It’s become a cliché to talk of how much Scotland has changed, “changed forever” we say. But looking at the precarious gig economy and measures of poverty and inequality that foreshadow and underlie the Brexit delirium, it’s clear that many things are static and even deteriorating. It’s forty-six years since John McGrath’s 7:84 company toured the iconic and revered The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil, and we’ve been arguing about land ownership, energy and power ever since. The company would go on to produce other epic shows: The Gorbals Story under David Hayman (1987), The Sash under Gerard Kelly (1989), Caledonia Dreaming under Iain Reekie (1999) amongst them. The figure of ‘7:84’ came from a statistic, published in The Economist in 1966, that 7% of the population of the UK owned 84% of the country’s wealth. But if Britain has seen huge sweeping cultural changes since that time, what has endured is massive inequality, grinding poverty and the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a few. Everything changes and everything stays the same.
Behind the froth and foam of the Brexit pantomime lies serious social decay. The search for Blue Passports has overshadowed problems in food poverty with a new report out this week suggesting the use of food banks in Scotland was twice previous estimates. At a UK level it was revealed that almost four million children don’t have enough money for a healthy diet. The growing crisis of poor nutrition, childhood-obesity and hunger has been crowded-out by the constitutional malaise but it’s not going away anywhere however much people shout “traitor” and yearn for chlorinated chicken.
This week Commonspace reported on a new study which revealed the extent to which Edinburgh’s housing market has become dominated by Airbnb short-term lets, leading the City of Edinburgh Council’s housing convenor to call for Scottish Government regulation to address its “terrible impact”.
The annual UK Housing Review, shows that in the City of Edinburgh alone there are over 10,000 Airbnbs. With a population of 485,000, that means there is an Airbnb for every 48 people in the city.
That compares to a figure of one Airbnb per 105 people in greater London, meaning Scotland’s capital has more than twice as many per head.
1:48 is the new 7: 84.
The phenomenon is not confined to Edinburgh but grows like a rash across Scotland exacerbating the housing crisis in urban and rural Scotland too.
What started as hopeful innovation of the sharing economy has descended into community-destroying farce. Although there are attempts to create a retrospective regulatory framework and to clamp-down on actual illegal activities. it does feel like its working against the tide.
Property owners who already own a second or third or fourth property are raking it in, as are property developers and a pox of associated companies and support agencies ‘Air BnB Clean’ etc.
The Chartered Institute of Housing identified three specific impacts of growth of short-term lets in Edinburgh:
- Impact on local housing markets both with respect to rising rents and increased property values, especially in small local areas, such as Edinburgh’s New Town.
- A loss of neighbourhood amenity, since it is often not just homes; but entire neighbourhoods which are used for short-term lets.
- A lack of future development as many landlords of short-term lets will not comply with council planning.
None of this is accidental.
The massive growth of Edinburgh as a tourist destination is part of a strategic plan, not some accident of nature. The unquestioning worship of the growth economy, has created a monster that everyone from city councils to “business leaders” to universities and governments takes part in, even when the evidence is that it is destroying our social fabric and our ecology.
Cities like Edinburgh have become commodified hollowed-out shells set aside for tourists and the plan is for more much more. As councils outsource and sell-off amenities, common good land and whole areas, the city is privatised.
The result is that residents are pushed to the margins, both physically and culturally whilst the centre swells with lucrative but increasingly disoriented visitors imbibing a tourist experience gravely diluted by inauthenticity.
Everywhere becomes to look like everywhere else.
In 2018 the anarchist David Graeber created the idea of Bullshit Jobs a theory that over half of societal work is completely pointless, which becomes psychologically destructive when paired with a work ethic that associates work with self-worth. To this we could add Bullshit Travel, in which people fly on low-budget airlines to have a poor-quality and essentially meaningless cultural experience, interacting only with other Bullshit Travellers.
This is essentially the outcome of massive Overtourism, which unfortunately is serenaded high and low by the Scottish Government. To condemn it is akin to treason and yet the combination of the commitment to endless growth and to relentless drives for more and more tourists and Bullshit Travellers is causing social misery, huge ecological damage and undermining an already fatally unjust housing system.
What can be done?
Probably nothing. We could talk about tourism and we could talk about growth, but these things are so hard-wired into our economy as an unquestionable good that won’t happen soon. Unless people begin to look about at what’s happening and begin to organise serious resistance and structural change.
In Berlin this is already happening. Support is growing for a referendum on whether to ban large landlords from the German capital and turn their property into social housing stock. The proposed referendum, which could take place as soon as the middle of 2020 would set a legal precedent in establishing housing as a human right. The campaign is named Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen & Co after the city’s largest private landlord, is widely popular.
The idea of reclaiming or “expropriate” housing stock owned by large private companies is one way forward. So is a proper ambitious zero-carbon public-house-building and re-building programme, along with strict rent controls and regulation.
To achieve this we need a revolution in urban thinking, an overthrow of the developers and landlords and their enablers and a renewal of the very concept of citizenship. We need to stop worshipping growth and start attending to the socio-ecological crisis it has created.
Featured graphic by Stewart Bremner
Originally published at https://bellacaledonia.org.uk on April 7, 2019.