One of the most welcome developments in recent times has been the return of one Andrew Wilson, not quite to the political fray, but certainly to its environs, with his weekly column in Scotland on Sunday. He talks a lot of sense. He always did. And his articles to date show us what we’ve all been – and what Scottish politics – have been missing.
This Sunday’s was no exception. Invest in capital infrastructure and not only are we creating jobs and gain in the immediate term, but we are also building for a brighter tomorrow. Hear, hear.
And yet…. his focus on big infrastructure projects, particularly transport ones, is an unnecessarily narrow one. Having walked through St Andrews Square yesterday evening, snaking our way through the maze of fenced off paths, hemmed in by tram building works, being reminded again just how discomfiting and possibly unsafe these routes are, almost fills me with dread.
Big projects like tram and rail ways cause enormous upheaval. As do motorways and bridges. As the Scottish Government is discovering, they take a long time before a shovel manages to hit the earth. Consequently, they tend to over run in spending terms and timescales. In the short term, they can create as many problems as they provide solutions.
There is no doubt that as a country, we will be able to look back on the trams fiasco ten years hence and wonder what all the fuss was about. Once they start running, much will be forgiven, They, like such systems in other countries, will provide a modern, sleek statement of confidence, efficiently carrying people from A to B. In ten years’ time – and longer – people will scratch their heads and wonder why we abandoned the other routes and no doubt, a campaign will be got up to reinstate them.
The same will apply to the Forth replacement crossing. Though they could possibly ease commuters and travellers’ current frustration by creating a more sensible, less time consuming diversion from the Newbridge roundabout which doesn’t involve doubling back on yourself for five miles, adding nearly half an hour on to your journey time.
There are other public works which could help create a brighter tomorrow. Though far less grandiose in scale or disruption, building more houses would not only address short term needs in terms of jobs, cash flow and economic spin off, but also address homelessness and the impact of poor housing, especially on children. Homelessness and damp homes cause children to do poorly at school and impact on their physical and mental well-being. We could prevent health problems down the line if all children in Scotland have the right to a decent home.
This is not to suggest that the Scottish Government hasn’t been active in this area. One of the SNP’s legacies will be that it facilitated a return to public bodies building houses. Last year, housing associations built nearly double the number of homes constructed in 1996-97 and local authorities have gone from building no homes five years ago, to creating over 1000 new homes last year. What has dried up, largely, is the massive boom in private house building which drove the economy in the noughties. But the current rates of construction do not replace the pace of private development witnessed then. Despite the gains from the public sector side, the total number of houses being built, converted or “rehabilitated” is less than half its 21,000 total in 2006-07 and the trend is still a downwards one.
Moreover, what is being built matters. I recently passed through Craigmillar in Edinburgh, where five or six years ago, the whole of the notorious Niddrie scheme was razed. Much of it is still a derelict wasteland, waiting for better times, for the developers to move in. What has been built has largely been on the social housing side, on the patches of land owned publicly. The result is that the flats look like they are coorying in for warmth. There have been flats built – no houses incidentally – largely on the car park area of the old primary school building, saved for the nation from the bulldozers thanks to a unique John Maxwell mural. The pleasingly symmetrical crescent-shaped building has been obscured by short, squat pillars of drab grey brick flats.
The new school campus built across the way was a statement of intent in its own right, combining a denominational and non-denominational school on the same territory. Now, it too has been largely lost to sight by the erection of more flats built all around it like sentries. And the style of these could not be more different from the other ones. Except that they too look pinched and pressed: it seems poor people can have a house, just so long as they don’t mind it reminding them to know their place in our society. And if that wasn’t enough, just along the road are much more luxurious flats with larger windows, better design and no doubt, bigger space footprints per family too.
And if we have scrimped on the design elements, what else might we have penny-pinched on? Are these homes fit for future purpose, or will they require eternal, revenue draining maintenance and refurbishment? Do they carry state of the art energy efficiency features to minimise fuel poverty and carbon emissions? I rather fear that if corners have been cut on the space and design, they will have been cut elsewhere too.
This kind of apartheid in house building says something about a nation and its attitudes now, and will do so in the future. We are able to point the finger and work out who has money and who has not by the type of home we have allowed them to live in. And the irony in Craigmillar is that the land reserved for the relatively rich to occupy is still wasteland and will be for some time to come. So while the poor have moved back in – or at least some of them have – they have a daily reminder as they walk up and down the broken roads and pavements to get to their arts space, their schools and their homes, what others think they are worth. Not worth building for.
And yet, for a few pennies and pounds more, using up some of the capital so adroitly accumulated by our Finance Secretary for shovel-ready projects – which no doubt to his consternation, he can scarcely give away at the moment – these families could have had homes which invested our hopes with theirs. Homes which made a statement about their value and worth to our society; homes which heralded a brighter tomorrow for them too.