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February 25, 2009

Every recession has a silver lining

A community group has spent the last two years campaigning against a multi-million pound property development in the heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town. In addition to ignoring the community’s views, the Council has also chosen to disregard UNESCO concerns about the environmental impact on this designated World Heritage Site. The campaigners think the credit crunch may have thrown them a lifeline

A DOSSIER into Edinburgh’s World Heritage Site has strongly criticised the handling of a controversial development in the heart of the Old Town.

The Unesco report, delivered to the city council last week, has singled out for criticism the way the £300 million Caltongate scheme was approved by the authorities despite protests from a host of heritage groups.

Councillors approved plans to knock down two listed buildings to make way for a five-star hotel and conference centre less than a year after detailed plans were submitted.

The scheme had earlier been backed by Historic Scotland and was subsequently approved by the Scottish Government, after ministers ruled out a public inquiry.

Yesterday, the city council was facing fresh demands to urge the developer to produce new plans for the site. Criticism by bodies such as the International Council on Monuments and Sites, Edinburgh World Heritage and the Cockburn Association is widely believed to have triggered the Unesco investigation, which was ordered at the body’s annual world heritage summit in Quebec last July.

The council is thought to have borne the brunt of criticism on Caltongate, although Historic Scotland and the Scottish Government are also believed to have come under fire from the inspectors, who visited the capital last year. One area of criticism is that the council and the developer both failed to pay enough heed to the protests over the development, or make substantial changes before a final planning decision was made.

About 2,000 jobs have been promised by Mountgrange, the developer of Caltongate, which includes 200 homes, a public square, office blocks and a new arts quarter. Last week the developer rebuffed claims the project was in danger of being shelved.

Jim Lowrie, the city council head of planning, said: “(The report] does criticise us over the Caltongate development. We are going to have to look at (that] before we respond in detail.”

Edinburgh city council has several weeks to submit an official response to the report, which will be discussed at the next world heritage summit in Seville this summer.

However James Simpson, one of Scotland’s leading conservation architects, said: “Too many developments in Edinburgh have been pushed through as a result of greed on the part of developers and fear on the part of councillors and officials.

“I sincerely hoped that the downturn will mean that developments like Caltongate do not go ahead and that it will give the council breathing space to rethink the whole approach.”

Sally Richardson, the spokeswoman for the Save Our Old Town campaign, said: “Since this site is unlikely to be developed for the next few years, we would like to see the council encourage some kind of temporary use, such as community allotments or a new park.”

With Caltongate Developers Mountgrange in financial distress, a window of opportunity has arrived for city planners and the council to reconsider their stand on how the New Street Site is to be developed.

The buildings at risk from demolition should be bought back to life and serve the community and city’s needs once again and the council should freeze all work on land sales to Mountgrange in present situation, say Save Our Old Town campaigners.

The campaigners are continuing to call on the council to uphold the decision to use the £100,000 Bond from Mountgrange to allow a temporary landscape scheme to be implemented on the New Street gap site.

The Old Town campaigners presented the results from a year long community research project at a seminar held last weekend which decision makers as well as the public have been invited to attend.

Key Findings of the Report are likely to prove embarrassing to planners and politicians.

They include:

Having a living world heritage site in the city centre came out as a top priority but housing policies and city development fails to support this.

There is an urgent need for community facilities and spaces.

There is a clear lack of ‘public’ responsibility in the management of public space.

Small independent and start up businesses require support and initiatives.

Opportunities and sites for community development should be identified.

Urban communities should get access to ‘”community right to buy”

Pressure on council to keep a properly accounted and managed register of Common Good Land & Assets.

No more “selling off of the family silver” and no more privatisation of public space.

Over the year opinion was sampled from residents and public –

79% want social & affordable housing
77% want family housing
77% want play parks/areas for children & teenagers
70% want a better mix of shops
62% want more grassed areas & trees
57% want artist’s working facilities