East Lothian’s dysfunctional housing system has hit the headlines, and is in dire need of attention.
Bank of Scotland analysis shows that the Garden of Scotland is among the least affordable areas in Scotland for first-time buyers, with a house price to average earnings ratio even worse than Edinburgh’s.
Across Scotland the average deposit is £21,751. Twenty grand in savings before you can buy your first property? Pretty eye-watering.
All this follows on from recent reports that North Berwick is Scotland’s most expensive seaside town for properties.
Meanwhile, statistics were quietly published last month showing the human impact of unaffordable housing in our county.
In 2015/16 there were 678 homelessness applications in East Lothian. This is only a six per cent drop on last year and is hardly changed from the 834 applications made back in 2002/03.
The statistics also show that there are 410 households in temporary accommodation in East Lothian, a 12 per cent rise from last year and a massive increase on the 69 in 2002.
Of those 410 “households”, 27 are being housed in hostels, and 57 in Bed & Breakfasts. The 410 also includes 140 households with children or pregnant women – up from 107 last year. In East Lothian there are a total 184 children in temporary accommodation, up from 135 last year.
This is simply heartbreaking.
Across Scotland the main reasons given for homelessness applications include having tenancies terminated, and violent or abusive relationships or relationship breakdowns.
It’s worth noting that in 2014 the Council approved an increase in homelessness charges, meaning people in such stressful situations now pay between £15 and £60 a week more for accommodation. The Council hoped this would reduce its costs by £50,000 a year. To put this penny-pinching into perspective, the Council’s annual budget is £200m.
So what hope do we have that the situation will turn around soon?
East Lothian Council has a Local Housing Strategy, which covers the issues of affordable homes and homelessness, and runs until next year. I’m told by council officials that work is to commence shortly on the production of a new Local Housing Strategy to cover the period 2017-22.
Some key points from the current strategy:
“The supply of affordable housing is insufficient to make vacancies to meet the needs of homeless households.”
“Key areas of significant pressure are Tranent, Prestonpans and Musselburgh.”
The strategy also outlines what the Council is doing to increase the supply of affordable housing, such as helping people access shared equity schemes. The end of Thatcher’s Right to Buy, which takes effect in the coming days, will also help ensure existing council housing stock is protected.
Of course, East Lothian is under pressure to build 10,000 new homes in the next 10 years. This is the thrust of the Council’s Local Development Plan. But will that plan tackle affordability and homelessness? If we look at the Main Issues Report that informed it, we can see a mismatch between the actual level of demand and what housing developers are likely to bring forward.
The Main Issues Report states that Scottish Planning Policy suggests that 25 per cent of housing developments should be affordable, yet it also states that a region-wide housing needs assessment concludes that between 33 and 41 per cent should be affordable.
We can see what this means in practice. At Dirleton a developer is proposing 36 houses, 10 of which would be “affordable”. That’s just above 25 per cent.
And along at Aberlady a developer is proposing around 100 homes, with 25 per cent affordable. Is anyone at ELC bold enough to push for the 33 – 41 per cent that’s really required?
I can’t pretend that the issues of affordable housing and homelessness can be solved overnight but we’ve known for years how serious the situation is and we need to pick up the pace. Housing developments in East Lothian remain speculative and led by developers rather than communities. Meantime we have vacant properties and brownfield sites such as the old Tesco in the middle of Musselburgh where we could be creating the affordable homes we so badly need.
As a Green, I’m proud of the manifesto of ideas put forward at the Holyrood election, which included giving councils powers to buy land at existing use value rather than the inflated prices created by developers, and a tax on derelict and vacant land to raise millions for investing in housebuilding. This is a serious crisis and we must explore every option.
I look forward to a time when East Lothian’s housing hits the headlines for the right reasons.