We need to start to have a different dialogue about planning in this city. Is the obsession with major development projects really the best answer for jobs, growth and regeneration or would lower level community-friendly development that respects the Local Plan and protects what adds to life and the character of this city deliver better results?
We happen to be living in a city which has come close to being bankrupted by major development projects – particularly prestige projects. These projects have not brought money into our local economy or helped local businesses. A startling £776 million of taxpayers’ money has been spent on the trams which has seen shops and businesses in Edinburgh suffer, disruption to traffic and deliveries, unbearable noise pollution and the local economy down Leith Walk destroyed with many family businesses going under – all for a tram that will no longer even go down Leith Walk. Mountgrange’s last Edinburgh project before Craighouse, the infamous Caltongate, saw tens of millions of pounds loss for Edinburgh’s Bank of Scotland, contributing (along with many other large failed developments) to the need for the taxpayer to bail out the bank.
Big developers, a bit like bankers, have got used to operating in a world with no consequences.
Then, along came the recession. We now have half-finished developments scattered all over the city: many on brownfield sites that were supported by locals and could have benefited their local economies and communities. But, instead, developers are abandoning them and turning their attention to green space that is protected from development in the Local Plan – this is happening across the city and is set to get worse.
Surely it is madness to sacrifice our parks and protected green spaces when there is so much abandoned development we do want and everyone can agree on?
Planning should work for the public good to enable good development in line with what we want and need as communities. It is important to protect our heritage, our beautiful green spaces and Edinburgh’s seven hills which add so much to its beauty and character. Edinburgh is one of the few cities in the UK that can rival some of the great European cities for beauty and history. It’s historic buildings – in past treated with shocking disregard by those wanting to push through these “major developments” such as Caltongate – should be seen for what they are – true assets to the Edinburgh economy.
They are part of what makes Edinburgh so beautiful, so characterful, and such an inspiring place to live. If you want to look at it in purely economic terms, it’s a big reason why Edinburgh has remained one of the most desirable places to live in the UK, why Edinburgh house prices have always stayed relatively healthy and resilient to the shocks and slumps elsewhere in the UK and why tourists adore coming here.
We ruin that at our peril.
Those developers complaining that planning takes too long need to take responsibility when it is they who hold things up by demanding excessive newbuild on protected sites, or pushing for planning policy to be contravened and disregarded. Big developers are employing lobbying companies, influencing government, sitting on the boards of heritage bodies or part of forums enabling them to form relationships with those in power and influence policy.
Communities have no such access and no such power. Many local communities campaigning to save protected sites or for better development in their local areas are even refused meetings with planning officials altogether. Whilst developers have right of appeal when applications are turned down – there is no equivalent for communities. And there is no real equivalent that allows communities to properly influence the wider system. To debate what kind of development people do want to see – how to encourage the right sort of development where it is wanted and needed that delivers jobs and benefits locally, but that doesn’t destroy what is important about the places we live – our protected green sites, our historic sites – what is special about this city.
It’s about time we looked more carefully at this much-vaunted relationship between development and growth. At the moment too many development projects – particularly the kind of major development projects that have been lauded in Edinburgh in recent years – end up ruining sites without delivering that much-mythologised economic development. And it’s not just communities, or the taxpayer, who end up suffering from this – it’s the smaller, more reasonable, developers who suffer, who cannot bid for sites, be competitive or deliver the kind of reasonable sensitive development we all want to see because they are priced out the market by the big beasts. Craighouse, for example, received many bids. So why did Napier choose Mountgrange – an Isle of Man registered real-estate “opportunity fund” which is now trying to ride roughshod over planning policy and push through excessive amounts of newbuild development across this heavily protected and much-loved historic site?
The whole dialogue about development needs to change. But for that dialogue to be more than rhetoric, communities need to be on equal standing with developers, and the Local Plan and planning policies treated with proper respect.
• Rosy Barnes is a community campaigner who has helped lead the Friends of Craighouse protest group.
• Controversial plans for a five-star hotel, 200 homes, 250,000sq ft of offices and shops, and a public square at Caltongate fell through when the developer went into administration in 2009. But plans were revived and work on the £300 million project is expected to get under way soon.
• A campaign group has been set up to save the former home of Spartans FC from being turned into a 200-apartment housing development. Council-owned City Park, off Ferry Road, is currently in the process of being sold to affordable housing developers the Link Group.
• Pressure by protest group Friends of Craighouse has forced £90m plans for the former Napier University campus at Craighouse to be scaled back following a lengthy and bitter row.