City of Edinburgh Council, Economic Growth, Edinburgh, Green Belt, Housing, Housing market, International Business Gateway, LDP Main Issues Report, Leith Docks, Local Democracy, Local Development Plan, Opinion, Planning Laws, Politics, St James Centre, St James Quarter, Students
“The LDP can’t guarantee that houses are built…” is probably the most significant line in the recently-published Main Issues Report, which submits various proposals for the prospective Local Development Plan. Funding and policy will mostly come from elsewhere, but over the next three months Edinburgh’s citizens will be invited to reflect upon the “main issues” to be addressed in the LDP. The consequent Plan will provide a framework for the planning decisions that will guide the city’s future growth and development.
Clearly, this particular bureaucratic buffer has been erected to both absorb local concerns about specific projects and repel everybody away from the areas where the real decisions are made. The LDP in itself will have little positive influence over the development of the city, just as a sock without a foot in it cannot be expected to score a goal. The Plan only has the power to obstruct development, and the array of “issues” considered in the MIR confirm Tom Paine’s maxim that a LDP is best which plans least.
Tychy believes that there should always be a presumption in favour of granting planning permission, unless the local population are literally rioting, but a glance at the LDP’s Monitoring Statement reveals so many criteria for development that anybody trying to apply them all would only make themselves ill. According to the “Open Space Strategy,” for example, my flat should be 800m away from a “play space of good play value.” It is unclear who I have to sue if I need to walk an extra couple of metres to reach the local sandpit.
The MIR drones on about whether everybody has access to roads and supermarkets, just in case somebody might buy a house without first checking for themselves if there was any local infrastructure. The MS refers constantly to non-statutory “targets” concerning such pressing matters as air quality and carbon emissions, although it is apparently more important to dream up an empty target than to identify any means of fulfilling it. Nobody is going to lose their pension if 39% of Scottish waterways are not considered “good” by 2015. Inventing targets is clearly just a fun way of motivating local government departments – whoever meets their target first probably receives a book token.
The MIR grows particularly surly on the question of students. It is worried that an “over-concentration” of students can “impact on the amenity and character of some areas,” presumably causing all of the shops to run out of vodka before teatime or even leading to party neighbourhoods in which everybody just parties all the time. It seems that there is no equivalent anxiety that an “over-concentration” of middle-aged homeowners might create “excessively” boring and stuffy neighbourhoods, without the barest spark of life in them.
But one does not intend to be too flippant or churlish, for there is some real meat in the pie. The LDP does anticipate several points of significant development:
The St James Quarter.
The friendly bombs start falling on the St James Centre in 2013 and £850 million worth of plaza and open-air arcades will be dancing on its grave by 2018, essentially extending the elegant New Town into a notoriously unlovely section of the city. There are plans to add at least forty shops to the existing provision, as well as a hotel and those ubiquitous yuppie apartments.
The developers, Henderson Global Investors, actually do this for a living, and with six major UK shopping centres in their portfolio, they should be fairly recession-proof. Yet the project is already delayed and a sudden lack of cooperation from the Thistle Hotel, which has to be voluntarily exiled to a roundabout on Picardy Place before the demolition can proceed, is the latest spanner in the works. Thistle clearly has HGI by the balls and it just has to name its price for the project to resume, but they have to be careful not to aggravate the purseholder too much. HGI has previously threatened to abandon the project unless the pesky hotel could be sent to its awaiting roundabout.
One does not wish to sniff at what is clearly an ambitious project to crown Edinburgh as a big shopping destination – and one for once credibly backed by private finance – but as Princes Street is growing steadily derelict, and town-centre shopping is more generally in decline, the recession may leave us with a Quarter short of a few shops. On the other hand, bourgeois opinion may deem the existing Centre to be an “eyesore,” but it nevertheless remains very popular amongst both shoppers and retailers, and one has to question the wisdom – or at least the logistics – of shutting down one of the city’s prime retail districts in the middle of a recession.
The LDP’s “preferred option” is a mixed-use regeneration of Leith Docks, incorporating the eventual building of 18,000 homes, whilst its “reasonable alternative” is to transform the docks into a base for renewable energy production. The alternative is potentially backed by millions of pounds worth of funding from central government, and it is also the preferred option of the Docks’ actual owners, the privatised Forth Ports, who are admittedly not natural house builders. This project has not had any wind in its sails for several years, and a succession of plans for the site are now sleeping with the fishes. Forth Ports have recently changed hands and the tramline which would have connected the Docks to the rest of the city has been since terminated.
As Edinburgh is a post-industrial city with a serious housing shortage, both the preferred option and the alternative may seem equally valid, but any consulting on this issue is frustrated by the sketchy details and stagnant development. The lack of housing is currently so dire that Tychy reluctantly supports the preferred option, but any new housing should be ideally social or “affordable,” rather than the usual yuppie pads, and Forth Ports obviously has little interest in building homes for people without lots of money.
In previous plans, only 30% of the new homes would have been “affordable” (presumably to house the au pairs and “assistants”), and such a small stock is so unhelpful that they may as well erect a wind turbine factory. Alternatively, we do not know what sorts of renewable industries will be established on the docks and whether they will be there to stay. We are in effect gambling without knowing the odds, but any development needs to be rapid, ambitious, and undoubtedly financed by central government.
IBG and the South-East.
An “International Business Gateway” will be built out by the airport, where an emerging corporate “zone” will jostle with the expanding airport and the redeveloped Royal Highland Showground. So far the developers have identified the land, whilst they have yet to achieve much else. An otherwise well-disposed John Swinney has specifically made no “commitment to future funding from the Scottish government.” The IBG remains a hazy mirage of conference centres, rolling office space, and some sort of concert venue, and if it is ever built, the complex will probably resemble the nearby Edinburgh Park, a landscape encrusted with offices which have been apparently built for androids.
We are effectively planting in the desert, and an exciting development can only emerge if there are people with a heart for this out-of-town site. As with Leith Docks, Tychy believes that the land should be ideally used for housing, but the LDP judges that “housing development must not undermine the main purpose of the area which is to attract international business investment.”
In addition, the LDP wishes to open up modest pockets of land in the south-east of the city for around 2000 homes. This figure may seem woefully inadequate in the context of the present housing shortages (the city will need to build over ten times this amount in the next two decades) but the LDP at least promises to be a bit less anal with preserving the green belt.
Next post: Tychy will offer some alternative suggestions for the future development of Edinburgh.