This week I was pleased to take part in a debate in parliament on the importance of community engagement in planning issues in Lothian. Here’s what I had to say…
Our towns and cities are where we live, and the way that they are designed and built has a profound effect on our lives. People want to live in nice places that provide a community with good-quality housing and connections to local shops, green spaces, libraries and other amenities. One person’s idea of a good place to live will be different from another’s but those are some basic, entry-level things that planning should deliver.
Land-use planning is a profession for a reason. To balance all the demands on our land is a difficult art, particularly when we are not in control of the building itself. However, just because it is a profession does not mean that the experts have all the answers—far from it. Land-use planning should be done by people who live on the land. We should not be frightened of opening up such decision making. Of course architects and developers have an important role in that, but so do the people who will live in and alongside the houses that they build.
What holds us back from a step change in public engagement? The Involve Foundation and the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce tell us in “From Fairy Tale to Reality: Dispelling the Myths around Citizen Engagement” that those myths trap us in a way of thinking that says that public engagement is too expensive and too difficult and that people are not up for it. The report has myth-busting examples of engagement that works from around the world.
Land-use planning will always be political and contested, so we should not run away from that. I congratulate Cameron Buchanan on bringing the debate to the chamber. He has identified the most contested part of the current SESplan, and things are moving very fast in the City of Edinburgh Council as a result.
Does anyone genuinely believe that 107,000 new homes are required in south-east Scotland over the next 10 years? It has taken 300 years to reach the 500,000 or so households that we have at present, and those unrealistic housing targets have come up time after time in community meetings throughout my region.
People see land that is already zoned for housing in the hands of developers but left untouched. Housing targets in the plan mean that more land is to be zoned, but the targets are bloated by a 10 per cent generosity margin. Take away the fat and the generosity, and the need to sacrifice the green belt at Cammo and Curriemuirend vanishes. People are understandably incredulous and often angry that their views are ignored and that estimated housing numbers from a desktop study are given precedence.
Edinburgh needs more homes, but the spread of the suburbs and executive housing will not meet that need. How many homeless people or people in housing need will get new homes in David Murray’s garden district?
The local authority blames the Government, while the Government pins the blame on the local authority. On 12 December last year, I asked the Minister for Local Government and Planning during oral questions
“what role local authorities have in determining appropriate housing land supply.”—[Official Report, 12 December 2013; c 25663.]
He replied that the numbers are set by the local authority. That is true to an extent, but the housing forecasts are done with a Government tool and signed off as credible by the Government.
The Government has the last word and is enforcing it, but that creates a local development plan that meets developers’ needs, not real people’s housing needs—that is the issue.
I am sure that the minister understands that the argument that more new supply will reduce house prices is nonsense, because new supply is only a fraction of overall supply and makes very little difference to price. Indeed, the evidence is the opposite over the most recent cycle: when supply was at its highest, prices were greatest.
SESplan 2 needs to deliver housing that meets the needs of people, not developers. As Gordon MacDonald pointed out, there are thousands of long-term empty homes in the capital. That needs to change, and the City of Edinburgh Council lags behind other councils on that.
Brownfield sites that are earmarked for housing need to be used for housing. Examples such as those at Chesser and Oxgangs, where housing land has been given over to large-scale retail, should not happen, given the housing need.
The Government should recognise that any forecast comes with a health warning. It should not be set in stone. We need to be guided by reality and aim to build the kind of homes that work for people in the greatest housing need: those that build on existing social networks, where services such as shops, schools, surgeries, community centres and public transport are more viable.