Edinburgh’s Cash Cow Housing Crisis

tolet

Every time I hear the Council say they have an “ambitious” plan to build 20,000 affordable homes before 2027 (report, 20/04/18) I ask myself who can actually afford them and will it help the 21,000 waiting on a council house in Edinburgh?

In 2016/17 just 283 of the 1176 (24%) affordable homes built were for social rent. The remainder of the affordable housing built were simply unaffordable for many people. It was either “mid-market rent” (for households earning up to £39k!) or “Low Cost Home Ownership” (this lets people with deposits of up to 75% buy new homes at a modest discount).

Too many people in Edinburgh are being squeezed by a lack of housing and rising rents in the private sector. Edinburgh has become a city where a minority of private landlords profit from a housing crisis cash cow. Indeed, the Convenorship of the Council’s “Housing and Economy Committee” recently swapped from one of Edinburgh’s seven Councillors who happen to be a private landlord to another. I’m sure that both treat their tenants well, but Edinburgh is a city that has industrialised exorbitant rents and AirBnB type “holiday lets” whilst simultaneously presiding over a housing crisis.

The latest estimate is that up to 10,000 properties have been converted to holiday lets – with many, thanks to the Scottish Government, paying zero Council Tax or Business Rates. Somebody is making serious money out of this, and it’s not the people cleaning the properties between lets.

Labour in Edinburgh has been pushing hard for more of the affordable housing built to be for social rent. We were disappointed that as part of the City Deal our Capital will get not one penny for council housing from the ScottishGovernment and that they also cut funding for affordable housing by £3.2m.

Real change is needed. We need to stop talking about ambitious plans and start delivering a step change in social housing. Our Capital needs Council housing, so that should be our focus.

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It’s time for the SNP to be honest about PFI.

NPD.png

I’m disappointed that James Duncan and Fraser Grant chose to exploit the concerns of parents at Oxgangs Primary School in an ill-informed attempt to score cheap political points against the Labour Party (letters, 13/04/18).  Yes, Labour did use PFI in the past but, unlike the SNP and Tories, we have now abandoned the failed scheme.

In 2006 Alex Salmond told Scotland that “PFI was a quick fix and a costly mistake”. If elected he was going to ensure  “our public assets can be held in trust for the nation without the unnecessary private profit that is part and parcel of PFI”. Forget the fact that “unnecessary private profit” was never defined, this was about bashing Labour.

In their 2007 manifesto, the SNP said:  “The Private Finance Initiative was devised by the Tories and has been embraced with enthusiasm by New Labour. However it is really a type of privatisation, with all the disadvantages which that entails.”

Of course, the same manifesto was less clear on what the SNP alternative was.  The public perception soon became that PFI was abolished.

In reality, it had been replaced by the SNP’s “NPD” (non-profit distributing) model. Progress was slow, but by 2011 peer reviewed research stated it came at “high economic cost”. The same paper concluded: “The argument of the Cabinet Secretary that NPD will eliminate ‘excessive profits’ is not supported by the evidence.”

By 2015 alarm bells began to ring quite loudly. The Guardian reported that the programme will cost the taxpayer £10 billion in borrowing and running costs between now and 2048. Little wonder that Audit Scotland have launched an inquiry into the SNP’s re-branded PFI.

In Edinburgh the SNP have procured everything from the new Sick Kids Hospital (now 6 years behind schedule!) to the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service HQ using their version of PFI.

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard has pledged to end the use of SNP PFI funding when he becomes Scotland’s next First Minister. I hope James Duncan and Fraser Grant can set aside party differences and back him on that.

The helping hand of inclusive growth.

Econ-Cartoon

Inclusive growth creates opportunity for all and distributes the dividends of increased prosperity, both in monetary and non-monetary terms, fairly across society.

I welcome the news that the SNP’s Cllr Kate Campbell’s tenure as Edinburgh’s Housing and Economy chief will mark a move away from just talking about economic growth, to a narrative of making sure the benefit reaches into every neighbourhood. There will be some that see her comments as an implicit criticism of the previous SNP Councillors that held the role, not least Cllr Gavin Barrie and Cllr Frank Ross, but progressive minds in other parties will support a return to the kind of vision Labour’s Council Leaders had for our Capital.

This comment from Cllr Campbell did, however, leave me feeling bemused:  “As the SNP we’ve got a lot of priorities like closing the attainment gap, promoting well-being – but for me the first barrier to those things is poverty.”

We know, of course, that the SNP are the cause of Scotland’s attainment gap crisis. Indeed, despite Scotland falling nine places in international educational league tables, just last month SNP Councillors voted with the Conservatives at COSLA to impose a real terms pay cut on our teachers. How can we tackle educational attainment if we don’t value teachers? We can’t.

Furthermore, in recent weeks we’ve seen the SNP work with the Conservatives to prevent reform of the Council Tax and to delay the transfer of welfare powers to Scotland. Are these the actions of a party that’s concerned about fighting poverty? They’re not.

Indeed,  last week I cautiously welcomed a SNP proposal to give the very poorest households additional support to buy food, but I did wonder if a voucher for 16p per day more than the Tories provide is enough? It’s not.

I’m proud that Scottish Labour believes that everyone should benefit from our prosperity. That’s why, against fierce SNP opposition, we support the Child Poverty Action Groups “Give Me Five” campaign which asks the Scottish Government  to raise child benefit by just £5 a week, and so lift 30,000 children out of poverty.

Let’s hope, therefore, that “inclusive growth” is more than a slogan and the philosophy spreads to all corners of our city, including Holyrood.

Oxgangs Primary shows why it’s time to end PFI in Scotland.

bbc oxgangs

Oxgangs Primary is a school where the children, parents and staff all work together to make it one of Edinburgh’s best. It simply does not deserve the bad publicity that the ongoing problems bring. In recent weeks I’ve worked along with Cllr Rust and Cllr Corbett to ensure the voice of the school community is heard and that its interests are protected.

The parents and staff simply want the children to flourish in a school with buildings and grounds that are free of health and safety hazards, and promotes learning. They didn’t ask for it to be a PFI school operated by ESP.

Although the building has been confirmed as safe, there is a massive gap between what parents expect and what ESP is delivering – many will be delighted that the Council is now taking a tougher stance with ESP.

It angers me that ESP is profiting from the stress and uncertainty they are forcing on the school community. It is frankly unbelievable that ESP has still not compensated the Council for the problems arising from the collapse of the wall in 2016.

Despite confirming that the school had been repaired after more recent problems with an internal ceiling tile and external roof flashing, ESP appears to have failed to notice or deal with adjacent problems. For example, ESP checked the school to ensure no ceiling hangers were missing (the probable cause of the tile falling), but failed to spot hangers that were not secured properly or that had snapped.

It is difficult not to draw the conclusion that ESP is focussed on maximising return to shareholders rather than providing a safe school for children to flourish in. Indeed, ESP is listed by Companies House as a company involved in the  “Construction of commercial buildings” and its 2017 accounts showed it had £8,095,169 “cash at bank or in hand”. ESP’s motives appear to be at complete odds with the school community.

What these latest problems with ESP show is that it’s time to end the use of PFI type contracts. The problems at the Royal Infirmary and Oxgangs Primary, together with the 6 year delay at the new Sick Kids Hospital, all show that the PFI model is not good value for money. The Scottish Government need to consign it to the dustbin and give Edinburgh the funding it needs to bring Oxgangs Primary back in to public ownership where it belongs.

Funding Police Scotland – Taking money out of schools, social care and transport can’t be the answer.

The news that the Police in Edinburgh are now equipped with off-road motorbikes will be welcomed wholeheartedly  by those that live in parts of the city that have been  plagued by motorbike related crime and anti-social behaviour. The bikes will enable our hard working cops to go off-road to enter and patrol our public parks, paths and waste ground.

The only question I have about this is: Why is the Council funding the purchase of equipment that Police Scotland needs to fight crime? After all, since Police Scotland was formed in 2013 it has been directly funded by the Scottish Government. Nonetheless, in the current financial year the Council will take well over £2.5m out of money it should be spending on schools, social care and potholes to help fund Police Scotland.

Indeed, Edinburgh is paying this money despite having its budget cut by around 10% in recent years. We currently pay over ten times per head of population more than any other local authority. Despite that we have one of the highest crime rates in Scotland, and one of the lowest number of police per head of population. Unbelievably, Edinburgh pays more and gets less on policing than the rest of Scotland.

Police Scotland have been clear, however, that if Scotland’s Capital does not pay this “protection money” policing in Edinburgh will be cut. In March Police Scotland made this threat: “Where funding is removed by a local authority then resources are removed from that division, as has already occurred elsewhere”.

Audit Scotland have been clear, however, that Police Scotland’s use of resources “did not demonstrate value for money in the use of public funds”. Indeed, it was accused of spending public cash “like Monopoly money” when it was revealed they had handed out £18 million to an army of consultants. It was also reported that Deputy Chief Constable Rose Fitzpatrick was paid £67,000 as part of a “relocation package” – apparently she asked for it to be paid as a cash transfer. No wonder they want £2.5m from the Council!

I think Edinburgh’s cops should have all the tools they need to keep us safe, but the time has come to take a hard look at how Police Scotland is allocating resources to Scotland’s capital city. The SNP Government must fund them appropriately and they must spend the money wisely. Taking money out of schools, social care and transport can’t be the answer.

We need to re-balance Edinburgh’s economy for the many, not the few.

Edinburgh St James

Donald Anderson’s article offers a timely reminder that although Edinburgh is an affluent city, not everyone benefits from that prosperity. Indeed, it is too easy to view Edinburgh as a city where a few property developers and private landlords  accumulate wealth whilst the many that work in the retail, tourism and service industry struggle to make ends meet on low wages.

Indeed, the Convenorship of the Council’s “Housing and Economy Committee” recently swapped from one of Edinburgh’s seven Councillors who happen to be a private landlord to another. I’m sure that both treat their tenants well, but Edinburgh is a city that has industrialised exorbitant rents and  “holiday lets” whilst simultaneously presiding over a housing crisis. The latest estimate is that up to 10,000 properties have been converted to holiday lets – with many, thanks to the Scottish Government,  paying zero Council Tax or Business Rates. Somebody is making serious money out of this, and it’s not the people cleaning the properties between lets.

It’s not just housing where we need to do more. The “FUSE Academy” was recently enthusiastically launched in Edinburgh by Keith Brown MSP (Cabinet Secretary for the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work) to underpin the new St James Quarter development. FUSE aims “to help drive a world-class customer care experience in Edinburgh and to promote the value and appeal of careers in the retail and hospitality sector”. The problem is that the St James Quarter’s owner won’t guarantee businesses within the development will pay the living wage. It is outrageous that this developer is demanding staff offer “world-class customer care”, but not guarantee a fair rate of pay.

Let’s be honest, however, the retail, service and tourism sectors are a huge part of Edinburgh’s economy but these are often jobs which offer poor pay and conditions. As Donald Anderson says, if Edinburgh is to remain a prosperous city, more people must benefit from that wealth and the Council must engage with the Scottish Government, Developers and Landlords to make sure that happens.

We need to re-balance Edinburgh’s economy for the many, not the few.

Rather than transforming central Edinburgh, we need to be bold and transform our Capital.

Bike on leith walk

It’s too easy to view the publication of the “Edinburgh World Heritage Management Plan” as the most recent skirmish in the battle between the car and active transport. Indeed, this battle is not without its skirmishes. On the table right now we also have the tram extension, the Picardy Place development, the George Street “Public Life Street Assessment”, the nebulous North Bridge public realm proposals and  the much awaited “Central Edinburgh Transformation” plans.

Cynics would suggest that these projects are not sufficiently connected and promise a revolution at the planning stage but only, at best, deliver incremental change when it comes to implementation. I won’t test that argument or the one that says the best way to respect the World Heritage status we inherited from our ancestors is to empty litter bins and fill potholes. Nor will I question those that virtue signal about reducing car use whilst simultaneously cheerleading for the St James development and its corpulent car park (1000 extra spaces). I will, however, take issue with how the argument is framed.

Firstly, this is not really about car users fighting pedestrians and cyclists. It’s about us Edinburgers and how we get around our city. It’s not just about copying what works in other cities. It’s about getting our city the way we want it.

Yes, that means fixing the roads and getting the clutter off our pavements. It also means, however, recognising that making it safer to cycle and walk around our city will make it a better place for everyone. Indeed, businesses know that somebody walking or cycling past their door is far more likely to stop and make a purchase than a motorist. The health and community benefits are also clear.

Secondly, we have to remember taking cars off one road simply to overload another is not the answer. We also have to think about how those with mobility problems get around our city.

Lastly, we have to recognise that improving our city has to be about changing culture, not just publishing reports and erecting signs.  This is a process that must start outside central Edinburgh. We need to make it easier for our children and grandchildren to walk and cycle safely to school and other community facilities. Rather than transforming central Edinburgh, we need to be bold and transform our Capital.