Edinburgh isn't being split up into ghettos '“ John McLellan

Building town houses in Gorgie will save a historic building and create a more mixed community, writes John McLellan.

Springwell House in Gorgie used to be an asylum for so-called 'fallen women'
Springwell House in Gorgie used to be an asylum for so-called 'fallen women'

Gorgie is rightly proud of its footballing and industrial heritage — brewing, distilling, printing to name but three — and its tenements retain an authentic sense of a working-class community.

Gritty, defiant, honest Heart of Midlothian FC symbolises what the district is all about, its supporters are quick to point out. None of your trendy, creative types latching onto the support like the green team across the city, they say. Unfashionable? Who cares, this is a team for workers.

Despite the proximity of Gorgie/Dalry to Haymarket station, it has never been accused of becoming gentrified in the same way as Leith. Finnieston it is not, but its affordability and convenience has steadily pushed up property prices, recording double-digit increases for its one and two-bedroom flats for several years now.

According to new Edinburgh Solicitors Property Centre figures, price rises slowed in the last quarter of 2018 to 5.7 per cent and a one-bedroom flat now averages £142,000, compared to Abbeyhill (£151,000) and Leith Walk/Easter Road (£160,000).

About to become flats, Springwell House on Gorgie Road, recently a health centre, is a grim reminder of another aspect of urban industrialisation. The Magdalene Asylum for so-called “fallen women” was built by philanthropists to give unmarried mothers and prostitutes the benefits of Victorian Christian morals and to work in its laundry.

The building does not represent heritage to be celebrated, but is an important part of social history and brings character to the area. Jointly owned by NHS Lothian and Edinburgh Council and unused for some years, it is also falling apart.

A deal has been struck with developer AMA for conversion into 39 flats, 27 of them one-bedroom. But such is the state of disrepair that even with seven new three-bedroom town-houses in the grounds, the developer will only make a profit of about six per cent compared to industry norms of about 15. Any less isn’t worth the trouble or risk.

I was one of six councillors who granted planning permission on Wednesday, sparking a furious reaction because the developer was not required to build affordable housing on the site. To do so would have made the project commercially unviable and left the council and health board with a rotting building for which they have no use.

If conversion to flats was unviable, other uses would involve the council spending money it doesn’t have. The alternative would be demolition and re-thinking the whole site, which would certainly make it easier to meet housing demands but the historic building would be lost.

The decision has been characterised as contributing to the creation of ghettos, Edinburgh Council policy is also to create mixed communities for people of varying income levels. So in a district like Gorgie on a site facing a block of social housing, building town houses actually helps achieve that goal and saves a historic building at the same time.

Corstorphine isn’t Belgravia

Meanwhile, permission was granted for the restoration of the old Corstorphine Hospital and its conversion to flats, and again the charge of “ghetto-ising” of Edinburgh was made because it didn’t include affordable homes. Two social housing providers were approached by the developer and both declined to get involved so the council agreed the best way to meet affordable housing commitments was a payment of £700,000 to build new homes a mile away in Saughton.

As much as it suits some political agendas, it might be cold and grey right now, like the famous Elvis Presley song, but Saughton is not a 1969 Chicago housing project and Corstorphine is not Belgravia.

And there is a certain irony in complaining both about a development at one end of Gorgie Road not having affordable housing and about a development which provides it at the other.

We need a press release regulator

Newspaper people are used to being accused of exaggeration and writing misleading headlines, but have to justify coverage to the regulator IPSO. So too advertisers answer to the Advertising Standards Authority and broadcasters to Ofcom, but press releases are a grey area.

Recently, it was revealed that an Edinburgh Council press statement from last year claiming that the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation for homeless families was to end by last June wasn’t true, but no more has been heard about that.

This week another release stated there was “overwhelming support for a tourist tax in Edinburgh”, based on 2,500 responses to a public consultation. Of 1,996 residents, 90 per cent were in favour of the Transient Visitor Levy (TVL), so that seems fair enough. But where it gets sticky is the claim that it is supported by “a majority of Edinburgh-based businesses and accommodation providers”.

Even if 51 per cent of 170 Edinburgh “accommodation providers” who responded supported the tax, did that justify the claim it is “dispelling fears in certain quarters that the industry wouldn’t support a TVL”? An accommodation provider can be a landlord, as are several members of the Edinburgh Council administration, but not in the tourism industry. And with an estimated 1,785 tourism-related businesses in the Capital, the consultation far from demonstrates industry backing.

A tongue-lashing from Andrew Neil

Fiona Bruce got off to a strong start as the new chair of Question Time on Thursday night, interrupting Conservative MP James Cleverly virtually before he’d finished his first sentence and telling Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry the audience were laughing at her claims that Labour was the alternative to Brexit.

But the real fireworks were in the next programme, This Week, and a shouting match between presenter Andrew Neil and left-wing commentator Owen Jones about The Spectator magazine which Neil chairs. Jones tried to make allegations about Islamophobia, which Neil was expecting and countered he would not allow him to use the show to spread “lies and smears” about him personally. Having been on the end of the odd tongue-lashing myself when he was publisher of The Scotsman, I’d love to have been in the Green Room for the off-camera exchanges. Industrial language may have featured.