Obituary: Graham Duncan, former Executive Director of Planning for Edinburgh City Council

David Graham Bruce Duncan (Graham), architect and town planner. Born: 23 August, 1936 in Derby. Died: 14 October, 2022 in Haddington, aged 86.

Graham Duncan played an essential and central role in the development and appropriate conservation of both East Lothian and Edinburgh. With sensitivity and expert good judgement his reports and recommendations were as unfailingly immaculate as his dress and manner.

From a family home in Edinburgh, Graham attended school first at James Gillespie’s then at George Heriots. After graduating as a qualified architect from Edinburgh College of Art he joined the practice of Richard and Betty Moira. At the same time he continued with evening courses in town planning at the College of Art and qualified as a planner in 1962. In later years many would be surprised to learn that he played banjo and sang in a popular skiffle band in varied Edinburgh venues where he met Helen, whom he married in 1963.

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Just after their marriage the Duncans embarked for three enjoyable years in Singapore, marked by the birth of their first son (David), with Graham taking up an appointment with the Singapore Urban Renewal, Housing and Development Board. This was a crucial and definitive time for Singapore as the developments initiated by the Board in that period demonstrated that sufficient public housing and business areas could be provided by the government.

Graham Duncan was a courteous man of many talents

Returning to Scotland in 1967 Graham joined the Planning Department of East Lothian County Council and began a life-long personal and professional commitment to and love of the county.

The County Planning Officer at the time was the individualistic Frank Tindall. Graham, as depute, and an accomplished team of many talents developed a holistic approach to planning and development. This balanced conservation, preservation of coast and countryside, housing needs, commercial and industrial development and the then new concept of tourism.

With his calm, analytical and clear approach in reports and presentations Graham balanced the more flamboyant Tindall to good effect. In his biography Tindall wrote: “Graham Duncan saved me from many a pitfall and got me out of those I fell into.”

On being appointed Director of Planning for East Lothian District Council Graham brought his own distinctive insights and style to bear, skilfully ensuring appropriate development beside necessary conservation of buildings and countryside.

One of his many achievements was to secure John Muir’s birthplace in Dunbar, High Street, which has become something of a place of international pilgrimage for conservationists.

Much of the beauty and appeal of the county is due to the work and guidance provided by the planners of the time and significantly that of Graham Duncan whose integrity and knowledge rightly earned the trust and respect of councillors of all political opinion.

In 1988 Graham was appointed Executive Director of Planning for Edinburgh City Council. It is hard to imagine any other city where his abilities, insights and holistic approach could be more applicable.

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Always aware of Edinburgh’s unique character as a historic and capital city he helped establish an environment capable of preserving the heritage and coping with the increasing demands of tourism, an ever-expanding population, and the eventual establishment of the Scottish Parliament.

It was thus of particular satisfaction when in 1996 the city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site after a joint campaign between the City Council and Scottish Heritage, in which Graham played a pivotal role. At the time a UNESCO representative said: “The city has exercised far-reaching influence on European urban planning.” Later Graham served as a Director of The Edinburgh World Heritage Trust.

On retirement from Edinburgh City Council Graham was appointed to the panel of Scottish Government Reporters responsible for reports and decisions on planning appeals. The calm and courteous approach unfailingly adopted underlined the fairness and integrity of his observations and decisions in the numerous cases brought before him.

The proposals for the development of Castle Tioram on Loch Moidart provided a particularly challenging case. With a high public profile, much media pressure, outspoken fierce conflicting and contradictory arguments on all sides much work was demanded. Graham’s calm conduct of the inquiry and his report thereon with its over 80 judgements on varied issues has since been lauded and quoted as a benchmark example of clarity and integrity.

Graham made significant varied personal contributions that reflected his commitment to community, artistic and heritage interests. As Chairman of the Board of Governors of Edinburgh College of Art he was unfailing in encouraging students, never missing a degree show, and working toward a future link with Edinburgh University. As Chairman of the Demarco Archive Trust he played a major role in securing the unique archive of Richard Demarco and the Edinburgh Festival as a future study resource.

This was a personal commitment. The search for a permanent home for the archive was demanding in terms of fundraising, negotiation with government ministers and other partners, in real personal support of Demarco and much else. As a result of this patient commitment the Archive is now housed in Summerhall.

As an involved member of the John P Mackintosh Memorial Committee seeking to contribute to debate on significant political and current issues Graham demonstrated his wider social conscience and commitment.

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Together with his wife Helen, Graham restored and created a beautiful house and garden which became their loved and welcoming home in Haddington. From this base many travels were enthusiastically undertaken over the years to many varied corners of the world. Favourites among many were Italy, particularly Venice and Umbria, and southern Africa from the Skeleton Coast of Namibia to the Okavango Delta in Botswana and much in between and beyond, where long drives were rewarded with fascinating observations of indigenous animals and birds in wild natural settings. Graham was also an able artist in his own right and though he was unfailingly self-deprecating many appreciated and proudly cherished his watercolours and pen and ink drawings.

This rounded, able, insightful, courteous man of many talents has made real contributions, many unrecognised, to the life of the communities he served professionally, to his many friends from many walks of life and above all to his family who were always the centre of his concern and his first priority. Helen and his sons David, who predeceased him, and Edward and the grandchildren brought Graham much joy and a real pride in their achievements.

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