Donald Anderson: It’s time to take a new look at housing supply

A shortage of housing could be tackled through a review of the planning process.
A shortage of housing could be tackled through a review of the planning process.
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A survey of Scotland’s planning committee members carried out by PPS Scotland shows overwhelming support for the Scottish Government’s review of planning. In fact, two-thirds of councillors who make the decisions on planning applications in Scotland support change. A quarter of planning committee members expressed no view either way and only 6 per cent (just over 1 in 20 of councillors) oppose it. Looking at councillors’ views on housing supply issues perhaps explains that concern, with 81 per cent saying that their area needs more or has a severe shortage of supply of housing.

So why is that significant? Well, these are the councillors who sit week in and week out taking difficult decisions on planning applications. These are the people who often determine whether key policies like meeting housing need are actually delivered.

Against that backdrop, a majority of councillors clearly agree with the Scottish Government that the current system isn’t working. With the average age of first time buyers now 33 in Scotland, there is a growing understanding of the need to increase supply.

In Scotland, despite a continual and at times fever pitch debate on the loss of green space, we do have lots of land to build on. The biggest survey ever undertaken on land use in the UK (the UK National Ecosystem Assessment) showed that only 1.9 per cent of Scotland is built on. Despite this, housing development is most efficiently delivered beside existing infrastructure and that often means building new homes beside where people already live.

And therein lies the challenge, because hackles often rise when anyone proposes building new homes near where people already live. We all live in a house built on a field that was once someone’s view, but we’re often almost instinctively reluctant to accept the right of others to have homes on the fields and green spaces that we ourselves look upon.

Our survey is interesting in that regard too. More local councillors agree that Green Belt reviews are needed (31 per cent), than those who feel protecting the Green Belt is paramount (21 per cent). Half feel, not unreasonably, that building on the Green Belt depends on local circumstances.

Public views are shifting too. We don’t have figures for Scotland, but the British Social Attitudes survey figures for England shows that views about housebuilding are changing dramatically. Support for “housebuilding in my area” has doubled to 56 per cent, and opposition has fallen from 46 per cent to 21 per cent. This is a huge change and Scottish planners may just be reflecting a seismic shift in public attitudes to an accepted need for more houses.

These figures arrive at an important time in Scotland. The government has signalled a determination to increase housing delivery. Alex Neil is one of the most capable ministers devolution has produced, and has personally signalled his commitment to shaking up the system to produce more homes for families.

So, for the Scottish Government there will be satisfaction that councillors overwhelmingly support the need for change. With a high powered independent panel due to deliver its review of the planning process soon, Scotland may be about to see a serious gear change in housing delivery. That can only be good for making new homes affordable for our young people, but it will also be good for the rest of us as well.

Donald Anderson is a Director of PPS Edinburgh