Comment: A rising, ambitious population needs more land

David Alexander is managing director of DJ Alexander. Picture: Contributed.
David Alexander is managing director of DJ Alexander. Picture: Contributed.
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After a rather fractious 2017, the May government’s negotiations with the EU leadership over Brexit seem to have fired up somewhat since the beginning of this year.

Still unresolved, however, is the “big one” – the extent of “freedom of movement” which will be permitted between the UK and remaining members of the EU.

In one of our quarterly surveys of the rental market in 2015, we reported that non-British applicants for tenancies in Edinburgh and Glasgow had passed the 40 per cent mark for the first time. Thirty months – and a referendum – later, that figure has changed only slightly. So in our experience at least, the referendum result has not led to any great loosening in demand for accommodation by people from other parts of the EU. This is welcome news to someone who, like me, believes EU immigration has, on balance, been positive; almost all the newcomers to whom we let accommodation are incredibly hard-working and surely this influx of “new blood” has been good for Scotland, especially in depressed localities.

Neither, however, do I subscribe to the stereotype of “lazy Brits/industrious Poles” because it does not really compare like with like. The huge disparity in wages between the UK and former Communist countries means many of those prepared to carry out unskilled tasks are intelligent and well-educated – and consequently have a “can do” attitude, which is not obviously apparent in this type of labour pool, either in this country or elsewhere.

This therefore suggests that those immigrants with good school grades and university degrees will not be prepared to wait on tables or pick strawberries in Perthshire fruit farms indefinitely; they will aspire to jobs that fit their mental and professional capabilities.

While “free movement” is likely to end with Brexit, any final deal will almost certainly give full citizens’ rights to any EU immigrants currently living and working here – if for no other reason than our government will want UK citizens accorded the same rights in EU member countries. What we may be seeing, therefore, is the start of a movement by more established EU immigrants away from renting their homes to becoming owner-occupiers, especially as they will have been able to amass not only deposits but also present a stable financial and employment history.

Given wholly inaccurate government predictions that immigration from East European countries would amount to about 13,000 per annum, the result has been a demand for housing that was never anticipated. So what does this mean for locations where home-ownership demand is high but supply low?

Mostly hemmed in by separate urban local authorities, Glasgow has little access to peripheral virgin land, which is not the case with Edinburgh. Despite its smaller population, the Scottish capital is actually larger than Glasgow in municipal acreage (101 square miles compared to 68) and only about 70 per cent of this is built-up. So in theory the problem would be easily solvable, even if, as predicted, the population rises to 600,000 within the next 20 years. But this does not account for the power of the environmental and conservation lobbies along with an official over-adherence to “green” planning guidelines.

The intentions of the Edinburgh Green Belt – “to control urban growth, protect farmland and to conserve the setting of the city” – are laudable but were designated in 1957, with great changes in the housing needs and aspirations of the great bulk of the citizenry. Adding to this we now have a rising population (not envisaged in the 1950s when the emphasis was on “sustainable” levels). So while few people would argue with the continuing principle of a “green belt”, in the case of Edinburgh, the belt surely requires to be loosened by a few notches if the city is to provide the adequate supply – and range- of housing – essential for future economic growth.

- David Alexander is MD of DJ Alexander