Public confidence in the planning system is based on the idea that it applies equally to everyone – including Underbelly and its Christmas market, writes Cliff Hague of the Cockburn Association.
A huge, unauthorised development in East Princes Street Gardens opens for business this weekend. Edinburgh’s Christmas Market 2019 represents a failure of governance and planning by city council officials, and inadequate oversight by councillors. If a blind eye can be turned here, are all parks and public spaces up for grabs?
After the Cockburn Association revealed that building had commenced without planning permission, Underbelly, the London-based company that also runs mega-events in London and Hong Kong, belatedly lodged a Pre-Application Notice (PAN).
A PAN is required to allow the public to have a say because this is legally a “major development”. Virtually the whole of East Princes Street Gardens is being decked over, except for the railway lines, and there is development on the paved area beside the National Gallery.
While this retrospective public consultation is a farce, the eventual planning application should not be rubber-stamped. Nor should the council’s contract with Underbelly predetermine the planning decision.
Planning officials must judge any application against policies in Edinburgh’s Local Development Plan (LDP).
Design Policy 1 says “Planning permission will not be granted for poor quality or inappropriate design or for proposals that would be damaging to the character or appearance of the area around it, particularly where this has a special importance.”
Are the stalls and plywood “poor quality or inappropriate design”? Do rides and decking damage the character of an area of special importance?
Boxing in the trees
The policy also says that the existing quality and character of the immediate and wider environment must be respected and enhanced, and that “local distinctiveness” should be generated. Does the “German Market” do this?
Design Policy 3 concerns respecting and enhancing existing features on a site, explicitly “trees and woodland, landscape character, views and biodiversity”. Does covering the grass and boxing in trees satisfy this policy?
Design Policy 4 addresses “Impact on Setting”, which includes “the character of the wider townscape and landscape”; where there is “a settled townscape character, new development proposals will be expected to have similar characteristics to the surrounding buildings and urban grain”.
Development should demonstrate “understanding of local landscape character, including important topographical features, eg prominent ridges, valleys and patterns of vegetation”. We might also ask what are the development’s carbon impacts?
Princes Street Gardens are at the heart of Edinburgh World Heritage Site. The LDP is unambiguous – development that “would have a detrimental impact on a Site’s setting will not be permitted”. Specifically, it references qualities of integrity and authenticity, to which the Waverley Valley is central.
Public confidence in planning
The Gardens are also in a Conservation Area. For development to be permitted in a Conservation Area, the LDP requires that it: “a) preserves or enhances the special character or appearance of the conservation area and is consistent with the relevant conservation area character appraisal; b) preserves trees, hedges, boundary walls, railings, paving and other features which contribute positively to the character of the area; and c) demonstrates high standards of design and utilises materials appropriate to the historic environment.”
These matters ought to have been addressed before, not after, building began.
The Cockburn Association has written to the Minister, Kevin Stewart MSP, whose new Planning Act promised to “front-load” public involvement.
The letter comments: “Public confidence in the planning system comes from the requirement that all parties must conform to the relevant legislation. No action to remedy this serious failing by the Council has been made, other than to defer a decision. This, in effect, endorses the non-compliance of Underbelly.”
The letter asks the Minister to take action.
In judging the eventual application, planners will also have to consider “other material considerations”.
Underbelly will argue that the popular market is not a permanent development, brings money into the capital, supports Edinburgh’s tourist brand, and supports the Scottish Government’s prioritisation of economic growth.
However, it is increasingly clear that Edinburgh’s citizens want their city back. We don’t have to hand our parks over to big business for months at a time.
Why not have small, local Christmas markets in our neighbourhoods, as is the pattern in many German cities? This could encourage local spending rather than leakage; promote charities and local groups; boost community identity and rebuild partnerships between the council and residents.
Cliff Hague is Cockburn Association chair