Submerged In Leith

Craig Dalzell

Why is Edinburgh considering building housing on land that may be underwater before their mortgages are paid off?

In the Herald this week, a plan was announced to build 300-odd houses in a currently brownfield site at Edinburgh Harbour in Leith. This comes just over a year after approval was granted for a 600 home development at the other end of the harbour. Scotland has a housing crisis and the only way out of it is to build up housing stock so that it exceeds demand and begins to bring house prices down to actually affordable levels again and we build them in a way that doesn’t subject the residents to fuel poverty or, as may be the case here, assets stranded as a result of poor construction or the climate emergency. Scotland may have been one of the first countries in the world to declare a climate emergency but we’re still far from acting like it when it comes to policy.

In 2019, Edinburgh Council followed Holyrood in accepting that climate emergency and soon after they published a climate readiness plan on what they planned to do about it. It’s actually pretty good in terms of the policies it lays out and from what I’ve seen of Edinburgh lately, they seem to be making a decent shout of making progress towards the goals as stated, however there is one glaring omission to the plan and it pains this resident of a land-locked Local Authority to point it out – the plan only mentions the threat of sea level rise once, only does so in passing and does not recommend any policies or actions to address it. I’ve discussed this issue before with respect to Scotland’s airports, but it’s obviously time to look at it again.

This is a serious issue when it comes not just to residents and businesses who already live in areas threatened by sea level rise but also for potential future residents such as those who may be buying housing in high risk areas such as the harbour.

Estimates by Climate Central suggest that if the future runs out as the leading consensus will (with only moderate cuts to climate emissions and the world failing to prevent climate change below +2oC) then most of the harbourside around these houses will be within the zone affected by sea level rise by 2050 with some areas at serious risk as soon as 2030. Many of those areas won’t be ankle deep every single high tide, but instead will “merely” be within the zone that could reasonably be expected to flood at least once a year as a result of the combination of base sea level rise, high tides and storm surges (indicated by the red areas in the map below).

It does and will take time for sea level rise to react to the damage we’ve done to the environment and even if a Magic Climate Wizard helped us stop ALL greenhouse gas emissions today, the pollution we’ve already baked into the system will manifest as at least two metres of sea level rise over the next several millennia with the rise coming faster as we continue to emit more carbon. Even in the best case scenarios, the areas covered by these houses are doomed, it’s only a matter of when, not if, they go the way of Atlantis.
If it was only a matter of centuries or millennia away, you could be forgiven for not worrying too much about developments like this but, as I said, this is something that we’re more likely to see happen over the course of decades. Assuming these houses are built to a reasonable standard (which they will be, right?) and especially if they are built to the kind of standard that we should be building to then we can expect these houses to last at least a century. We should certainly not expect the owners of these buildings to face being evicted from them before their mortgage is paid off.

Of course, by then the developer themselves will have been paid so I can certainly see why they wouldn’t be planning for the long term but what about the Council themselves?
Last year, while I was investigating the previous development I mentioned, I decided to find out if the Council had done any work on sea level rise since publishing their climate readiness plan. Finding nothing online, I resorted to filing an FOI – something that took me on a bit of a journey as the request was bounced around departments before landing on the appropriate desk (as a side note, this is a relatively positive FOI story. I’ve had requests rejected in the past on the grounds that “this department doesn’t hold the information you are seeking” despite them knowing that another department within the same organisation DID hold that information. At least in this case, the FOI was forwarded on). I asked them three questions. 1) Had the Council done any sea level rise modelling since publishing the climate plan? 2) Did they have an estimate for the number of people living in houses potentially affected by sea level rise? 3) Had they done any cost modelling for flood defences to protect those houses?

The answer in all three cases was “No”. No planning, not risk assessment and no cost modelling to prevent people from losing their homes. My own very rough cost modelling suggests that something in the region of several billion pounds worth of property in the at risk areas of the Edinburgh seafronts. This information is now more than a year out of date so if Edinburgh’s answer to any of these questions has changed since then then please let me know – especially as we’ve seen areas like Grangemouth realise the cost of their business model coming back to haunt them and that Falkirk Council have progressed the plans specifically due to the risk of sea level rise.

If we accept the nature of the climate emergency then it cannot mean that we continue to act as if we don’t. All areas of Scotland must adapt to a new and changing reality and we must act to minimise those changes. Today’s “disaster” is going to become tomorrow’s “normal”. Areas that were once only at risk of a “hundred year flood” are going to start to see those same floods more and more frequently before the tide simply comes in permanently (for a graphic example, compare this map of sea level rise projections to an actual flood in Australia in 2022) and it will be the people living there at the time who pay the price, not the private developers who threw up a few minimally-compliant boxes for maximum profit.

There is a solution to Scotland’s housing crisis but it requires thinking long term. Building houses designed to last a century or more using patient finance paid off over half that time and built for social rent rather than private profit. It is easily possible to build to that kind of standard (even some of the restored parts of Edinburgh’s oldest house are older than that now) but it can only be done if the land under the house is expected to last that long as well. Before any construction of any kind is approved in high risk areas we need to see a proper risk assessment that takes into account the realities of the climate emergency. That may mean that some land is no longer useful for long term projects like housing but can only now be used for shorter term projects (such as brownfield solar power farms, perhaps?). It may mean that in order to build longer term projects, we need to see more investment in flood and sea level defences (hopeful paid for by the fossil fuel companies that caused the seas to rise). At the very least, we need to see the climate emergency treated as it actually is – an emergency that requires action, not as a headline to be ignored in favour of “business as usual”.

5 thoughts on “Submerged In Leith”

  1. Anything to do with the so called ‘climate emergency’ being a big lie?

    It really is that simple.

    1. Also record investment in the Maldives (Poster Child for the climate crisis) including an enormous new international airport and lots of new hotels and leisure developments. Now one would think that the people behind this – presumably fully backed up by the international banking and finance elite would be in a better position to know the truth than wee working class punters like us in Scotland. I think the shiny new flats in Leith for the London based buy to let crowd will be safe enough – they’re more likely to fall apart before they’re swamped!

      1. The international financial elite are either deluded in ignoring the climate emergency – misled by prestigious economists who haven’t understood the scientific evidence that their own models are wrong, never mind that the climate models are right – or they will make sure they sell off at-risk properties to gullible punters before sea levels rise significantly. So either they’re walking blindly into disaster (likely) or they’ve made sure others will take the hit not them (also likely) – or both.

        1. I do not blame fossil fuel companies for the climate emergency – they are only able to sell what they produce because there is a demand for fossil fuel. It is those who buy and use fossil fuels who contribute to the climate emergency so it is the consumers of fossil fuels who should be paying. If the government was serious about changing consumer behaviour, they would introduce huge taxes on products made using fossil fuels to discourage the demand for those products. Of course, no government that wishes to get re-elected will do that.

  2. malcolm Macqueen

    Big Businesses are usually backed by investors in #BigOil who are masters of misinformation on fossilfuel damage to health and climate pollution. In the same way as #BigTobacco mastered the smoking industry.
    Every scientist agrees that sea level rises are happening now, so it is not a debate. Short term housing policy is not new.

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