Why Edinburgh Council’s housing crisis plan is in tatters – John McLellan

Edinburgh's rising population is pushing up house prices, so there is a need to build more (Picture: Phil Wilkinson)
Edinburgh's rising population is pushing up house prices, so there is a need to build more (Picture: Phil Wilkinson)
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With the cost of Christmas, the Universal Credit roll-out and Brexit, plans for a new school in West Edinburgh won’t be top of everyone’s list of concerns, but right now it has smashed a hole in the council’s plans to deal with the city’s housing crisis.

The problem stems from the decision earlier in the year to drop the promise of a new secondary school in the International Business Gateway (IBG) as a result of the furore over the threatened closure and then reprieve for Currie High. Now, the Scottish Government has written to the council, not so much to ask what on earth is going on but to put the council on notice that it intends to find out.

“Scottish Ministers are of the view that the requirements for infrastructure in our capital city, and contributions towards its costs, are very significant matters,” says the letter. Few would disagree.

It’s the cost contributions which are at issue, because developers must agree to make a payment towards transport and education improvements before their schemes get permission and the scale of those payments is a complex part of the deals. Developers understandably don’t want to pay more than necessary and equally the council wants as much as it can get, so an agreed framework is necessary to underpin robust, legally water-tight, demands.

The letter continues: “Decisions relating to statutory guidance on such an important subject area must be robust and informed by proper consideration of available evidence.” So far, so obvious.

But it’s when it mentions the removal of the IBG school that it gets interesting: “Ministers are now concerned that this raises additional questions relating to education infrastructure and the consequent calculation of planning obligations to address the impacts of future development.”

READ MORE: Government overrules city council to approve 1400 new homes near Edinburgh Airport

The upshot is the Scottish Government doesn’t think it knows enough about the council’s school plans to allow it to go ahead with guidance for developers and builders, without which no negotiations can take place because no-one knows on what to base any figures. No deals means no infrastructure and no permissions to build the thousands of houses Edinburgh badly needs.

To break the impasse, the Government has now ordered an independent reporter from its planning department to intervene and has set a deadline of the end of February for a report to be produced to examine Edinburgh Council’s consultations and how it is making its contribution calculations. To say this is embarrassing is putting it mildly.

But worse than red-faces is the belief amongst developers that, with the Christmas break looming, the end of February is highly optimistic and even if the report is produced in time, the minister Kevin Stewart will still have to consider the contents and come to a decision. It is not fanciful to estimate it could be at least six months before the administration is given a final ruling.

READ MORE: John McLellan: Council can’t meet demand for homes

No doubt the SNP-Labour administration will down-play the significance of the letter, and we know how that will go: “Oh, we knew it was coming ... not a problem ... the leader will have a chat with Kevin ... he gets on really well with him ... it will all be fine.” All the usual stuff we hear about how wonderful it is to have a direct line between the city administration and the Scottish Government.

However, the tone of the letter implies something else and those with much more experience in the complexities of the planning process than I say the imposition of a reporter is unprecedented. It’s not pushing it too far to suggest that the letter suggests the Government doesn’t like what it’s being told and doesn’t trust the council to give it straight answers.

And all the while, the council’s ability to deliver houses and transform the west of Edinburgh is on ice. So much for the special relationship.

How Aircraftman Gibson kept Russia at bay

For decades, shortly before 6am every day, a familiar figure would make his way along Princes Street from his West End home to the North Bridge. From 1999, the route lengthened to the bottom of Holyrood Road and for a brief time the direction was reversed towards Orchard Brae.

In all weather, this was of the daily habit of journalist John Gibson who died last week aged 85 after over 60 years’ association with the Evening News and Dispatch. So what more fitting place for his funeral a week today than St Cuthbert’s Church at the foot of Lothian Road, past which he would have walked for most of his career. After all, why drive when there were books full of taxi-chits at the office?

But for a couple of years before joining the Dispatch his place of work was not in town but RAF Turnhouse where he did his National Service, and although it’s fair to say his contribution to the defence of the nation was somewhat less than that on newspapers, he remained inordinately proud of his time in uniform.

Ex-News colleague John Cooper, now of the Scottish Daily Mail, recalled Gibson’s robust defence of his RAF record, during which time he was able to go home most nights for tea. “Well,” said Gibson, “the Russians never took Turnhouse, did they?”

In fact, I’m pretty sure that when the Queen toured the new Evening News office on Holyrood Road in 1999 (he’d officially retired the year before but was still in the office every day as a freelance) he introduced himself as “Aircraftman Gibson, Ma’am”, and gave her his serial number with his trademark cheeky grin. I suspect Her Majesty might have heard similar introductions on more than one occasion and didn’t bat an eyelid.

Unfortunately, I will be unable to attend the service which will surely be standing-room only as the curtain falls on the life of one of Edinburgh’s great characters.

The heyday of unquestioned expense accounts

In Gibson’s heyday of unquestioned expense accounts and cabs on the company, every Thursday for years a colleague used a company taxi to round up his pals for a night in the Roseburn Bar, the chit diligently filled in each week so hardly a scam. All in the name of community engagement.

And one Saturday night a reporter ordered a cab, asked the driver to come up to her top floor Old Town flat, given some money and sent down to the ground floor shop for 20 cigarettes. The fags safely delivered, the call-out cost was covered by a company chit. It was so brazen the taxi firm shopped her.

Fed two birds with one scone lately?
After the bid to rename the village of Wool as Vegan Wool, comes the claim for unfair dismissal by a vegan against the League Against Cruel Sports, of all organisations, on the basis that veganism is a philosophical belief like a religion. Why not, if Jedi is acceptable?

But then came an academic paper which predicts that if reasons for offence rise, then common phrases like “bringing home the bacon” and “flogging a dead horse” will be replaced by “bringing home the bagels” and “feeding a fed horse”, as advised by the animal rights organisation Peta which was behind the Vegan Wool stunt.

“Feeding two birds with one scone” for “killing two birds with one stone” is beyond comedy, but don’t be surprised if we’re debating this in the City Chambers before long. Might not get through but there’s more than one way to skin an onion.