John McLellan: Flats rejection just nimbyism

The anger at the onward march of the loathed student population wasn’t far below the ­surface. “The university is all over the f***ing city,” hissed the woman behind me at the meeting to decide whether a 500-room flats complex in St Leonard’s could go ahead.

Students queue to view a flat for rent on Warrender Park Road. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Students queue to view a flat for rent on Warrender Park Road. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Students queue to view a flat for rent on Warrender Park Road. Picture: Ian Georgeson

At stake here was a well-designed block of rooms to be built by the Unite student accommodation company around a quadrangle less than a kilometre from the main Teviot campus, to include two shops and a new doctors’ surgery on a site currently occupied by the ugly Homebase store.

The objection was that adding 500 rooms would put the student population up to over 60 per cent in two small “data zones” in a patchwork quilt of population analysis, against a council policy which stipulates only 30 per cent of the population in any given area should be students.

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Such high concentrations, the meeting heard without any shred of ­evidence, would be “detrimental to community cohesion”. From where I sat the planning officer sounded more like one of the campaigners.

I have been critical of committee vice convener Sandy Howat in the past, but this week he was absolutely right to question a policy that effectively gave NIMBYs a veto over such an important city-wide issue. For example, when ­images of what looks like a vast improvement to the district were ­displayed, one local muttered: “Yes, right opposite my stair.”

Presumably that person prefers to be greeted by the stark, windowless dark brick back wall of Homebase every day? Loss of community cohesion is because some members of the community don’t want to cohere, it seems.

These whispered unguarded asides often reveal the truth about attitudes behind the arguments, as when Sandy Howat asked rhetorically: “If there are no other sites then where do they go, are we saying that the university should move out of the city centre?” An enthusiastic “Yes” was the response from one resident in the public seats.

Sadly, ten councillors on the development management committee, including the normally far-sighted Tory leader Cameron Rose, gave these views tacit approval and threw out the ­proposal.

It’s a remarkable state of affairs. In a city which has built so much of its reputation on higher education and on which it will increasingly rely – especially when councillors seem to accept arguments that the university is vital to the city – students need to live near places of study, and there is a shortage of managed accommodation.

Strangely, no mention was made of a deal with the Festival Fringe to use the rooms for cheap accommodation for performers in August, a huge problem every year.

Wednesday’s meeting was a long, drawn-out affair, taking three hours with the heating turned up to sleep-inducing levels to get to the big item of the day.

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The omens were not good after a tortuous discussion about a plan by Edinburgh University to turn one of its own properties in Buccleuch Street into rooms for students. Confusion about whether university-owned and managed accommodation needed a licence for a house in multiple occupation set a decidedly tetchy tone.

Maybe after a long morning of often difficult debate, including an extension to H&M’s Ocean Terminal store (approved), a hotel plan in Torphichen Street (deferred for a site visit) and a new Aldi in Oxgangs (approved), there was little mood left for compromise.

For such an important decision the St Leonard’s arguments were comparatively short, but as others hid behind arguments about the merits or otherwise of council policy, it was left to the old bruiser, Eric Milligan, to make the most passionate case.

“We are charged with looking after this city. We want international appeal and we want to attract high-achieving young people. A lot of them will come and go but some of them might stay and they make an economic impact,” he said.“Our policy doesn’t carry a lot of sway with me. Promote enlightened pragmatism – that should be our policy.”

Warming to his theme, he rounded on the critics: “I am frustrated by the grumbles and negativity we have heard, but I am enormously proud of our educational institutions – and the sooner we change our policy the better it will be.”

Of course it’s not quite the end of the saga and almost immediately Unite said it would appeal to the Scottish Government. Even if it is successful, the chances are the city will then take the fight to the Court of Session, as it is doing to overturn government ­permission for a similar scheme round the corner at Lutton Place.

So the scheme will land on the desk of Social Justice and Communities Secretary Alex Neil. Having previously expressed unambiguous opposition to private student accommodation providers, it would be difficult for his junior minister, Edinburgh MSP Marco Biagi, to make a transparent judgement on the case.

Contentious Edinburgh plans are piling up in the Cabinet Secretary’s inbox, and with a general election in May it looks like he’ll be having a busy 

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So it falls to Mr Neil and his officers to send out the message that Edinburgh welcomes students and wants its universities to thrive at the heart of the city, not send them packing beyond the edge of town like mediaeval lepers.

With all the talk of city deals and devolution closer to communities, you would have thought that was Edinburgh’s job.

A brief encounter with the madness of rugby ticket prices

Another Six Nations Sunday and another rugby weekend far less lively than it was or should be.

As with the Scots in Dublin last year, this Sunday night in the middle of town after the Scotland v Wales game will be populated by Welsh fans wandering aimlessly in search of a party while we locals will have retired for the night with work as usual in the morning.

Have pity on the visitors. It’s been a miserable start for the quintessential rugby nation; not only did they lose their opener to England on home soil, but the match kicked off after 8pm on a Friday. At least their last three fixtures are on a Saturday.

Kick-off times the fans hate are, as we know, all TV’s fault, and if anyone doubted television runs sport then the £10m a match BT and Sky have just paid for the right to show live English Premier League football should dispel the notion.

We have escaped comparatively lightly this year, with only the one dreaded Sunday game, and is it a coincidence that the Ireland game at Murrayfield on March 21, a Saturday, has been sold out for weeks while some tickets for this Sunday’s visit of Wales were still available this week?

The Scottish Rugby Union were still selling single seats around the ground for Sunday by midweek, but there were plenty tickets to be had through the SRU’s official “secondary ticketing partner” Viagogo.

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Viagogo is described as a fans’ ticket marketplace, but with a mark-up for “official ticketing partner” read “officially-sanctioned tout”. So instead of waving your brief about on Roseburn Street 15 minutes before kick-off, you simply put it up through Viagogo. It’s all with the SRU’s blessing and indeed a helpful little link from their website.

The top official price for the Wales game is £80 and on the SRU website the best seats in the house (as far as I’m concerned) in Lower East section 9 were all gone.

But this week Viagogo was selling five seats there for £180 each, which somehow could be bought together. But the basic price comes with a hefty booking fee, VAT and, inexplicably if you’re paying a booking fee, a handling charge too, bringing the grand total to £435.

So if you have an £80 ticket for the lower East 9, the couple sitting next to you could each have paid nearly £140 or so more for the same experience from an official SRU partner.

Unofficial site StubHub is even worse – £820 for a ticket in East 9? You have to be joking.

But for the really eye-watering stuff try buying a ticket from Viagogo for the supposedly sold-out Ireland match. There might not be any face-value tickets left, but there are scores for sale if you’re prepared to cough up. If you enjoyed the Wales match in East 9 so much for your £200 that you want to burn some more cash, there is no problem finding similar briefs for the Irish clash. For £296. Plus the booking fee, the VAT and the handling fee – £350 for an £80 ticket from an official source.

But that’s not the top whack; there were three tickets available in Lower East for a wallet-wringing £740 a pop. Buying them all comes with an inexplicable £333 booking fee, a £14 handling charge and VAT which brings the total outlay for three officially-sanctioned Murrayfield tickets to £2638. Ten times the official top price.

With StubHub also offering East 9 tickets at over £800, clearly more than a few folk reckon Ireland could be on for a repeat of last year’s triumph and some flush Irish fans might be prepared to pay silly money to be there to witness a Grand Slam. No wonder they like a punt in Ireland.

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Me? I’ll enjoy Edinburgh against the Ospreys tonight at my club Watsonians, watch my son in the half-time mini rugby and hopefully catch the big game on the box at the club on Sunday. I might even buy a pint or two. Now that sounds like a rugby weekend.

Crazy debate

The craziest debate on Wednesday was undoubtedly that over new facilities at one of the council’s own schools, the hugely over-subscribed Flora Stevenson in Stockbridge.

The plan is to build new classrooms to hold 106 children, and plans to construct a play area on the roof have already been scrapped because of local objections.

But a tortuous argument went back and forward with officials about whether a proper traffic impact study had been carried out, as if this was some sort of speculative private development.

What about the cars coming and going to drop off all these extra children, councillors wanted to know? What I wanted to know is how would 106 children get to their lessons if they were forced to go to out-of-catchment schools elsewhere?

Maybe I missed someone making this rather obvious point, but councillors got so bogged down in whether or not the school had a properly evaluated travel plan that the bigger picture became completely obscured.

“We can’t have a travel plan until we know where the pupils are coming from,” pleaded an exasperated transport officer.

Somehow sense prevailed and it was approved.

Arcadia action welcome

The decision to take action against Topshop parent firm Arcadia to force the return of the Forsyth’s globe to the Princes Street landmark is not before time.

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For three years since engineers removed the sphere over safety concerns, it has lain in a Fife yard because, it is suspected, of the £200,000 repair bill.

Well for Arcadia’s Monaco-based billionaire chairman Sir Philip Green, this isn’t even small change. This is the man, after all, who reportedly spent £4 million on his son’s Bar Mitzvah and paid Rod Stewart £750,000 to play a short set at his 50th birthday party in Cyprus to which he flew 200 guests.

He could have the globe recast in solid gold and he’d barely notice. We would, though.

Tell you wot, Phil, save yerself a couple of million and just stick the old one back up and we’ll say no more about it. Noworrahmean?