Edinburgh is extending its widely loathed tram network

A tram on Princes Street in 2014. Image: Ad Meskens/Wikimedia Commons.

Edinburgh City Council has given the go-ahead for the extension of the city’s tram line, despite the debacle the city experienced last time. At present the tram runs from the airport to the city centre, with some useful stops along the way at the busy business parks and for those living in the west of Edinburgh. All this is about to change with the extension through Leith to Newhaven, which was an original intention for the tram network, before it experienced the huge delays and expense for which it’s since become notorious.

The inquiry into why the construction of the first phase of the network went so badly has yet to be completed, but this much we know: the initial line cost twice as much as forecast, was almost cancelled by the Scottish Government due to the spiralling costs and came in a whopping five years late. Although all the right words are being spoken about learning the lessons of last time, at £208m for 2.8 miles of track, the extension is already 25 per cent over its original budget.

The new extension will essentially provide a link from the city centre to the shorefront in the north of the city and should be open to passengers in early 2023. Trams will run from York Place, the current terminus, north east through down Elm Row and Leith Walk before turning west over the Water of Leith river. From there the trams will run past the Scottish Government offices, towards the Ocean Terminal shopping centre and will finish up in Newhaven on the coast.

The tram, with the extension marked as a dotted line. Image: Edinburgh Trams.

One of the odd things about the trams is this: although the chaos of construction means they are almost universally unloved by most people who live in Edinburgh, the project is actually working a lot better than many expected. In 2017, the line made a pre-tax profit of £1.6m, six times greater than anticipated. Passenger numbers also rose 10 per cent in 2018 to 7.7 million. It may be that a substantial number like the trams, but are loathe to admit it.

Of course, one of the reasons the new tram extension has not been greeted enthusiastically in all quarters is the disruption the first line caused, particularly in Leith. After digging up Leith Walk and costing small businesses lots of customers, in April 2009 the authorities then had the unenviable task of having to tell people that it was all for nothing and that the line would end in the city centre after all. Now, of course, these residents are required to go through the rigmarole all over again.


Then there’s the fact that road closures around the busy Leith Walk will inevitably have an impact on commuters in the rest of the city as cars and buses are diverted. At least it seems that this time the project will not infuriate residents by digging up roads in a piecemeal, sporadic fashion. Instead each section will be dug up once, to minimise disruption.

On the plus side, the extension will mean it will be easy for people in the north of the city to escape gridlock and get to the centre in a low-carbon mode of transport. It should mean that, for anyone going to the airport without a car, it will make sense to take the tram all the way rather than messing around with buses or taxis. It could also be that the economies of scale mean that the tram system will become more effective as the line will go all the way from the airport, through the centre to the north of the Edinburgh, rather than the current truncated service on offer.

If the new line is a success it may increase house prices in Leith, which is already undergoing substantial gentrification. The area that was the heroin capital of Europe in the 1980s and immortalised by Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting in the 1990s gradually became more popular via the familiar method of cheap housing, riverside development and the opening of new bars and restaurants. The Ocean Terminal shopping centre and the Royal Yacht Britannia have both brought more visitors to the north of Edinburgh. Today Leith is a highly sought after area by people in their 20s and 30s.

In the long-term, it’s likely the new extension will be good for Edinburgh. It will boost transport to an area with low car ownership and which, despite gentrification, still has pockets of high deprivation. It will improve transport across the city, and may even also help alleviate pollution as more people commute by tram rather than by car or by bus.

But in order to get these benefits, the city may need to take a deep breathe and prepare for some short-term disruption. Surely it can't go worse than last time.

 
 
 
 

“Without rent control we can’t hope to solve London’s housing crisis”

You BET! Oh GOD. Image: Getty.

Today, the mayor of London called for new powers to introduce rent controls in London. With ever increasing rents swallowing more of people’s income and driving poverty, the free market has clearly failed to provide affordable homes for Londoners. 

Created in 1988, the modern private rented sector was designed primarily to attract investment, with the balance of power weighted almost entirely in landlords’ favour. As social housing stock has been eroded, with more than 1 million fewer social rented homes today compared to 1980, and as the financialisation of homes has driven up house prices, more and more people are getting trapped private renting. In 1990 just 11 per cent of households in London rented privately, but by 2017 this figure had grown to 27 per cent; it is also home to an increasing number of families and older people. 

When I first moved to London, I spent years spending well over 50 per cent of my income on rent. Even without any dependent to support, after essentials my disposable income was vanishingly small. London has the highest rent to income ratio of any region, and the highest proportion of households spending over a third of their income on rent. High rents limit people’s lives, and in London this has become a major driver of poverty and inequality. In the three years leading up to 2015-16, 960,000 private renters were living in poverty, and over half of children growing up in private rented housing are living in poverty.

So carefully designed rent controls therefore have the potential to reduce poverty and may also contribute over time to the reduction of the housing benefit bill (although any housing bill reductions have to come after an expansion of the system, which has been subject to brutal cuts over the last decade). Rent controls may also support London’s employers, two-thirds of whom are struggling to recruit entry-level staff because of the shortage of affordable homes. 

It’s obvious that London rents are far too high, and now an increasing number of voices are calling for rent controls as part of the solution: 68 per cent of Londoners are in favour, and a growing renters’ movement has emerged. Groups like the London Renters Union have already secured a massive victory in the outlawing of section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions. But without rent control, landlords can still unfairly get rid of tenants by jacking up rents.


At the New Economics Foundation we’ve been working with the Mayor of London and the Greater London Authority to research what kind of rent control would work in London. Rent controls are often polarising in the UK but are commonplace elsewhere. New York controls rents on many properties, and Berlin has just introduced a five year “rental lid”, with the mayor citing a desire to not become “like London” as a motivation for the policy. 

A rent control that helps to solve London’s housing crisis would need to meet several criteria. Since rents have risen three times faster than average wages since 2010, rent control should initially brings rents down. Our research found that a 1 per cent reduction in rents for four years could lead to 20 per cent cheaper rents compared to where they would be otherwise. London also needs a rent control both within and between tenancies because otherwise landlords can just reset rents when tenancies end.

Without rent control we can’t hope to solve London’s housing crisis – but it’s not without risk. Decreases in landlord profits could encourage current landlords to exit the sector and discourage new ones from entering it. And a sharp reduction in the supply of privately rented homes would severely reduce housing options for Londoners, whilst reducing incentives for landlords to maintain and improve their properties.

Rent controls should be introduced in a stepped way to minimise risks for tenants. And we need more information on landlords, rents, and their business models in order to design a rent control which avoids unintended consequences.

Rent controls are also not a silver bullet. They need to be part of a package of solutions to London’s housing affordability crisis, including a large scale increase in social housebuilding and an improvement in housing benefit. However, private renting will be part of London’s housing system for some time to come, and the scale of the affordability crisis in London means that the question of rent controls is no longer “if”, but increasingly “how”. 

Joe Beswick is head of housing & land at the New Economics Foundation.