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November 28, 2007

Save Meadowbank Stadium

The campaign to save this much loved and well used sports facility has managed to galvanise huge support from communities on the east side of Edinburgh. However the arguments in favour of retaining Meadowbank seem to be falling on deaf ears within City of Edinburgh Council who seem convinced by the case to sell a significant proportion of the site for housing.


Save Meadowbank Campaign

Just before the May elections, the Labour party-group of Edinburgh Council tabled a motion to be debated at the Full Council Meeting of April 26th that essentially confirmed Labour’s commitment to sell off Meadowbank stadium. After lobbying from the Save Meadowbank campaign however, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP groups both tabled amendments to the motion which offered at least a temporary reprieve for the stadium.

It was agreed by the Council that a working group be set up to consider the whole issue and that the group report to the Council on June 28th.

The May 3rd elections put in place a coalition administration of Lib Dem/ SNP: two parties that had suggested pre-elections that they fully supported our campaign to Save Meadowbank.

Because of the alleged determination by Council officials to ensure they find the right ‘independent’ chairperson for the job, the Working Group didn’t meet up until June 21st. The Working Group report deadline was therefore extended to the autumn, and the Aug 23rd meeting of the Full Council.

Save Meadowbank Campaign had to lobby the new administration very hard even to be represented in these deliberations, but eventually we were allocated one space in the 19 member group, with the bulk of representatives coming from the Council.

As it turned out, the “independent chair” was perhaps less independent than we may have been led to believe. While the Council’s pro-sell-off line was backed up by a presentation from a team of around a dozen Council officials and contractors, Save Meadowbank Campaign volunteer architect, Edinburgh University’s Dr Dimitris Theodossopoulos was refused entry to make a presentation on our behalf.

In fact, the chair was so independent that, although the vast majority on the Working Group disagreed with him, he drafted a report to the Council that ruled out refurbishment of Meadowbank.

Off course, leaked copies of his draft report found their way to the media, and as intended, were presented by the Evening News as the views of the Working Group.
Before the Working Group began its work, many were wary that the outcome may have been pre-determined to agree the sell-off of Meadowbank. Actual experience of the Working Group confirmed that suspicion.

As a result, Save Meadowbank Campaign decided that we would have to re-engage the public in order to remind our elected representatives of the strength of feeling on this issue and make them aware that another phoney attempt at ‘consultation’ would not let them off the hook.
We therefore booked Meadowbank for our second public meeting on Aug 17th, the day the final report was to be published.

The Working Group chair refused to alter the report to reflect majority opinion, but uproar amongst the Working Group members meant that he was forced to present this as his own recommendations, and to make clear that the views contained were not those of the majority on the Working Group.

On publication of the report, the Evening News failed to mention the above detail when they wrote:
“Terry Christie… chair up an independent working group… [which has] rejected pleas by campaigners to refurbish the existing stadium, advising the council to press ahead with a total sell-off of Meadowbank if it cannot raise the money for major new facilities on the site. Mr Christie described any attempt to refurbish the existing facilities at the athletics stadium as “short-term and short-sighted”.
Public Meeting, Aug 17th

On a cold August Friday night in the middle of the Edinburgh Festival, around 400 people made their way to Meadowbank to engage in local democracy in a way that most politicians appear very uncomfortable with.
As noted above, the meeting was designed to provide the public with an opportunity to remind councillors of the passion that won’t go away on this issue and to make the public aware of the ‘workings’ of a Working Group that had entirely failed to examine the feasibility of refurbishing Meadowbank, and instead had taken as a given that it must be sold off.

SMC architect, Dr Dimitris Theodossopoulos, gave the meeting the presentation that the Working Group chairman had prevented him from doing. Based on comparisons with similar projects, he estimated that the refurbishment of Meadowbank (including a new covered Velodrome) was something that could be achieved for around £18 million.
The Sighthill Arena was to have cost £53m, and did not include a Velodrome. It did however involve Meadowbank being turned into a housing estate, and Sighthill losing the only green space that still exists in the area.
Ex athlete and current Green Party Councillor Alison Johnstone was the only Councillor on the panel to offer her full support to the campaign, and condemned the fact that there had never been any survey into the cost or viability of refurbishing it, as had been called for on numerous occasions.

Once again, the strength of feeling, and the power of the arguments put forward unanimously from the floor of ordinary people and sports superstars alike, was enough to convince now ex-Council leader Ewan Aitken to bravely acknowledge that New Labour (now in opposition) had been wrong on Meadowbank.

Like Aitken, the young SNP Councillor, Rob Munn (who attended in place of local SNP Councillor, Stefan Tymkewycz), had clearly never seen so many people in one room before, but was able to explain that, “We have changed our position because we have been listening.”
The Lib Dems’ Gary Peacock, who was less phased by the occasion, also accepted that it would be a good idea to establish how much it would cost to refurbish Meadowbank.
Full Council meeting, Aug 23rd (Minutes)
Before deciding the fate of Meadowbank, the Council heard from deputations of Save Meadowbank Campaign and various Community Councils

Undoubtedly though, the fact that over 1000 members of the public came together to Save Meadowbank Campaign’s two public meetings and made clear that we would not sit idly by while the Council sold off our public property was what led the Council to at last commission a report on:
a) the proposals to refurbish and upgrade the existing facility at Meadowbank;
b) the feasibility of providing a new athletics track, 2,000 capacity seated stadium and associated sports facilities also at Meadowbank; and
c) all funding options and possibilities in respect of a) and b) above.
The Council also agreed that “an athletics track and sports complex should remain at Meadowbank.” Deputy Council leader Steve Cardownie explained that the Sighthill plan was now finished.
Report on Refurbishment proposals
After that decision, SMC architect, Dr Dimitris Theodossopoulos was invited to a meeting with Council officials in order to discuss his refurbishment plans. Save Meadowbank Campaign allowed their £18m figure to be increased to around £27m due in part to updated figures for the area of the floor space, but primarily as a result of officials’ insistence that 35% must be added on for inflation and contingency costs.
Save Meadowbank Campaign felt that the Council were now serious about working with the campaign with an aim to refurbishing Meadowbank.
We were wrong. The press were fed an exagerated £40m refurbishment figure, together with a few choice quotes designed to prepare us for the bad news we’d need to come to terms with:
City planning leader Jim Lowrie said today: “It’s a non-starter for us to try to find almost £40m for a refurbishment and it’s unrealistic to suggest that it can be done. “If we were to sell off something like a third of the existing site we may be able to raise enough money for a replacement running track, a smaller spectator stand and new indoor facilities.”

Why exaggerate the figures? It is difficult to conclude anything other than to imply that the refurbishment option is not viable, and to convince the public and even sympathetic councillors that the only solution is to sell a considerable chunk of the site for luxury housing in order to fund a small facility on the remainder.
If the political will existed, officials would be looking at ways of providing the phased fit-for-purpose refurbishment the people of Edinburgh want and deserve, at an economical price; not searching around for the most exaggerated costs they can find, in the hope that a decision to demolish would mean their figures would never be tested.
In a rare moment of honesty, a “council source” pointed out,
There is no appetite for [the refurbishment] option among the council officials, but unfortunately for them, that is the number one priority for the campaign group.

The report commissioned by the Aug 23rd Full Council meeting is now due to be presented to the coming Dec 20th meeting.