Tearing a community apart seems to fly in the face of what we call ‘Scottish values’
On the face of it the residents of Lorne Street and the tenant farmers of East Lothian have little in common, but their predicament strikes right at the heart of the inequality of power
If the Scottish Government wants its warm words around housing and land reform to match the radical rhetoric about the fundamental architecture on which a modern Scotland should sit then it needs to look closer to home and question why Scots are currently facing eviction through no fault of their own.
Later this week the residents of Lorne Street in Edinburgh’s Leith will hand a petition to the City of Edinburgh Council’s petitions committee calling for help to save their homes.
More than 200 residents of this close-knit community, many of whom have lived there for a long time, face eviction because their landlord wants to sell up and invest the profits elsewhere. And while there’s nothing legally wrong with that, the fact that the owner of the 90-plus flats in Lorne Street is also a charitable trust makes an absurdity of the generosity it then shows in the giving of grants and charitable funds to, among other things, charities for the homeless.
The Agnes Hunter Trust funds its charitable donations through the rents it gets from its property portfolio in Leith. The flats were built by the stonemason Samuel Hunter in the 19th century and when his daughter, Agnes, died in 1954 the Trust was established in her name.
Some families have lived there for decades. One elderly couple has been in the same flat for 54 years. They raised their three children there and have made improvements to the two-bedroom property, installing, among other things, central heating and a shower. The gentleman’s grandmother and great grandmother lived at 1 Lorne Street and at one time he had 17 close relatives all living in neighbouring homes.
It used to be you could only get a tenancy in Lorne Street if you knew someone that lived there and now there is a new generation of young families with children attending local schools and injecting an energy and a spirit for the future. Everyone knows everyone else in Lorne Street. It is the kind of community that most of us crave and it is about to be torn apart.
Some residents have already been served eviction notices, some have already upped sticks and gone, and while there has been a small stay of execution of four months while the Lorne Street Community Association desperately tries to come up with another plan such as forming a co-operative or persuading a housing association to buy them out, the prospect of a mass clearance of tenants could yet be the publicity that the Agnes Hunter Trust would rather avoid.
Of course the Trust can look to maximise its assets, but it surely defies logic that when the demand for social housing has never been higher, when those on low incomes are ever poorer and when private rents are spiralling out of control, that a charity takes the decision to evict.
And it reveals a stark disconnect between policy and practice when just as the Scottish Parliament belatedly addresses the issue of private rented housing with its Private Housing (Tenancies) (Scotland) Bill, a whole street’s worth of residents face an uncertain future with no security of tenure that even the legislation, as it stands, could do nothing to prevent.
Tearing a community apart when most of us crave to belong to one just seems to fly in the face of what we now more commonly call ‘Scottish values’.
And this was to the fore at the SNP conference two weeks ago when, in a rare moment of party rebellion, there was a clear signal from SNP grassroots support for strengthening the land reform proposals in the current bill weaving its way through parliament.
The conference heard pleas to halt the impending eviction of tenant farmer Andrew Stoddart whose tenancy on Colstoun Mains in East Lothian will end in a few weeks. Stoddart is one of eight tenant farmers facing eviction from their farms.
The issue is a complex one but stems from the Agricultural Holdings Act passed in 2003 that allowed limited partnership farm tenants to claim a full tenancy. The measure was introduced by the then Scottish Executive in response to reports that a large number of tenants (estimated at over 200) had suddenly been served eviction orders in what was dubbed ‘the night of the long knives’.
However, the Court of Session in 2012 judged that the measures were not compatible with the European Court of Human Rights and they were overturned. The Scottish Government then passed a remedial order last year to help alleviate some of the harm through mediation and potential financial recompense.
But Stoddart is the first tenant caught in what has become an unusual legal predicament and will be turned out of his farm later this month.
The director of the Scottish Tenant Farmers Association, Angus McCall, has described the whole episode as “Scotland’s shame”.
And while, on the face of it, the residents of Lorne Street and the tenant farmers of East Lothian have little in common other than a shared fate of losing their homes, their predicament strikes right at the heart of the inequality of power which is fundamental in the relationship between those that own property and those that don’t.
The threat of these evictions is a moral shame and makes a mockery of legislation making its way through the Scottish Parliament that could help alleviate future pain. And that should be something for parliamentarians to reflect on as they examine the nuances of ownership and the responsibilities that should flow from that.
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