Ron Hewitt: Why we shouldn't be wild about the west

Whoever said town planning was dull? I came across, with interest, the criticism in The Scotsman last week of Murray Estates' plans concerning its proposed "garden district" development out to the west of Edinburgh. The company has kicked off a debate that could only happen in this city.

It struck me almost immediately that this proposal was to be made for a site in the green belt. Public perception generally tends to be that green belt land around towns is sacrosanct - that is, it has never been and never should be developed; and will be protected by the council's planning department at all costs.

Not so. The reality is in fact that the green belt is, and always has been, allocated as an evolving boundary for continual review. Indeed, as a very simple example, the Royal Bank of Scotland and Heriot-Watt University have been built in the so-called green belt west of Edinburgh, not to mention the airport. There are council plans for an International Business Gateway at Ingliston. Even now in Edinburgh, under a new and massively important emerging planning policy called SESplan, consideration is being given by the council for thousands of homes in the green belt.

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Recent reports have focussed on comments made by the chief planner at the consultation launch, but have largely overlooked the merits of the "charrette" consultation process or the key reasons Murray Estates chose to adopt such an approach in this case. The Scottish Government has recently produced legislation which encourages developers to consult openly on their proposals at an early stage. They have also said that the best way to do this is by way of what is known as a "charrette". The idea behind the process is that it is completely open, and all who attend have the opportunity to participate in the design process. It is essentially an intensive, collaborative approach which allows people to really shape and influence what happens in their area. We must not forget that at the end of the day it is not Murray Estates which decides if development permissible - that is the job of officials and elected representatives.

Another point I began to consider when looking at the Murray proposals and SESplan was that Edinburgh has to grow somewhere. We are constrained to the north by the sea and to the south by the hills; there are limited options eastward. The west of Edinburgh faces towards the rest of Scotland and is extremely well-connected.

It begins to become clear why the city council favours West Edinburgh as a major focus for new development, even if it does mean development of parts of green belt. Some may argue the city does not need to grow, but this is surely not realistic and I would argue it is critical that sustainable private-sector development is allowed to create jobs at a time when the Scottish government's capital budget has just been cut by 40 per cent.So what about brownfield land? I think it is safe to say that most people see the merits of developing brownfield land - but not in isolation. Many of the brownfield schemes in Edinburgh have stalled for obvious financial reasons, triggered by recession, and are not likely to change any time soon. Another issue is that urban brownfield sites tend to encourage only the development of flats.

The problem is that brownfield release has been virtually all we have had in Edinburgh for 25 or more years. This is quite different to other cities in Scotland and has led to a dearth of family housing, as the combination of council policy and economics encourage higher density development of these sites.

The fact is that we need both brownfield and green belt land to meet the dire shortfall of affordable family housing in the city. Brownfield development alone simply cannot deliver this on the necessary scale in future.

The SESplan policy is emerging because we need to plan ahead by about 20 years for the homes, shops, jobs and communities of the future. Projections suggest that around 30,000 new homes will be required for the city by 2032. The council's preferred approach is that 2,800 homes should be located to the west of Edinburgh in the green belt. So, it is evident that Murray Estates is in fact responding to the council's consultation for growth and not trying to foist plans on the city, as many critics seem to have suggested.

The SESplan document has been approved by the City of Edinburgh Council's planning committee and seeks suggestions from landowners across the region for areas where development might take place. Murray Estates is one of those who have responded, but notably also one of the only ones I have come across brave enough to take its proposals to the public in this fashion.

I was lucky enough to attend the closing presentation of Murray Estates' consultation last week.

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What seems to be proposed is a scale and design of development very appropriate to this great city and reflective of the DNA to be found in some of Edinburgh's finest places. It was also clear that local people and groups had made a tremendous contribution to the proposals.

It was also clear the DPZ team of American consultants had obviously worked very closely with the local architects, planners and whole host of other Scotland-based development experts appointed to take this project forward following the charrette conclusion.The assembled crowd was also informed that this was simply the beginning of consultation, and proposals such as the inclusion or otherwise of the stadium were purely opportunities at this point.

One drawing even responded to recent criticism of the stadium idea by showing it removed completely. It always struck me as strange that commentators should suppose that a stadium would in some way be the best financial option for the developer - the land would, of course, be far more valuable if used for other forms of development, but the thinking here truly seems to have been what might be best for the city and the new area being designed in order to harmonise as well as possible with the existing city rather than form just another "bolt-on" of the universally hated "urban sprawl".

The presentation closed to enthusiastic applause from the 150 or so people in attendance. You didn't need to be an architect or planner to see why the approach was so popular.

The reality of future city growth is that we in our generation have the capacity to plan a beautiful place for posterity.

Let's use the release of green belt land wisely. Let us make the developers work for their profits and demand a higher quality of development than we have had in the recent past.

But please let us not cloud our judgment and consideration with a knee-jerk response to a project and a process which many found both stimulating and exciting. Murray Estates should be congratulated not only for producing an interesting master-planning vision for the west of the city, but for doing so in the full - and often unkind - glare of media attention.

• Ron Hewitt has been chief executive of the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce since 2005.