Sheila Gilmore argues that it is not just through planning regulations that councils can ensure affordable housing, and urges public authorities to take a more joined up approach to land use.

 

In 2014 there was a strong community campaign in Edinburgh’s Southside against proposals to build student accommodation in a site between Lutton Place and Bernard Terrace.  Local residents used the council’s own policies to argue against this development, and their arguments were upheld at the Planning Committee, but they were overturned on appeal. The student flats have now been built.  This is just one example of the weak  position of communities in the planning process.

However in a way the community came into this too late.    The council could have protected this site from development against its own planning policies by using its powers of ownership.  This was a council owned site, where a decision was taken to market it as ‘surplus to requirements’.  Residents were told that the only bids for the site came from developers involved in provision of student accommodation.

‘What if ‘ the council had chosen to use this site for affordable housing, or passed it on to a housing association to use for affordable housing?   I know that councils are under great pressure to achieve ‘capital receipts’ which can be used to reinvest in other priorities.  (And not just councils – so too are health boards where the sale value of a hospital site is usually programmed in to the cost of building a replacement.)  However we have to question whether that is a sensible approach in the longer term.

Affordable housing, and especially low rent housing, is in  particularly short supply in the city centre.  There was never a great deal, and much of it made very desirable purchases under right to buy over a long period.  However we still have a  ‘living’ city centre , and it is council policy to encourage people to continue to live as well as work and play in the city. That was part of the rationale behind the council’s planning policy on not having too much student accommodation in any one area.  Land is definitely in short supply in the city centre, so a site like the Lutton Place one was a rare opportunity to expand the residential community.

Securing 100% affordable housing on a site like this would have been a huge advantage.  If resources were not available to make it 100% affordable (since affordable housing requires subsidy) thought could have been given to a partnership where perhaps 50% was ‘affordable’ with some homes built for market sale.  Even that would have yielded a higher proportion of affordable homes than current planning policy achieves when the council is not landowner (at best 25%).  The student housing proposal meant that there was no affordable element, as current council policy does not require this in student housing developments.

So in marketing the site the council lost a great deal of its ability to control what happened. Although such sites are rare, there have been others in Edinburgh in the recent past where this opportunity was lost in favour of sale; for instance the former cleansing department depot at Kings Stables Road.

Planning applications are advertised, and communities and residents can lodge objections.  Decisions to market sites are not widely advertised, and may be one item in a budget or other report.  Are some such decisions delegated to council officers ?

Councils and other public bodies should be taking a wider view of what constitutes best value for the community of which they are part.  Having land is a prerequisite for building affordable homes.  If public sites are sold, will councils and housing associations end up buying sites to build on?  There is also a substantial cost to public funds if people needing homes are accommodated for extensive periods in temporary accommodation.  All of these factors should be looked at, along with the levels of housing need in particular areas, and the desire to have areas that are genuinely mixed use.  Nor is housing the only other use which may be compatible with the needs of the city and its residents. The likely ‘capital receipt’ should be weighed against this wider picture.

This isn’t to say that sale won’t sometimes be the best option.  Some sites could be totally unsuitable for housing.  In other cases the good that could be done with the ‘capital receipt’ could be more compelling than the need for affordable housing. However before decisions are reached there should be a transparent process looking at the options, with councils (and other public bodies) required to justify why market sale was the better option.

Lutton Court could have been developed with a mix of flats and houses.  It could have included accessible homes for people with mobility  problems.  Older residents of the area struggling in traditional tenement flats could have been enabled to move to a more suitable home while getting a chance to stay in the area where they have strong social networks.

This needs urgent attention before too many more sites are lost.   Is Edinburgh Council up for this? Are other councils? Is the Scottish Government?