Does city heritage group still bite?

THE words are as relevant today as when they were penned more than 160 years ago. "It is dreadful to think how precarious all the peculiar charms of Edinburgh are," wrote Lord Henry Cockburn.

The year was 1843 and he was referring to a proposal to allow a fair to set up its pitch on Bruntsfield Links. Yet the words of the man who went on to campaign vociferously and successfully against plans to obscure the view of Edinburgh Castle by building on the southside of Princes Street still ring true.

Today, the Cockburn Association - formed in his name in 1875 to preserve and promote the amenities of the Scottish capital city - still exists, bound by a constitution which charges it with the task of protecting and caring for Edinburgh's historical landscape.

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Soon it will appoint its third director in six years following the surprise announcement that David McDonald is quitting after only two years at the helm to move to the remote Isle of Gigha.

The 31-year-old goes with the grateful praise of the city council planning chief, Trevor Davies, ringing in his ears. "David has done a terrific job, has been very knowledgeable, a stern critic when necessary, and also a good friend when that's been required."

Praise indeed - especially when you consider that just a few years ago city council planners were forced to defend themselves from relentless criticism, high-profile campaigning and consistent challenges from Lord Cockburn's modern-day conservationists.

These days, protecting the capital from unwelcome developments is a far more civilised affair. "We have serious considered discussion, where people sit around tables and have a talk," explains Cllr Davies. "They [the Cockburn Association] believe in good new buildings and conserving old ones - just as we do. The debate then is whether things go where they ought to be going. We find ourselves on the same side."

It's a far cry from when Oliver Barratt led the charge for 21 years, earning himself the sobriquet "the man who dared to ask". Or Terry Levinthal, who spent seven years at the helm, raging against everything from bill posters to wheelie bins and shopping centres.

Even his successor, Martin Hulse, pictured below, far right, who was regarded as a less high-profile figurehead during his four years, became an arch critic of some of the city's largest schemes, including plans for the old Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and the 100 million Galleries underground shopping mall. His parting shot at the council was to express his "grave fears" for the future of the Capital's crumbling buildings, many owned by the local authority.

All of which has prompted some to wonder where the Cockburn Association has been for the past two years - and whether this new, touchy-feely approach to tackling the council has meant the defenders of Edinburgh's built heritage has lost its once razor-sharp edge.

"Think of the big issues in Edinburgh over the past few years, and then ask yourself how loud has the Cockburn Association been," says one long-term campaigner for the protection of Edinburgh's heritage, wary of being identified because of his own close links to the association.

"This is a period when Edinburgh is going through a whole series of changes, not all of them very positive, and to be perfectly honest, I've got no idea what the Cockburn Association's view is of them.

"It appears to have gone down the luncheon route instead of the 'all hands on deck' route.

"The city needs a body like the Cockburn Association more now than it possibly ever did."

Others have suggested the shift in tactics has been a deliberate ploy by the Cockburn to distance the organisation from the negative image of a group that always says "no", but that it has now swung too far in the other direction.

"The Cockburn Association is more or less absent these days," argues another high-profile campaigner against many of the city's most controversial planning decisions.

"It seems to have been caught up in some kind of rebranding exercise where it's actually lobbying for modern architecture rather than concentrating on protecting old buildings. But in genteel Edinburgh, if you don't shout out then you're in danger of being trampled on by property developers."

Some point to the radical 180m plan to rip up a large area of the Canongate and former New Street bus depot to create shops, offices, housing, restaurants and hotel complex as the perfect example of the kind of development the Cockburn Association of old would have seized as their own.

But instead of leading the drive to protect listed buildings such as the former Maddock's Tie, on the corner of the Royal Mile and New Street, and Canongate Venture, a former Victorian school which is also listed, it has fallen to worried locals to form their own action group, Canongate Community Forum.

Spokeswoman Julie Logan insists the Cockburn Association has been "quite supportive" of their campaign. "David McDonald has done quite a lot of good stuff, he's brought in new ideas in terms of community projects," she says. "He feels that the pro-active approach is the best one.

"They did put in strong objections when the decision to demolish the bus depot was taken in December, but it's disappointing that the council pay so little regard to the advice of independent groups like those," she adds.

"We feel all the big decisions are being taken behind closed doors. That's why groups like ours have started. If they won't listen to the professionals, then maybe they'll listen to us - the people who vote."

Cockburn Association director David McDonald was 29 when he took up the appointment. With a background in landscape architecture, horticulture and city planning from time spent in Canada, Sweden and the United States and a job working for Glasgow University's Student Representative Council, he was soon up against Edinburgh's experienced, tough and ambitious city councillors.

Architectural writer David Black says: "Edinburgh is at a major crossroads. We must fight to preserve the character of the city.

"People don't realise that today is just as bad as the 1960s were for poor developments and that this is a critical time. Some of today's buildings are very poor quality and design and will not stand the test of time. We desperately need the Cockburn Association to be there with teeth."

Not everyone agrees that the Cockburn Association must be heard shouting the odds as it once did. Former secretary Oliver Barratt says a move towards settling concerns in a more demure manner - even if it doesn't grab headlines - is preferable to too much kicking and shouting.

"Only when quiet persuasion and influence breaks down is a public fuss really necessary," he says.

Cllr Davies also believes the less heated approach has gained the Cockburn Association new respect. He argues: "It still has the same voice in planning matters - perhaps more so - but there has been a huge kind of sea change in the way things work. The rows aren't there any more."

But Mr Black warns: "The worry is that people will sit back and assume the Cockburn is looking after things - that it is saying no - while the developers just get on with it."