A married father of three children, Brian Thomson (40) was born and brought up in St Andrews. A chartered town planner, he was elected as St Andrews’ first ever Labour councillor in the Council elections held in May 2012. The views expressed in this article are his own.
I was fortunate to enjoy a fantastic childhood in St Andrews, during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Something that sticks in my memory is the huge amount of children that used to play in the housing estates and local parks. St Andrews is still a great place to bring up children – it was one of the reasons why I moved back to the town in 2002 – but it’s quite a different place today. For a start, there are not many children!
To illustrate the point, I recently came across a statistic contained in a recent Fife Council report on education, which noted that in 1979, Langlands and Canongate Primary Schools had a combined pupil roll of 762 pupils. Langlands was closed in 2006 due to dwindling pupil numbers, and children in its former catchment now go to Canongate. The current pupil roll of Canongate is 206, which represents a 73% reduction in the number of pupils within the combined catchment over a period of 34 years. So, where have all the children gone?
The beginning of a shift in the balance of the town’s population can probably be tracked back to the 1980s, when the Tory government introduced the right-to-buy for tenants living in Council houses, which was a great policy for getting people on the private housing ladder, but was ultimately a disastrous policy for the provision of affordable housing, right across the United Kingdom.
Up until the introduction of right-to-buy, St Andrews had a large stock of Council housing, which had been developed south of the Kinness Burn from the inter-war years up until the early 1980s. As well as decreasing the stock of Council housing, the policy also resulted in the Council ceasing to build any new houses; with tenants having the right to buy the houses within a few years at knock-down prices, the Council would have been left with no rental income to pay back the loans required to build the houses in the first place. The provision of new affordable housing was therefore left to housing associations, who have done a great job, but have not had the necessary amount of funding to keep pace with need.
Another factor has been the increasing cost of land, resulting from tighter planning controls, which has constrained the supply of land, and led to a lack of affordable private housing available to buy. From the 1960s, and through the 1970s and early 1980s, a major south-west extension to the town occurred, in the shape of private housing. Unlike most of the private housing built today in the town, it was a real mix – from small 2-bedroom semis built by national housebuilders, right up to large detached 5-bedroom bespoke houses. Many of these smaller and medium sized houses were purchased by young people, taking their first step on the private housing ladder. Such opportunities since the mid-1980s, however, have been few and far between, with few major releases of land occurring.
We now have a town where a huge proportion of the housing stock is owned by absentee landlords, who lease their properties as hugely expensive student lets (c. 85% of the housing in the town centre), many streets have almost no permanent residents, and the houses that do become available are only available to those with substantial incomes. No new affordable housing has been completed in St Andrews since March 2007 – more than 6 years ago – and many people who grow up in St Andrews often find that they have to move out of the town to find affordable accommodation. So, to answer my question, ‘where have all the children gone?’, quite simply, there is almost no housing available for young families in which to bring up children.
Can anything be done to reverse this situation? The councils houses have almost all been sold, and landlords are not going to give up their investments, so the only way of really tackling the affordable housing issue in St Andrews is to build new affordable housing – both for rent and low cost home ownership. To do this, the Council will have to actively enforce its affordable housing policy – 30% of any sites of 20 units or above to be affordable – and tighten up loopholes in the current policy; for example, new private retirement flats, which can sell for high-end prices, are currently exempt from making an affordable housing contribution. In addition, any Council-owned land that becomes surplus should be considered for affordable housing as a first option. With the right-to-buy no longer applying to new build Council housing, such measures should be capable of having an impact.
Building new houses in St Andrews, however, is not straight forward, and there is a strong anti-development lobby, as witnessed by the opposition to the proposed western expansion of St Andrews. I absolutely agree that the historic core of St Andrews should be preserved, and I commend the efforts of all individuals and bodies who have contributed to ensuring its preservation. I do, however, find it frustrating that some are so against the planned growth of the town, in effect ‘pulling up the drawbridge’ and stopping many fellow St Andreans, or people wishing to move to the town for work purposes, from either accessing affordable rented accommodation, or purchasing their first house.
Additional affordable housing is essential, if St Andrews is to have a vibrant and sustainable community. I certainly hope that the current situation can be reversed, to allow many more local people, and people moving from further afield, to enjoy the benefits of living in a wonderful town.
I am conscious that I haven’t covered the lack of affordable accommodation for students, or the on-going debate about houses in multiple occupation, but that will require another session on my soap box!
Councillor Brian Thomson (Labour)
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