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May 21, 2014

Local decisions, local divisions

A cautionary tale amidst all the clamour to devolve power and decision making to a community level.  A decision on where to locate a much needed new secondary school in the Edinburgh sea side community of Portobello has been stymied for years – an illustration of how the will of the majority (and all the elected representatives for the area) can be utterly thwarted by a much smaller, but highly organised and effective opposition. What could have been a simple planning decision now requires a separate piece of legislation from Holyrood – and that still might not be enough.


Robert Armour TFN

It is an issue dividing a normally laidback community, and if objectors get their way, plans for a brand new state-of-the-art school in Portobello won’t go ahead.

This week objectors said they would mount “vociferous” opposition to plans to build the school in Portobello Park, as a Scottish Parliament committee convened to consider written objections the Edinburgh City Council (Portobello Park) bill – a private bill put forward by the council in a bid to overturn a legal decision preventing it from building in the park.

Despite the bill likely to become legislation, campaigners, who after winning the historic legal battle in 2012 to block the initial plans to build on the park, say they will continue to mount oppostition “at every turn”.

Their continued opposition to the bill, flies in the face of other local groups who claim the current high school is not fit for purpose and the park is the only viable option for a new school.

If the City of Edinburgh Council is successful in passing this bill then other local authorities throughout Scotland would introduce similar measures – Mike Cardwell

However, Portobello Park Action Group (PPAG), the organising force behind the objections, says the bill would create a precedent for other councils to build on green space across Scotland. 

Campaigners believe the land, given to the public for perpetuity back in the late 19th century, has been deliberately run down by the council.

They want it to be redeveloped as a natural community resource for all to use.

Mike Cardwell, an objector and supporter of PPAG, said the issue went beyond a local community at loggerheads.

He said many of the objections – over 500 – were concerned the bill would set a precedent for the removal of the current legal protection for parks and open spaces.

“Ultimately, if the City of Edinburgh Council is successful in passing this bill then other local authorities throughout Scotland would introduce similar measures,” he said.

“Stated bluntly, it would set a precedent for other common good land throughout Scotland to be built upon.

“One of the consequences of this would be to undermine the security of Scotland’s park land for future generations.”

Faye Arnold, who backs the council’s plans, however, told TFN the issue is being driven by a number of “prominent, middle class people” who are more interested in their house prices than the local community.

“Protesters aren’t making any sense,” she said. “It’s gone on too long. The bill has been a last resort and the majority of residents support it.

“We’re seeing a very articulate minority of people who worry more about the value of their homes than they do the community.”

Alison Johnstone, Green MSP and a former Edinburgh councillor, agrees. She said after 10 years of opposition to the bill, it should be supported.

“The choices we face now, with so much water having flowed under the bridge, are different,” she said.

“The school has planning permission to be built in the park and a contractor is in place to do so.

“The consultation a year ago had a massive response and a fairly hefty majority in favour of building in the park.

“However many criticisms one can level at the community consultation, it is difficult to argue that the will of the community is other than that which emerged from the consultation.”

Arguments for the proposed site of the new school

Pro-school campaigners say building on Portobello Park is the best option for the community. As well as a brand new, state-of-the-art high school to benefit 1,400 children for generations to come, the new school offers two full-sized all-weather pitches that will be freely accessible to the public. And the council will put £1 million towards a brand new public park on the site of the existing high school – a new facility for the community that more than compensates for the loss of an under-used park that takes up just 3% of the open space in the catchment, say campaigners.    

Arguments against the site of the new school

PPAG says the park is the only sizeable piece of green land in the area and is much used by a wide variety of local residents, golfers, dog walkers and nature lovers. Its aim is to preserve it for future generations to enjoy because, once built upon, it will be lost forever. Moreover, the park is inalienable common good land and belongs to the public under Scottish law. With a little investment the park would once again become an asset to the whole community. And going against this would create a precedent for all local authorities in Scotland to build on similar common good land.