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December 3, 2008

Local people versus developers

Heroic defenders of our heritage or another case of reactionary nymbyism. Opinion often splits over local campaigns to halt the relentless path of development. Major development proposals for some of Edinburgh’s most historic sites are currently the cause of much heated debated and local campaigns have grown up around each of them. Three development protesters take this opportunity to present the case that the views of local people should carry much more weight


EDINBURGH MAY have retained its World Heritage status, following the visit of two Unesco inspectors last week to assess whether the city was still worthy of the title. Their trip came in the light of a number of planned new developments – including Caltongate, Leith Docks and Haymarket- and has led to soul-searching about the future direction of our capital city. Debate has raged over whether World Heritage status is desirable, or if it is a hindrance to development. Meanwhile, it has become clear that there is an intensity of feeling around the way the city is changing, often expressed most vocally by the people who live in those areas. Is this a rash of Edinburgh nimbyism? Or is it, in fact, the case that it is those who live in a place who care about it most; that they are the ones who are most likely to notice and object to any unwanted arrival in their backyard? Three development protesters present their case.

Caltongate: Sally Richardson points to a bag of plastic rubbish assembled for the recycling bins. “Sometimes, I wonder why I do this. We’re telling our children to recycle, and yet they’ve got to see listed buildings in their neighbourhood be knocked down.”

She is referring to a series of buildings on the Royal Mile, including the C-listed Sailor’s Ark and the Canongate Venture school, which are due to be demolished to make way for a development of offices, leisure facilities and a hotel, known as Caltongate.

Richardson points out a non-listed tenement, designed by EJ MacRae, whose windows are dark and lifeless. “They’re being let to go to wrack and ruin. How many tenancies are empty in there, and how many people are on the waiting list in Edinburgh? You could wash those windows and paint them and that building would look as good as the day that it was built 70 years ago.”

For the past four years, Richardson has devoted around 15 hours a week to the Save Our Old Town campaign. She had not been looking for a cause like this, when, in 2004, she joined the local community council, hoping to find something to keep her brain ticking over while looking after two children.

Nor did she have any idea how all-consuming it would become, when, while hanging washing, she mentioned the development to neighbour and town planner, Julie Logan, saying, “We really need somebody to look at this plan. I think it’s going to be enormous, and it’s for the Canongate.”

The next four years would see her transform into an Erin Brockovich of town planning. Save Our Old Town would launch petitions, come up with slogans such as “Old Town, Not Clone Town” and even manage to rile a councillor enough to stick a single finger up at them. Their campaigning has prompted others to look into the methods of Mountgrange, the developer, leading to the revelation that the company had donated £4000 to the Scottish Labour Party for a champagne reception.

Save Our Old Town has been, over the years, a predominantly female-driven campaign. “Maybe that’s got something to do with this area,” says Richardson. “In the past, women here campaigned and made banners to save their wash-houses.” She believes that for all our local and national governments’ talk about promoting community engagement, it’s the last thing they want: “I’m just considered to be a troublemaker.” For her, the “ugly gap site in the heart of the city” described by Jenny Dawe, city council leader, is a once active neighbourhood that has been allowed to slide.

She is a believer in the principles of Patrick Geddes, the 19th-century developer of Edinburgh’s Old Town, who advocated that by changing spatial form it was possible to change social structure.

In some ways, the Save Our Old Town campaign has failed. The Caltongate development has now been given the green light by both the city council, in August, and, in September, the Scottish government, who rejected pleas for a public inquiry.

For Richardson, however, the process has not been entirely in vain. “I think what we’ve done is delayed it, and now it may be market forces that will decide its ultimate fate.”

Leith Docks: When Shaeron Averbuch and Ross McEwan held a public meeting of the organisation JUMP (“Joined Up Master Planning”) in April, they advertised it with flyers carrying images of fleas. Their point was that “enough committed fleas biting strategically can make even the biggest dog uncomfortable”.

The dogs they were planning to make itch were Edinburgh City Council and Forth Ports, whose master plan, prepared by RMJM architects, was set to transform the Leith Docks area, creating nine urban villages within it and 22,000 new homes along the Edinburgh Waterfront. Some 120 people turned up to that meeting.

Averbuch and McEwan point out, this figure, along with all the names that signed their petition against the development is equivalent to the around 700 members of the public that Forth Ports initially consulted.

Averbuch recalls that when she first moved to a flat on Dock Place in Leith in 1995, “you used to be able to cycle through a lot of it, but you really haven’t got a chance of doing that now”. Ten years later, she noticed how the green spaces were disappearing. At the time, the outline of the Forth Ports plan was first proposed, she and McEwan, who declares himself an “urbanist”, and who worked on master planning social housing in London, had formed a design studio, Art in Architecture. Something they cared about was happening on their turf and they wanted to act.

This kind of development, is, they point out, the equivalent of the creation of a new town. “It’s the same size as Glenrothes or Cumbernauld,” says McEwan. “The difference is that those towns were created by a development corporation. Here we have one land owner following a model that is all about land value.” It is because the plan is on this scale, the pair believe that “this should have been an open international competition for master-planning”.

Both are advocates of modern architecture, yet feel that this is not the kind of design that looks to the long term. “There’s no intellectual rigor to it,” says McEwan, “no concept about how people are going to live for the next 50-100 years.” JUMP has issued its own principles, around which the group believes believe any future development should revolve. They include no (or reduced) cars, plenty of green space, an emphasis on social enterprise.

Averbuch and McEwan are in accord with many of the views of Prince Charles, and cite examples from The Passionate Prince, broadcast on Wednesday night. “We like how Prince Charles’s Poundbury is sustainable and looks to the community. This whole holistic approach seems to have gone out of the window with what’s happening in Edinburgh.”

Their attempts to galvanise the community have not always worked. Few of their fleas have bitten. One problem, McEwan believes, is that “local people don’t think it’s their business, because, as yet, it’s not affecting them. Until the lorries start running down the streets, they won’t worry about it.”

Its this knowledge of the often “all too late” nature of public protest which drives them. “It means we have to work harder for local people’s benefit,” says McEwan, “for that moment in the future when they might become interested, but by then it will be too late.”

Haymarket: Iconic gateway is a phrase I’m sick of hearing,” says engineer Maria Kelly . “I think, we pay our taxes, we’re entitled to our opinions. Many of us are going to be walking past these things. I don’t want to walk past that horror that they’re planning.”

The “horror” she is describing is the planned architectural “super hub”, including a 17-storey hotel, Richard Murphy-designed, known as the Haymarket Gateway, which, last Thursday, the Scottish government announced is now going to be put to a public inquiry.

The news of this was, for Kelly, a “huge relief”. As head of the Dalry Colonies Residents Association, she has spent many evenings over the past two years negotiating with developers and pestering councillors in a bid to alter the course of the development that is set to overlook their homes. “We look forward to contributing to the inquiry,” she says, “which will hopefully result in a development which reaches economic goals as well as contributing to Edinburgh’s wonderful architecture.”

The Dalry Colonies Residents Association is a small but vocal force. When Kelly, originally from Wales, moved into the area, she noted how, because of the way the paths along gardens are shared, everyone knew each other very well.

In the tightly packed buildings there were many long-term residents, pensioners who had been there more than 40 years, and this enhanced the impression that this was a proper community.

It also meant that, as Kelly describes, “we can organise ourselves reasonably well”.

This they have done. The fight has, she says been “non-stop” since she took over the chair.

Among their concerns was the 17-storey height of the main hotel, the disappearance of public toilets and the fact that one of the hotels, which ran close alongside would have bedroom windows looking down on their homes. Kelly recalls starting the consulting process feeling positive. Recently, however, she felt more jaded. It seemed that many of their points were disregarded.

Meanwhile, the architectural plans would suddenly be unexpectedly altered. “When they first consulted with us the hotel was only 12 storeys, and it suddenly became 16 storeys, then 17. That automatically makes you quite distrustful.”

For her it is not change itself that she objects to. “It just seems to me,” she says, “that this solution is an economic solution.

“It’s not that I object to the area changing. It’s just, why does it have to change in the way an architect wants it to look when everybody lives in a city? “