• Sun. Jul 14th, 2024

“The system is broken – let’s be honest about that”:  Ian Murray MP on the cost-of-living crisis, Edinburgh’s housing market and university strikes

ByIssy Clarke

Jun 7, 2023

With thanks to Olivia Latimer for her help in the researching of this article.

Since 2010, Ian Murray has served as the Labour MP for Edinburgh South, the constituency which includes the popular student areas of Marchmont, Newington and Morningside.

Ian Murray is candid and affable when I meet him on a Friday afternoon in his Edinburgh constituency office, with an unpretentious demeanour that gives little away about his remarkable political career.  He was the only Labour MP to hold his seat in Scotland after the party haemorrhaged candidates to the SNP in the 2015 general election (although given the recent turbulence rocking the SNP, a reversal of fortunes for Scottish Labour looks increasingly likely.) In 2020 he ran for Deputy Leader of the Labour party, securing the backing of Gordon Brown and Tony Blair.  He is currently serving as Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland in Keir Starmer’s opposition cabinet.

Murray has lived in Edinburgh all his life, raised in a housing association home in Wester Hailes, south-west Edinburgh.  He jokes that “growing up, there were three requirements for being a member of my family: you had to be a fervent supporter of everything Scottish, you had to be a fervent supporter of Heart of Midlothian football club, and you had to be a fervent supporter of everything centre-left of the Labour party.”

Murray went on to study at Edinburgh, making him the first in his family to attend university, where he became actively involved in student politics.  Later, he reflects on how the student experience has changed from his day.  “When I was a student, you took yourself out of society and you inhabited a different world.  Now, students are dealing with real-world issues, such as cost of living and access to housing, and dealing with them much more acutely because they’re much more pronounced on students.”

Last month, a report by the Russell Group Students’ Unions found that just half of students at the University of Edinburgh feel confident that they have enough money to pay for their basic living costs.  18 per cent have reportedly considered dropping out of their studies.  What, I ask Murray, should the university or the government be doing to help students cope with the increased cost of living?

“Cost of living is obviously a national issue, but it is particularly acute in Edinburgh.

“I’ve spoken to Peter Mathieson [the university Vice-Chancellor] about this – the university champion the money that they put into their hardship funds [a means-tested student fund which provides a one-off payment], but in order to qualify you already have to be at rock bottom.  But that’s not the point – you need to stop people hitting rock bottom.

“I’ve been trying to work with the university to create a next-level-up support fund, at least in the short term to help people with the cost-of-living crisis.  The university said that they wouldn’t do that and would top up the hardship fund instead.  But the university has got to get money into students’ pockets.

“I’ve been saying for a while that Edinburgh should have its own weighting [for allocating maintenance loans].  If you’re in Edinburgh, your costs and rent are much higher.”  

Many students have felt the cost of living crisis most keenly in relation to housing.  Research undertaken last year by the Edinburgh University Students Association found that one in five students at Edinburgh University pay over £800 in rent each month.  Stories of students being forced to sofa surf, or to commute from cities such as Stirling and Glasgow, are not uncommon.  

“The housing market in Edinburgh has changed, I think for three reasons,” Murray says.   “First, you have the explosion in tourism and arrival of companies like Airbnb.  You’ve also had a change in housing regulations which incentivised landlords to change their properties to Short Term Lets [a tenancy agreement which typically lasts for less than nine months].  And then at the bottom of this, you have a massive increase in the number of overseas students – and they need somewhere to live.

“Housing is a supply and demand issue – the only answer is to build more.  But what do you build?  Edinburgh needs to decide, does it want to be a tourist city, or a student city, or neither?  Because there’s always a debate.  If somebody puts in an application to build more student housing there’s always a debate in the local community; about building more affordable homes, more council homes.”

I mention the recent approval given to proposals to build a new student housing development on Leith Walk, despite meeting significant local opposition.  

“Building more student housing has got to be done properly,” he tells me.  He describes the current system as “so confrontational – a piece of land comes up for sale, and its bought by a private developer.  The reason that local communities become so frustrated is that they are given no say in the planning process, which means that often planning applications fail.  I’ve been saying for a long time that the university should be building its own accommodation instead of out contracting it to private developers.”

Murray has worked with SLURP, the Edinburgh-based student homelessness charity, in its campaign to encourage the university to consider the impact of housing shortages on its students.  In an open letter to the university management team, Murray outlined some recommendations for tacking the shortage, including placing a cap on student numbers until the university is confident that there is a sufficient supply of housing, and subsidising private rents.  

Mathieson’s response to Murray stressed that many pressures affecting student housing extend beyond the university’s remit, citing financial pressures limiting its ability to expand its own accommodation provision, as well as its lack of control over planning permission.

Many students feel that they are being taken for granted, I tell Murray.  This is particularly true in relation to the ongoing industrial action by the UCU.  There is a lot of solidarity with the strikes within the student body.  Yet the university’s failure to come to terms with its staff has dealt yet another blow to students, many of whom have lost out on half of a year’s worth of teaching.

“What is unusual about the university strikes is that students and staff are on the same side,” he says.  “But the impact on students is stark.  

“It all comes back to the question of how you fund higher education. Universities have become about big balance sheets.  But, with regards to Edinburgh, I’ve always felt that it became a world class institution because of the people in it. The management team say they can’t afford to meet their demands.  But they need to reflect on what they are trying to achieve as a university.  Because they’re not treating those people the way that it should.”

It’s also untenable, I add.  Students – and staff – will simply no longer choose to come to Edinburgh to study or teach if they’re not being treated properly. 

“Yes, and there was a report out this week, saying that overseas students contribute over £183 million a year to Edinburgh.  And that’s just in Edinburgh – and just overseas students.

That’s huge.  It’s like everybody wants your money, but no one wants you there.”

Does Murray accept that, against this backdrop, many students feel hugely let down by Keir Starmer’s recent retraction of the Labour party’s pledge to abolish tuition fees for English students?  

“I do understand. The system is broken – let’s be honest about that fact.  We want to try and fix it.  But Keir Starmer also wants to be honest and not promise something that we can’t deliver. The pledge to remove fees cannot be met.  That’s £9 billion that we don’t have.”

Now is not the time – is that Labour’s message to students?

“No, I think its probably: circumstances have changed.  And it’s about honesty.  The Labour party, and Keir Starmer in particular, gets hit really hard with criticisms that he’s changing his mind.  But some of these pledges were made before Covid.

“I do think that fundamentally, the student voice needs to be heard more.  And the reason that students get heard less is because they don’t vote.”

Before I can press him further on this suggestion that a larger student turnout would lead to a different Labour policy on tuition fees, Murray is quick to add: “Now that is not why Keir is making these decisions.  The pot is small.  But students need to make themselves heard more.  The grey vote is huge.”

[Since my conversation with Murray, Labour has come forth with more detailed plans about how it intends to reform student finance, including a commitment to reducing monthly student loan repayments as well as an increase in the support available for students from lower income backgrounds.  Murray stresses that this is the first in a series of reforms aimed at helping students.]

Finally, I ask Murray – how does he think his experience would be different if he were a student today? 

“The drinking culture!” he laughs.  

Quick fire:

Old Town or New Town

  • New Town

Greens or the Lib Dems

  • I’m going to have to say neither…I’m not allowed to say!

Favourite book?

  • My own!  No, Four Skins Lament by Shalom Auslander.  I read it as a student and it was the funniest thing I’ve ever read.

Best pub in Edinburgh?

  • The Earl of Marchmont 

Favourite memory from student days?

  • Freshers’ Week when I was 16.  The fashionable drink of choice back then in 1992 was a Blastaway – a diamond white cider and a bottle of Castaway.

File:Official portrait of Ian Murray crop 1.jpg” by Chris McAndrew is licensed under CC BY 3.0.