LET me tell you a tale worthy of a Rebus noir thriller. This is a classic case of council intrigue, big business and land deals – one rife with allegations of political manipulation and conflicts of interest.
The heart of the matter lies in the decision of planning officials at Edinburgh city council – which is run by an alliance of Labour and the SNP – to rezone working farm land at Brunstane, on the capital’s east side, to build no less than 1,330 new private houses. If the change goes ahead, it will eliminate the very last piece of greenbelt separating Edinburgh from Musselburgh. The development will also despoil Newhailes, one of Scotland’s greatest architectural treasures; and swamp Newcraighall, Edinburgh’s last remaining mining village.
Understandably, the proposal has outraged local residents – homeowners and council tenants alike. Last month, more than 200 of them turned up at a public meeting to protest. But that’s only chapter one of this murky tale. There are other bodies to be dug up.
The land at Brunstane is owned by … Edinburgh city council, through a wholly-owned property development company called EDI. The chair of EDI is an SNP councillor, Frank Ross, while the politician in charge of planning is Labour’s Ian Perry, who just happens to be a former chair of EDI. Recently, EDI and its partner, Barratt Homes won planning permission from the council to build 220 houses on former green belt land at Newcraighall, in the teeth of opposition from residents.
No-one on the council or EDI is being accused of financial impropriety. However, the affair is rife with perceptions of institutional conflict of interest and lack of transparency, which undermine due process and justify public concern. Particularly as the council stands to gain financially from any rezoning.
EDI lacks the capacity to develop the site on its own and will have to bring in a private developer. But the company, though it has submitted extensive submissions to the planning department, has not specified who such a partner would be. That raises justifiable worries that EDI is acting as a Trojan horse.
Here I have to declare my own personal interest in this affair. For starters, I live in part of Brunstane House, an 18th-century architectural masterpiece that abuts the proposed housing development. More importantly, I founded EDI back in 1988 and was its first chair. However, my EDI was created precisely to let Edinburgh’s citizens control the development of their own city – free of speculative booms, jerry-building and secret deals. I never voted in any council matter where EDI had involvement. Transparency and local involvement were priorities in every project.
Sometime after I left the council in 1996, EDI optioned, then bought, the Brunstane site. It did so deliberately in order to defend the green belt. One of the moving spirits was the then Labour MP for the area, Gavin Strang. He was anxious to protect the site by giving it some rural and recreational purpose, should it ever become uncommercial to farm. There were suggestions of a municipal golf course and riding stables. Ian Perry is well aware of this.
Mr Perry will argue that times have changed. He claims the fault lies with the Scottish Government, which is insisting councils publish Local Development Plans, zoning land for new housing for the next 20 years. I hesitate to mention that Mr Perry was chair of EDI in the early 2000s, when it over-committed in development projects and borrowing. When the property boom collapsed in 2009, EDI declared a loss of £7.9 million. By then, Labour were out of office in Edinburgh thanks to the trams fiasco, so Mr Perry avoided any blame. But EDI was left needing to generate cash. If EDI is no longer a social instrument, the council should get shot of it. It should not use EDI as a fundraiser, thereby compromising the planning process.
Of all the ragbag of sites cobbled together by Edinburgh city council for their Local Development Plan, Brunstane is the most ridiculous and unsuitable. It is entirely landlocked, which means new road access and bus routes will have to be provided. The 48-hectare site is also bisected by the main Edinburgh-London railway line. That means a major new road bridge across the line – sorry about all those train delays, folks. But that’s nothing to the added traffic congestion around the main A1 junction into the capital, which is already bad.
Is there an alternative to Edinburgh city council’s urban vandalism?
Edinburgh has one of the lowest population densities of any major town in the UK – there are nearly 100 English conurbations which are denser. The capital has ample room for major housebuilding without encroaching on peripheral greenfield sites. There were plans to build 16,000 new homes on ex-industrial “brownfield” sites in Leith Docks and Granton. That was put on hold because of the recession and because Edinburgh city council scrapped the tram line specifically planned to service these new communities.
The only sustainable solution to Edinburgh’s housing needs is to revive the plans for building on the North Shore. This may require an intervention from the Scottish Government and a commitment that a tram link to the city centre will be provided. Any other approach threatens to destroy the heritage and quality of environment that attracts people to Edinburgh in the first place. To achieve this, my suggestion is the various protest groups that have sprung up across Edinburgh to oppose the Local Development Plan should unite. A new spirit of popular democracy has been engendered by the independence referendum. Edinburgh’s political elite needs to understand that if it does not listen to the people, the people might well put up citizen candidates against them at the next council elections.
Here is how the Scottish Government sums up its approach to planning: “We want development plans to be about place and people rather than policy compendia.”
Alas, Edinburgh city council’s approach to rezoning Brunstane is the antithesis of this. It does not require an Inspector Rebus to divine the council’s true motives.