System that stopped Edinburgh becoming 2nd-rate Los Angeles is broken – Cliff Hague

The future of Edinburgh is in the balance. That is why the Cockburn Association is launching a major consultation exercise, called “Our Unique City”, writes the conservation body’s chair Professor Cliff Hague.

Were it not for town planners there could have been office blocks towering over the castle (Picture: Steven Scott Taylor)
Were it not for town planners there could have been office blocks towering over the castle (Picture: Steven Scott Taylor)

Agendas for Edinburgh’s future are already being set within the city council in a series of corporate documents. Edinburgh’s population is projected to increase by 21 per cent between 2014 and 2039, while the growth in Midlothian would be 26 per cent (the highest rate in Scotland) and 18 per cent for East Lothian. The city’s tourism strategy aspires to increase visitor numbers by a third between 2012 and 2020, from 3.27 million a year to 4.8 million. The industry will lobby council officials to push on with that steep trajectory into the next decade.

Edinburgh’s economic strategy seeks to “enable good growth” that would be delivered through a strong collaboration between “anchor institutions that guide development of the city”.

This is happening at a time when the role of the planning system has been changed fundamentally. We have a planning system because previous generations recognised there was no guarantee that landowners and developers, driven by maximisation of value to their shareholders, would respect the environment or produce inclusive places.

The purpose of planning was to plan and regulate the development of our cities and rural areas in the long-term public interest. This system helped to conserve Edinburgh’s special qualities, rather than allowing the city to become a second-rate Los Angeles, with ranch houses on the Pentlands and office towers looking down on the castle. However, austerity, the new corporatism of local government and the Scottish Government’s mantra of “sustainable economic growth” have changed the purpose of planning and disabled its moral compass. The aspirations that underpin the system today might be expressed as “predict – provide – deliver” in response to the shopping lists of those “anchor institutions that guide development”.

Against this background, the Cockburn has prepared a series of concise, evidence-based papers which are being posted on our website, and seek to open up debate “for everyone who loves Edinburgh” as our strapline puts it. One sets the national and international context which is driving the greatest changes in the city for a century. It explains how shifts to a knowledge economy and the international growth of tourism are driving growth. But it also points to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals that put obligations on our city to take urgent action on climate change, and to reduce inequalities by making cities safe, inclusive, resilient and sustainable.

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Another paper asks “What planning policies are needed to protect the quality of the environment and diversity of uses that sustain the tourist industry, but are also threatened by its growth aspirations?” This “Heritage City” paper also ponders the future of the “big box” retail outlets that have mushroomed around the city, but now are challenged by online retailing. The paper on “The Expanding City” recognises that there will be new development, but simply labelling it “Luxury Executive” does nothing for affordability or design quality. Can Edinburgh aspire to be a European leader in imaginative and sustainable new suburban development, rather than just another plot for houses and layouts that volume house builders can roll out in their sleep?

As the “Our Residential City” paper points out, Edinburgh is the least affordable city in Scotland, with average house prices 6.12 times average earnings. Rented accommodation has become increasingly expensive: Scottish Government data showed that rents for two-bedroom accommodation in Lothian increased by 33 per cent between 2010 and 2017, far outstripping inflation, and more than anywhere else in Scotland. What planning policies are needed to stop the city over the next ten years becoming simply unaffordable for so many households?

“Our Connected City” recognises that despite awareness of connectivity and mobility issues in Edinburgh, vociferous lobbying groups – for instance, cyclists, motorists, traffic engineers, business organisations – are all pressing their own agendas. Thus one person’s transport usage becomes someone else’s congestion or air-quality issue. How can we plan for a more integrated solution, building on the existing high levels of active travel within the city? To make walking more easy and attractive, we need to pavements free from parked vehicles, illegal cycling and encroaching signage and A-boards that are hazards to disabled pedestrians in particular.

More focus is needed on street design, public spaces, design and maintenance of paving, decluttering, litter clearing, regulating roadworks and precedence for pedestrians at junctions (eg zebra crossings, countdown timers). Currently these matters are undertaken by a range of unconnected agencies, and, in many cases, it is not their main priority.

In looking forward, we need to ask how the city can use its assets to sustain prosperity by building its circular economy. This is one theme in the paper “Our Prosperous City”, which also raises the question about planning for the future of the Astley Ainslie and Redford Barracks sites, major public land assets that are being disposed of. The health and environment benefits of high-quality public open space are widely documented, but too often have been given insufficient weight in planning decisions relative to GDP, which is an inadequate measure of wellbeing.

Before the city council begins to prepare its ten-year City Plan 2030 later this year, we want to hear from citizens of Edinburgh and its surrounding areas, our passionate local campaigners and our expert professionals and academics. I will say more about the issues in articles over the coming weeks, and we will hold a couple of open meetings in June and two more in August, and also take comments on our website. In the autumn, we will draw together findings, and reflect them in the Cockburn’s input to City Plan 2030. Ten and more years from now Edinburgh must still be Our Unique City.

Professor Cliff Hague is chair of architectural conservation body The Cockburn Association