All eyes will be on Scotland, and Edinburgh, next week when Prince Harry and Meghan Markle come to visit. Like others, I was heartened to hear they’d be keeping social consciousness in the headlines by paying a visit to the New Town cafe of Social Bite, the homelessness charity.
But then I got to daydreaming. What if they did more than follow in the footsteps of George Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio, who have both paid the Social Bite cafe a public visit? What if they added another stop-off, a more radical photo opportunity? What if a maverick advisor to the Royals whispered in Harry’s ear and said: ‘Pardon me, Your Royal Highness, but you may want to consider stepping a little out of the city, away from the New Town, to Edinburgh’s outskirts and Midlothian. Do you know there’s a private residence there which has been vacant for 25 years? Excellent photo opportunity to highlight homelessness, Sir.’
Yes, you read that right. A Freedom of Information request by Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie recently resulted in some startling statistics. The report from Scotland’s councils revealed that almost 1,000 private sector Scottish homes have been empty for a decade, more than 20,000 have been vacant for six months or more, and that one in Midlothian has been empty since April 1993.
At this point you’re probably about to pause reading this article and Google me. You’re asking yourself: ‘Who is this guy and what does he know about homelessness? Is he a charity worker? A wannabe politician?’
Answer: neither. In fact I’ve made money out of Scotland’s sad track record on housing, to become the country’s biggest private landlord. I’ve done that mostly through providing affordable housing – converting former schools, pubs and other empty buildings into rented accommodation for those on lower incomes, students and the elderly.
I make no excuses for turning this into a capitalist venture. I’m an entrepreneur; it’s part of my DNA to look for gaps in markets and economic holes to fill. And I know that the people we house, and the councils we supply, thank us.
I’ve been a property developer for ten years and even I was appalled by the figures released last week. But what’s the solution? More private landlord schemes? Help from central and local government, by way of easier planning processes or perhaps – as Mr Rennie proposes – loans for the renovation of empty, derelict buildings?
Yes, all of these – and more too. But while the Scottish Government ponders solutions, and how to arrive at its recent commitment to deliver at least 50,000 new affordable homes, what I would urge is that both the Government and local authorities think laterally, that they put on their entrepreneur heads and consider not only the short-term housing crisis but long-term housing trends.
Let them consider the property successes in the business world: Airbnb, pod-style hotels, tiny homes. It’s lateral thinking that led my company to recently turn a portion of student accommodation into temporary digs for workers. It’s lateral thinking that – at the other end of the housing spectrum – led luxury property developer Ian Schrager to his most recent creation in New York. Called Public, the place does double duty as a hotel and as residences. It is ridding itself of room service and other extras to concentrate on value for money and a cheaper nightly rate.
Lateral thinking will get us everywhere – including a Royal photo opportunity that, if it ever happened, would stick in the public’s and politicians’ minds forever.