Edinburgh Council’s contrariness risks driving investors away – John McLellan

Edinburgh councillors this week nearly scuppered a major housing plan and applauded a threat to break the law, writes John McLellan.
The Sick Kids hospital building is to be turned into homes and student flatsThe Sick Kids hospital building is to be turned into homes and student flats
The Sick Kids hospital building is to be turned into homes and student flats

It was, as Wellington said, a close-run thing, but only by the narrowest margin possible has a multi-million scheme to turn Edinburgh’s famous Sick Kids hospital into badly needed flats and houses been given the go-ahead.

The company behind the project, Liverpool-based Downing, has a strong track-record of city centre developments combining conservation and modern construction and, having bought the site from NHS Lothian, it brought forward a scheme to restore the Victorian terraces at The Meadows, convert the old hospital into flats and build new blocks for students and affordable homes.

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All councillors at the development management committee on Wednesday, including me, praised it for meeting so many of the capital’s needs: 126 homes, 31 of them affordable to be run by the social housing charity Home Group, new public-realm community facilities, plus 323 student bedrooms at the heart of the university quarter.

Downing were happy to build whatever Home Group recommended and, in common with most social housing providers, their clear preference was for a self-contained block. In the city centre, they advised one or two bedroom flats would be much easier to let than three, and that’s where it nearly came unstuck.

Because the council’s policies recommend a mix of house types, some councillors thought the absence of three-bedroom affordable flats was unacceptable and agreed with some locals that the affordable block should be set further back. This would have meant a complete redesign of the whole master plan.

Despite years of engagement, designing and redesigning, in-depth negotiation with council officers, and a cohort of expert consultants including conservation specialists for the historic Traquair murals in the mortuary chapel, the whole thing nearly failed. At a conservative estimate, the consultations will have cost Downing well over £1m to produce a plan with broad approval but it came within one vote of rejection.

Those who objected felt the scheme could be re-drawn in a couple of months but the reality was it would send the whole process back to the beginning, so the greater likelihood would have been an immediate and successful appeal to the Scottish Government.

That such a well-designed scheme which was compliant with council policies in every way – the affordable mix was agreed with council officers, as required – was within a whisker of rejection has shocked the development world and now the talk is of how to avoid the committee.

At this week’s meeting another scheme – to rebuild an ugly magnet for anti-social behaviour, the Waverley Market on Princes Street – also scraped through by one vote, again despite being compliant with policies, promising a significant improvement to a problem site and only opposed by the Cockburn Association.

A plan to turn a shop into a restaurant further at the West End of Princes Street was recommended for refusal and the applicant withdrew because they didn’t want to risk rejection from such an unpredictable process.

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There is no shortage of smug claims in the City Chambers that the Capital is a fantastic place to do business, but those who actually do business in the real world got a very different impression this week. Those approvals could easily have gone the other way, which would obviously have suited some agendas. But if major investors think all the engagement and consultation possible will not stop schemes being redesigned on a whim at the bottom of a council agenda paper, they will take their money elsewhere.

Golden opportunity for Leith voters

The streets of Leith may not be paved with gold, but with the bill for the Newhaven tram completion soaring by £40m to £207m they might as well be.

When the outline case was presented to Edinburgh Council 16 months ago, there were clear assurances that the £165m price tag included a contingency fund of around £30m in case unexpected problems arose, but now the tenders have been received the scale of the underestimation has been laid bare.

It’s an extraordinary figure given how much engineering work has already been done on Leith Walk and the fact the rolling stock and hardware has already been bought, and with a £40m hike in just over a year, who is to say the bill will not rise even higher in the next three years?

The public is told none of the cost will affect council services and will be funded by borrowing offset against future receipts, but if Lothian Buses was expected to pay £20m towards the £165m bill, it will surely be under pressure to cough up more. At least local voters will have their say in April’s Leith Walk council by-election.

Performing seals herald a new revolution

The armchair revolutionaries in Edinburgh City Chambers clapped like performing seals this week when the deputation from the Divest Scotland campaign group proudly boasted they would break the law to halt what they described as climate breakdown and (I’m not making this up) the “end of civilisation as we know it”.

Amongst them were senior administration figures including the council leader, who needed reminding they rely entirely on the rule of law for their authority and ability to administer. Maybe they see themselves as latter-day Suffragettes or thought they were back in the students’ union, but even children understand that ignoring rules means chaos.

Like those councillors who encouraged poll tax protests by refusing to pay the community charge and then wondered why council incomes fell, they should be careful what they wish for.

It’s fun to spend other people’s money

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The spiralling tram bill comes as Edinburgh Council still faces £34m shortfall in the coming year, and the health and social care budget needs to find £29m. But there was much back-slapping in the City Chambers this week because the city’s SNP-Labour administration smells triumph for its campaigns to introduce a tourist tax and a workplace parking levy, even though both are potentially two years away from producing any revenue. Both require laws, which presumably the administration expects to be obeyed.

The cost of implementing the former will eventually be borne by the hospitality industry, while the latter will mean affected employees facing an annual bill of around £400 a year. Like the new £25 garden tax, the belief seems to be that tax is somehow free money the so-called rich can easily afford.

Government is a doddle when it’s just about spending other people’s money.