Why it’s been a week to forget for the people who run Edinburgh – John McLellan

Developers will feel more confident than ever of winning approval for plans on appeal. Picture: PA
Developers will feel more confident than ever of winning approval for plans on appeal. Picture: PA
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Last week was one to forget for Edinburgh Council’s SNP-Labour coalition with first their garden tax scheme thrown out followed quickly by the Scottish Government ripping up the long-awaited blueprint for the future shape of the capital city region.

My Conservative colleague Nick Cook deserved great credit for the way he engineered the scrapping of the £25 fee for emptying brown bins, knocking a £1.4m hole in the administration’s budget which it will no doubt try to reverse at the earliest opportunity.

But the Government chief planner’s decision to reject the South-East Scotland plan (Sesplan 2) drawn up by the region’s six local authorities cannot be overturned and it effectively denies Edinburgh Council ultimate control over what does or doesn’t get built in the city. The old plan has lapsed and without a replacement it’s far more difficult to justify rejecting applications.

Only this week the Scottish Government reporter countermanded a committee decision to ignore advice and reject a flats development on the Lanark Road site of the Blue Goose pub next to the Water of Leith, crucially observing “the purpose of Green Belts is not to prevent all development”. Instead he recognised the improved appearance, use of brownfield land, accessible location and the developer’s offer of payment for affordable housing elsewhere.

And yesterday’s decision to approve a major housing scheme in Cammo was taken in the knowledge that a plan for neighbouring West Craigs was approved on appeal.

There will be a lot more of this and doesn’t the development community know it. Last Friday over a thousand housebuilders and property professionals gathered at the Conference Centre for the annual Homes for Scotland awards, and the Sesplan rejection was the talk of all with an interest in the Edinburgh area.

Without an approved plan, developers who feel they have done all they can to follow policies, but their schemes are thrown out all the same, will be more confident than ever they will win on appeal.

The reason given for tearing up Sesplan 2 was inadequate transport plans, a key issue in the Cammo application and ironic when it was the Scottish Government which in 2012 scrapped a scheme to connect the underused Edinburgh Gateway station to the main Edinburgh-Glasgow line. This could have facilitated new stations at Kirkliston and Winchburgh where 5000 houses are now to be built under the Government-backed City Deal.

Some developers suspect the transport problem is a pretext to camouflage a lack of faith in local planning processes to meet housing targets but there is no denying it’s a massive issue across the city. But the City Centre transformation ideas published a week ago will have little impact on wider housing issues and could actually spread problems.

The council’s transport eggs are in the Newhaven tram basket which is fine for Leith Docks but useless anywhere else and doesn’t reach Granton where around 4000 of the 20,000 affordable homes the council administration says it will build by 2027 will be. The City Centre Santa list includes a tram through Lauriston when the priority, if more millions are to be spent on trams, is the more practical Roseburn Spur.

This week the Scottish Land Commission’s head of policy, Shona Glenn, said of infrastructure problems that: “There still needs to be an adequate supply of land brought forward for development.” Did she mean Edinburgh where about 23,000 new homes can be built on readily available land, all of which is needed to meet the social homes goal? Unfortunately that leaves virtually no room for market-priced developments needed to fund the affordable programme.

With the administration rightly opposed to high-rise, all the rhetoric about meeting ambitious housing plans ignores the inconvenient truth there isn’t enough land without accepting compromises and dealing with urgent infrastructure problems. Cammo and the Blue Goose will not be the last.

Way out west

The Cammo housing estate approved yesterday is an example of the issues suburban Edinburgh faces: ideal for new homes but dogged by transport, education and health provision problems. It’s near major trunk roads, a new railway station and the tram, but everyone knows it’s a transport nightmare because Fife’s housing boom means the Barnton junction is congested most of the day. But don’t blame developers who produced an exemplary proposal and will pay £11m towards infrastructure – rather than the City Centre, the council needs a West Edinburgh transformation plan.