Urban Sproil

The meeting of East Lothian Council ten days ago was so taken up with arguing over Fenton Barns plan-breaking housing and roasting the divisional Chief Super over the sheer incompetence of Police Scotland when it came to behaving like a partner that a real zinger of an item slipped through almost on the nod. Back at the end of September, SESPlan, a body responsible for strategic planning in the Edinburgh City region met to have its collected arm twisted by the Scottish Government to build more houses.

Given the shortage of affordable housing across East Lothian especially and the Edinburgh area in general, it would be no bad idea if that were met head-on. Unfortunately, while the Scottish Government is keen to gather sweeping decisions to itself, it often leaves the detail (and with it the multiple headaches of executions) to councils and call it devolution. In so doing it has a terrible record of one-size-fits-all thinking that assumes Maryhill and Macmerry’s problems are the same or close enough.

The result is as subtle as an air raid and, in planning terms, the equivalent of the “First Law of Engineering” which says: When in doubt, use a bigger hammer. Places like East Lothian recognised acute demand in their area (derived from decades of Labour administrations that built no council housing in a hissy fit over right to buy) and put themselves in debt working with the SG to build hundreds of new council housing.

But many others like Glasgow followed pre-2007 pressure and had hived off social housing into uncontrollable ALEO monsters like Glasgow Housing Association—and just sat on their hands about providing any more. Worse—although GLA started off debt-free (the whole point of the exercise), they have been slow in acquiring any more and so the rate of repair of substandard and the building of new houses in our biggest city remains disappointing to all.

All this comes at a time of normally land-hungry developers getting shorter shrift from big banks than the hapless mortgage applicants. Never was the accusation that banks would only lend to those who didn’t need it more true. Ever since the drunken-sailor, lend-to-anything-with-a-pulse, pre-2007 idiocy came crashing down around the greedy ears of their ‘investment’ colleagues, the retail side saw their lending dosh thrown into a big deep vault for security and their billion-bonus bosses effectively throw away the key.

The net effect is that even if private developers can cobble some investment cash together, it is mainly for infill or brownfield sites where major costs like utilities are already in place or (as in the Fenton Barns case cited above) it drives a coach and horses through a carefully laid out plan by building normally-forbidden houses to pay for such utilities.

Now acute as Glasgow or the Lanarkshires’ need is for quality affordable housing, the pips squeak much louder in the East. Not only does the Edinburgh region have much less in the way of brownfield sites but the doggedly resilient economy keeps sucking in new residents so the demand for all kinds of housing has hardly abated because so little has been built. Problem is that developers have little conscience and no sense of social balance. And, as commercial organisations, why would they?

It’s not as if the existing commitments around Edinburgh were trivial. SESplan’s original 2011 document provided for the six authorities to provide 34,200 new homes in 20 years:

Housing Demand to 2025 by Edinburgh City Region Councils

SESplan Housing Demand to 2032 Apportioned among Edinburgh City Region Councils

The only reason Borders got off relatively lightly was a paucity of jobs and infrastructure and the consequent difficulty of heavy commuting into Edinburgh, completion of Borders railway not withstanding. Now, despite all six authorities spending much time planning where such commitments can best be placed these numbers have been blown out the water by an arbitrary requirement from the Scottish Government through SESplan in a 268-page chunk of bamboozling waffle that only a bureaucrat could love called Strategic Environmental Assessment.

Whatever the reason, East Lothian, which had got off relatively lightly during the first round by arguing that it was a largely rural area and served as the main recreational destination in the region, has now received a disproportionate ‘correction’ that added another 50% to its obligation. Since council Planning Conveners were privy to if not active in these conclusions and they led local discussions on each of their Local Plans, it’s puzzling why they did not go down fighting or at least alert their residents to the effects of  this huge step. Adding in these new requirements gives the following table.

Total New House Requirements by Council with Population Projection

Total New House Requirements by Council with Population Projection

These are serious. It takes the large growth proposals for the current local plans (2008-15) and extrapolates them for another 17 years to give population growths of 25% and more, as listed above. Had SESplan existed—let alone been far-sighted—the list of strategic infrastructure projects to facilitate another 1/4m people and their financing would have been in place. But only three have: the Queen Margaret bridge; Borders rail and Edinburgh’s trams.

The first will simply pour more cars onto the roads West of Edinburgh; the second will  help with the <10% provided in the Borders, plus Midlothian near Dalkeith; the third (unlike the original tram plan) will do nothing to access the major waterfront brown field sites Edinburgh will have to use to have any chance of delivering its 44,300 share. Writing in the Evening News on November 2nd, John McLellan was scathing of the prospects of success in the City itself.

“The increased number of 30 to 64-year-olds expected in Edinburgh dwarfs the projections for the rest of Scotland, and as they are the most economically active that’s good news for businesses.

“But where are all these people going to live? Three years ago a housing report for south-east Scotland talked about the need for more than 6000 new homes and in particular warned of the growing need to meet the demand for affordable homes here.

“A consultant’s report spoke of a need for 13,500 new homes in and around the city by 2024, and with the population projections it might not be wide of the mark. With people living longer and couples separating, demand for greater numbers of smaller units will only increase.”

What will make all that impossible to accommodate in the city proper is decades of total reliance on buses and brutal hostility to private vehicles. That means most developments will be near the bypass and dig heavily into greenbelt land and the likely incorporation of Midlothian into the city it will then be part of.

And, while West Lothian may have the space, links and commerce to grow on the scale proposed, that’s because it has two motorways and two rail lines. On the other hand, East Lothian is ill-prepared, having squeezed in almost 10,000 new homes over the past coiuple of decades by pushing the infrastructure of all six of its main towns to the limit. But, other than the A1 extension to Dunbar (which, ludicrously, cut off East Linton) not one infrastructure project of any significance has been planned, let alone invested in.

As a result, Tranent & Musselburgh have traffic thrombosis, undermining hopes for retail revival; you can’t drive from one side of Haddington or Musselburgh to the other without passing a single choke point; the sole access road between 1,000 new houses & the High Street in Dunbar floods with every rainstorm and the ‘main’ road to North Berwick involves passing through three extensive 30mph zones.

Ask a local in any of the six towns: parking is poor; NHS surgeries are overflowing, jobs are few and local office space non-existent; links to Edinburgh (other than ScotRail) are inadequate. Yet property prices are outrageous, inflated by high-paying city jobs that squeeze locals out of the market. All of this threatens the bucolic rolling country that makes East Lothian act as the lungs of the city, providing varied recreation that boosts everyone’s quality of life.

None of that appears to count with either Derek Mackay, the Scottish Government minister who seems keen to apply stiff housing medicine to an area that does not have the same sickness as high native Paisley. or with EL Planning Convener Norman Hampshire who not only agreed to the SESplan increments but came back to EL Council warmly recommending them as the best way forward.

At face value, providing people with good homes should be high priority. But in desirable areas like Lothian, this blunderbuss approach will not ensure they are affordable and nor will it safeguard its attractive green and pleasant outlook that makes it such a magnet in the first place. It is ‘ready-shoot-aim’ at its worst and, like the urgent clearance of Gorbals slums that led to even worse tower blocks, shows a myopia damaging to our future.

About davidsberry

Local councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Stood for the Scottish Parliament 2011; lost by 151 votes.
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