John McLellan: Scotland needs more homes – so let’s get building!

Edinburgh City Council has made the delivery of 20,000 affordable homes its priority. Picture: Michael Gillen
Edinburgh City Council has made the delivery of 20,000 affordable homes its priority. Picture: Michael Gillen
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The SNP’s Growth Commission report talked about boosting Scotland’s population to more than six million and they will need somewhere to live, writes John McLellan.

The initial flurry of excitement over the SNP’s Sustainable Growth Commission report has subsided and already it has become more of battleground behind the lines of the independence movement than at the frontline of the Yes/No trenches.

And while the reports on Ruth Davidson’s Glasgow University speech on Tuesday night focused on the supposed challenges to Theresa May and the pull to the centre, it was remarkable in one other respect; it didn’t contain the word “independence“ and only made passing reference to the constitutional debate to concentrate instead on how Scotland’s economic performance could be lifted within the UK framework.

Although independence was written into every page of Wilson’s report, it also acknowledged that much could be done now to improve Scotland’s performance so, from different directions, there was plenty on which Davidson and Wilson were in broad agreement.

Both emphasised the need to attract talent from abroad in a common pro-immigration approach, but in putting housing at the top of her agenda Davidson would also find support from Edinburgh council’s SNP-Labour administration which has made the delivery of 20,000 affordable homes its priority at a time when the number of new properties for sale fell by ten per cent.

But even though there is unanimity across the political spectrum that Scotland in general and Edinburgh in particular is not building enough houses, the Wilson Report has very little to say on the subject; only one paragraph in a 354-page study which talks about lifting the population to more than six million looks at where the newcomers might live. Setting a target aligned with immigration, ensuring good quality affordable homes and including housing in a competitiveness strategy was pretty much it.

READ MORE: Nicola Sturgeon: Growth Commission report candid about indy challenges

By contrast, Davidson spoke about creating the next generation of garden villages and towns, built through a housing and infrastructure agency which she says would coordinate land purchase and ensure a strong proportion of affordable properties to help limit house-price inflation. Wilson’s proposal for an “infrastructure bond” for the roads, railways and airports presumably could include sewers and utilities for domestic development as well.

Demand in the east of Scotland is being fuelled in part by the continued expansion of higher education and the arrival of more students, but also by the changing ways in which people live. More people leave home earlier, more people live alone before settling down with a partner and more people live alone after splitting up. We are all living longer, and many of us will live on our own well into our 80s and 90s at home after our partners have died.

No wonder the biggest inflation in Edinburgh property prices is in one and two-bedroom flats. The Edinburgh Solicitors’ Property Centre reported an increase of 7.2 per cent in the first quarter of 2018 to £250,875 for all properties, but two-bed flats in Portobello shot up a staggering 49.4 per cent and there were big increases for one beds in Gorgie-Dalry (24 per cent) and Leith Walk (16 per cent).

In Edinburgh much rests on fast construction of new Granton, now the city council has taken ownership of much of the land from Centrica and has approved compulsory purchases to clear the way for redevelopment in nearby Pennywell.

Out in East Lothian the answer is the Blindwells new town on the former open cast mine site between Longniddry and Tranent and, after 20 years under discussion, the first 60 of what could be 6,000 homes should be completed by the end of the year.

READ MORE: Sean Clerkin to stop campaigning for independence in Growth Commission protest

Although it will take the best part of two decades to complete, the implications of Blindwells for Edinburgh are enormous because it does not come with 6,000 homes-worth of employment, or rail and main road improvements into Edinburgh where the majority of people will work.

The same goes for West Lothian’s plan which features in the City Deal, to turn Winchburgh village into a significant town with around 5,000 new homes. Nothing will curb house inflation more than plentiful supply, and seeing an opportunity to grow its tax-base, East Lothian Council is having regular constructive dialogue with house-builders to smooth the process. In Edinburgh, however, the big house-builders feel there is a reluctance to engage and a painfully slow process which holds up construction even after planning permission has been granted. So while West and East Lothian crack on and Edinburgh dithers, the capital’s difficulties will only increase and property experts complain of a lack of urgency. Edinburgh is putting much faith in its 2050 vision consultation project, but the time to deliver is now.

A taxing issue
Edinburgh council isn’t hanging about when it comes to introducing a new levy on tourists, the so-called transient visitor levy, even though the Scottish Government has so far given no sign of relenting in its opposition to the charge.

Administration councillors with the support of the Greens and Lib Dems voted on Thursday to continue to develop a scheme, while the Conservative group opposed it on the basis that the effort was pointless without the necessary legislation from the Holyrood and because there is no guarantee that the legislation will allow the council to keep any revenue raised in addition to the money it already received through local taxation and the block grant.

The police paperwork problem

A plea from Police Scotland to invest £200m in a new IT system will be music to the ears of frontline officers. Not only are there still differences between the systems used by the old regional forces, but those used by different departments and agencies across the justice network have been developed independently so can’t talk to each other. Officers have to enter the same information multiple times to process a basic arrest and charge because the various systems are incompatible. They can’t even cut and paste.

A simple system which means an officer filing names, details and statements only once, which can them be picked up by all agencies in the justice chain would stop thousands of hours being lost to duplicated administration and therefore get more officers on the beat.

If the Scottish Police Authority needs convincing of the need for major investment in an urgent IT overhaul, all they need is to get an average PC to talk them through what’s needed to process a simple common assault.

STV vs BBC

The Scottish Parliament’s culture committee has summoned new STV chief executive Simon Pitt to attend next week and explain why he is closing down STV2 and cutting around 40 jobs in the process. This is the same committee which grilled the BBC about why they weren’t spending more money in Scotland.

While all investment in media and culture is broadly to be welcomed, and Glasgow is still on course to benefit from the regionalisation of Channel 4, will the committee make the link between a massive investment in one player in a competitive market and a massive impact on another player which can’t possibly keep pace? Press pause...