Last Tuesday I secured a Members’ Debate in the Scottish Parliament to discuss housing in the Southside of Edinburgh. This was in response to the decision by the national appeals body to overturn a City of Edinburgh Council rejection of an application for a purpose-built student residence at Lutton Court. Legal action postponed the debate, but the issue is still vitally important.
The problem with the ruling that has caused so much outrage was an unelected national body overturning a policy written by elected local councillors. That policy is a balanced one – both recognising the need for new purpose-built student residences and aiming to spread them around central Edinburgh.
Many of the housing pressures on students are common to all. Private renters are vulnerable to exploitation from unscrupulous landlords or forced to live in poor quality, high-cost accommodation. The SNP Government have already legislated to protect tenancy deposits and to prevent letting agencies from charging illegal premiums. Further sweeping reforms such as rent controls, which I have vocally and repeatedly backed, are currently being consulted on.
The most pressing problem is making sure that everyone has access to decent housing at an affordable price. In the Southside of Edinburgh, that means ensuring a housing mix that works for all.
Purpose-built student accommodation will be a part of that. I’m supportive of the university’s own developments at Holyrood Road, Meadow Lane and Buccleuch Place – surpluses feed back into the university and they are broadly more affordable.
My main doubts lie with the private, corporate developments that charge high rents. These are dubious value for students and have a worrying impact on wider rental by pushing up the local going rate. While university-owned builds are on the university’s own land, these new developments have been able to corner the Southside’s limited supply of open market land. At £200 per week for a single person, not only are they fantastically profitable, the other developers they compete with are required to include affordable housing equivalent to 25 per cent of the development. Developers of student blocks are not required to do this, so they have an advantage in the bidding process.
The most noteworthy concern raised to me by Southside residents is frustration that every gap-site is filled by this sort of development. The alternative of general-purpose flats, many of which would be taken up by students, and which would also include affordable housing, just can’t get a look in.
So I have one simple, specific proposal. It has already won the support of the Rector, Peter McColl, and opposition MSPs. I have written to the council and asked them to extend the policy and require developers of private student residences to also build new affordable housing alongside. This would help ensure that all developers compete on a level playing field and all would have to build a mix of housing types.
The Southside has long been an area where student and non-student, social tenant and private owner, immigrant and lifelong Edinburgher have lived alongside each other. It has thrived from the diversity of the community –every one of these groups contribute so much. Rather than divisions emerging, I want the Southside to continue as this melting pot where everyone is able to find a home and flourish.