. And if those landlords still trading are not permitted to make what they consider an acceptable profit, what then? More sell-ups and even less rental stock.

From the local authority point of view, rent controls are likely to be expensive to operate and difficult to police. Consequently, I am hopeful that, whatever the voting patterns in next Thursday’s election, older and wiser council officials will ensure this issue is placed in an office pigeonhole and quietly forgotten about.

David Alexander is managing director of DJ Alexander



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