Edinburgh, perhaps more than most cities, is immediately recognisable. Exit Edinburgh Waverley station and you are greeted by the sound of bagpipes – the swirl of men in kilts on their way to a wedding – while the blackened, gothic facades of buildings built in the 1800s, or long before, rise ominously in front of Arthur’s Seat. Parts of “Auld Reekie” (Scots for “Old Smoky”), the historical nickname for the capital, have remained unchanged for many decades.
That includes Edinburgh’s tendency to hide its problems deep in the belly of its Old Town, until they rise – much like the “haar” fog that creeps in from the sea – and can no longer be ignored.
At present, the city is afflicted by increasing homelessness, rising rents and short-term lets. Shelter Scotland has warned that Edinburgh is at risk of a housing crisis comparable to that in London.
The Scottish capital is the fastest-growing UK city after Manchester – and has an opportunity to learn from London’s mistakes.
When I last reported on homelessness in Edinburgh in 2016, there were conflicting figures on the scale of the crisis. Shelter Scotland said that the number of people presenting as homeless to the council had actually fallen by 15 per cent over the past five years, from 4,093 to 3,596. The charity attributed this to a “renewed preventative approach rather than a change in the underlying drivers of homelessness”. And the council added that it was “moving in the right direction and seeing positive results”. This was in contrast to workers on the ground who were convinced that the problem of homelessness, and in particular rough sleeping, was increasing. But in February this year, the council finally acknowledged that Edinburgh was facing a “homelessness crisis”.
The Cowgate, an affluent area close to Edinburgh Castle, which has cycled out of wealth to deprivation and back again, exemplifies how precarious the situation is for some. On what was once known as the “homeless high street”, a luxury hotel is due to be built over the Cowgatehead Church, a space currently supporting homeless people in Edinburgh. Campaigners have protested that a “system of profit” means that grimy B&Bs are still being used to compensate for the lack of temporary and supported accommodation.
But compared with London, Edinburgh enjoys some advantages. Among them are Scotland’s strong civic identity and its industrious campaigners. In 2016, the SNP government ended the Thatcher-era Right to Buy policy for all council and housing association tenants – the first UK administration to do so (it was last year joined by Wales but the policy remains in place in England).
After its introduction in 1979, Right to Buy in Scotland led to 494,580 council and housing association homes being sold, but only a fraction of that number being built. The SNP has vowed to build 50,000 “affordable” homes by 2021 (35,000 of them for social rent). Meanwhile, Airbnb has planned to limit lettings offered by Edinburgh properties to three months a year.
Scotland is continuing its legacy of innovative social policy. Social Bite, a sandwich chain set up by entrepreneur Josh Littlejohn to provide employment to homeless people, is developing the next phase of its plan to reduce homelessness. Social Bite village, which has opened on the outskirts of Edinburgh, will be home to 20 former rough sleepers, in ten houses of two bedrooms.
But there are significant limits to this approach. The village will, in effect, institutionalise homelessness – it is based upon sheltering individuals, rather than reintegrating them into society. Studies show that the best way to support the recovery of homeless people is to integrate them back into permanent, mainstream accommodation.
In spite of the best efforts of charities as well as private sector philanthropy, that level of integration requires sustained state support.
Whether Edinburgh can avoid what is called “Londonisation”, however, remains deeply uncertain.
Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff is deputy editor of the magazine gal-dem
This article appears in the 13 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Who sunk Brexit?