COUNCILLORS have sparked anger by re-approving plans for one of the most controversial developments in Edinburgh over the last decade - despite a scaled-back scheme emerging only a week ago.
• Original Caltongate plans re-approved by councillors despite revised scheme emerging only a week ago
• Renewed plans could see listed buildings demolished and well-loved views of city ruined by new buildings
The original plans for the Caltongate site, approved five years ago in the face of widespread opposition, helped trigger an international probe into the stewardship of Edinburgh’s world heritage site.
Critics have now accused the city council of presiding over a “planning pantomime” by approving a series of old applications for a huge gap site next to the local authority’s main headquarters in the Old Town, work on which could now get underway within months.
Changes demanded by the Unesco’s world heritage committee were largely addressed in the new plans from South African developer Artisan, including the shelving of a five-star hotel which would have involved the demolition of two listed buildings.
Artisan has yet to lodge any of its new plans with the council - but only last week pledged to retain many facets of the area’s Old Town setting “to preserve the character of the development.”
A new culture quarter is proposed to be created, along with new cafes, bars, restaurants, offices and private homes.
However the fresh prospect of the demolitions - as well as new buildings which heritage experts claimed would ruin classic views and dominate existing landmarks - have been revived after councillors renewed the existing consents for another three years. The move, opposed by just two members of the planning committee, means the site could be sold on to a new developer to progress the previous scheme with almost immediate effect.
Planning chair Ian Perry said he was opposed to the loss of the listed buildings on the site, but did not want to threaten the viability of Artisan’s plans: “It is a question of trusting the current developer. We want something to happen with this site.”
Councillors were warned by officials that they were not yet allowed to consider the new plans. described by Artisan as setting an “international benchmark for sensitive and innovative development”.
The developer has insisted it was essential to renew approval for the original plans - which were still valid for several months - to “protect its investment”, but has insisted it will be progressing the scheme unveiled last week.
However Julie Logan, spokeswoman for Old Town Community Council, said: “We feel stabbed in the back and very let down by this decision, which should have had nothing whatsoever to do with the finances of a private developer.
“Our worry is that Artisan could now sell this site on tomorrow to another developer. It makes no sense at all to claim that the way to stop these demolitions happening is to renew the old consents, which is what the council were saying.”
Marion Williams, director of the Cockburn Association heritage group, said: “There just seemed to be a complete lack of understanding from the council of what was in front of them. They lacked the confidence to make the right decision under threats from this developer. It was a complete shambles and Edinburgh deserves better.”
The Caltongate saga, which dates back more than a dozen years, has seen councillors and officials at loggerheads with community groups and heritage watchdogs amid claims new buildings proposed were out of keeping with the area.
Although Historic Scotland had supported previous site own Mountgrange’s controversial scheme, effectively ruling out a public inquiry, Unesco’s world heritage committee did urge the council to make a string of changes after the collapse of the London-based developer.
A spokesman for Artisan said: “Renewing the original consents is a commercial decision to protect our investment. If the original consents had been allowed to lapse, this would have fundamentally affected the value of the site and our plans for southern site development.
“We are pleased with the decision to extend the consents as this means that we can now progress with bringing our new plans for the site forward, in line with our current consultation process.”
A source at the city council said: “Artisan have made it clear that it will help their efforts to raise finance for their plans if there are existing consents in place.
“We believe they will be taking forward the plans that the revealed last week, but the fact is the entire site is worth a lot more if it has planning approval attached to it.
“There are also conditions attached to the planning consent which mean they would still have to come back to the council if they wanted go ahead with any demolitions.”
The original Caltongate project was first announced in 2001 and gained planning consent the following year before the site was sold to Mountgrange in 2004.
A new masterplan for the site, masterminded by architect Allan Murray, was approved in 2006, with final approval being given for the various elements of the scheme two years later.