January 27, 2016
What price our heritage?
Conflicts over land use are not uncommon. Particularly in cities where pressures on land are greater. But sometimes common sense should just be allowed to prevail. In north Edinburgh, a local group have been working to restore a medieval walled garden – a wholly unique and irreplaceable local resource. The Council’s property development company purchased the land ten years ago with a plan to build some luxury houses on the site. Everyone knows Councils are short of cash but if a capital receipt trumps a medieval garden, what next? Student flats in the Castle?
In North Edinburgh, a community-based campaign is fighting to prevent one of Edinburgh’s oldest surviving walled gardens from being lost to a luxury housing development. The Friends of Granton Castle Garden want to restore it to use as a community garden.
The late-Medieval walled garden could be more than 500 years old. It survived the demolition of Granton Castle in the 1920s and continued in use as a market garden until relatively recent times.
Some 10 years ago, the garden was acquired by Waterfront Edinburgh Ltd., a company wholly owned by the City of Edinburgh Council, to add to its wider portfolio of land in the Granton Waterfront redevelopment area.
In December 2003, Waterfront Edinburgh had submitted applications for planning permission to erect a residential development of 17 luxury houses within the walled garden. The company’s original proposal was for a gated development, but the security gates were subsequently dropped from the scheme. In October 2004, the Council’s Development Management Sub-Committee agreed to grant planning permission subject to a legal agreement in relation to affordable housing and a financial contribution towards education infrastructure. A draft legal agreement was prepared in 2008 but the economic crash intervened. The agreement was never concluded and planning permission never issued.
Despite the garden being identified as open space in the Council’s Open Space Audit and the Edinburgh City Local Plan, Waterfront Edinburgh remains intent on building luxury housing on the site. In January 2015, the EDI Group, of which Waterfront Edinburgh is a part, revived its interest in the development. The Council’s Planning Department erroneously informed Historic Scotland that the planning applications relating to the garden had been withdrawn along with others for adjacent sites, but EDI managed to keep them alive on the basis that the Council had previously been minded to consent. Its proposals are currently being considered by the Council under its procedure for dealing with legacy planning applications, which requires them to be re-assessed in the light of more up-to-date development plans, changes to policies and revisions of guidance.
There have been a number of important changes in policy and guidance since Waterfront Edinburgh’s proposals were last considered by the City Council.
In 2014, the Scottish Government revised Scottish Planning Policy (SPP) which now states that decisions should have regard to the principles for sustainable land use set out in its Land Use Strategy. One of these principles is that where land is highly suitable for a primary use such as food production, this value should be recognised in decision-making. The SPP also states that decisions should be guided by the need to protect, enhance and promote access to cultural heritage, including the historic environment.
A resurvey undertaken by Historic Scotland in the light of evidence of a history dating back to 1479 led to its listed status being upgraded from Category C to Category B in July 2015. Historic Scotland also issued new planning guidelines on historic gardens and designed landscapes earlier this year.
The emerging Strategic Development Plan Open Space Strategy identifies the garden as a key location for action to create a network of connected green spaces in North Edinburgh.
A driving force in the Friends of Granton Castle Garden is its Chair, Kirsty Sutherland, who is a horticultural consultant. Under her leadership, the campaign has developed an impressive momentum, winning the support of organisations as diverse as the Pilton Community Health Project, North Edinburgh Arts, Nourish, Edible Edinburgh, Scotland’s Garden and Landscape Heritage, Common Weal and Edinburgh College of Art. Research by the Friends has uncovered a great deal of new information on the history of Granton Castle and its garden and an initial survey of the garden’s walls has been undertaken with the assistance of Historic Environment Scotland staff under the Scotland’s Urban Past scheme.
Granton Castle Walled Garden is an irreplaceable resource and one of the few areas of deep, unpolluted, well-tilled soil in the area. The surviving apple trees at Granton are prolific fruiters and their stock has made an important contribution to apple cultivation across Edinburgh.
The garden could be an asset of great value to North Edinburgh and the city as a whole if it were to be restored as a community garden. With the establishment of the Friends of Granton Castle Garden, there is now an organisation with the skills, capacity and commitment to make that happen. The Friends have engaged with EDI with a view to gaining access to the garden to undertake survey work and an archaeological investigation. They have also indicated an interested in purchasing it in the event of EDI’s planning application being unsuccessful.
A development of 17 luxury houses will benefit very few people and make no significant contribution to meeting the city’s housing needs. There is no need for the garden to be developed for housing, as it is surrounded by large areas of vacant post-industrial land which is much more suitable. The cost of providing road access to the site is estimated to be around £100,000, an abnormally large sum for a development of only 17 houses.
EDI has made it clear that its preference for a housing development in the walled garden is based entirely on financial considerations, the sale return on a niche housing development being much higher than sale for restoration as a working garden. Awkwardly for the City Council, doing the right thing now will call into question the wisdom of Waterfront Edinburgh’s purchase of the walled garden for development in the first place.
The economics of the purchase are already looking far from clever. In 2006, Waterfront Edinburgh paid £800,000 for the walled garden. With planning permission for housing, the site is now estimated to be worth only £240,000.
There is no compelling rationale for sacrificing a unique civic asset to luxury housing, but a real risk that it will be lost to the citizens of Edinburgh as a result of the narrow perspective of the City Council’s commercial arm. The Chairman of the EDI Board is the SNP councillor for Corstorphine/Murrayfield, Frank Ross. Other members of the Board are the Labour councillor for Leith, Gordon Munro and the Conservative councillor for Inverleith, Iain Whyte. It must be hoped that in an election year the city’s politicians will see the merit of giving greater weight to the interests of the community than sparing the blushes of their development company.
It is expected that the planning application will be determined early in 2016.