May 16, 2018
What’s going on in the Old Town?
City of Edinburgh Council has long recognised that there’s been a breakdown of trust between itself and the residents of Edinburgh – particularly with regards to the way that its UNESCO world heritage site, Edinburgh’s Old Town, has been managed. Not so very long ago the Council formally committed itself to restoring that trust – even being prepared to be judged by the City on that basis. No one is suggesting that this has been made any easier with the financial pressure from years of austerity but this account from Old Town Community Council of recent events really beggars belief.
“We need to recognise that there has been a breakdown in trust between the residents of Edinburgh and their elected representatives on the Council. That relationship needs to be repaired. This new contract with the capital marks a fresh start, with a Council willing to listen to local people and work together with local communities… A council where cooperation, fairness, accountability and responsibility really matter… The City will be able to judge the Council against this promise.”
City of Edinburgh Council (2012 – 2017)
Among many, many accolades, the ‘Outstanding Universal Value’ of Edinburgh, with her magnificent natural setting, association to The Enlightenment, twin World Heritage and recognition as the 1st World ‘City of Literature’, is honoured and inscribed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
Having come to be regarded among the most beautiful cities in the World, besides millions of marvelling visitors Edinburgh’s exceptional plaudits have attracted considerable interest, for better or worse, from ‘inward investment capital’, also referred to as ‘Foreign Direct Investment’.
In an age of globalisation where such ubiquitous financial investment exerts considerable influence, in seeking to maximise return this capital insidiously favours weak, obsequious governance. Disparagingly referred to as ‘predatory’/ ‘zombie’ capital, this inward investment is typically precarious, without fundamental sensitivity and loyalty to place, which can have devastating consequences for the long term well being of local communities.
Exacerbated by the imposition of ‘austerity’ in the current economic climate, Edinburgh Council has become weak and demoralised by high levels of debt following a catalogue of blunders relating to ill conceived and ill fated infrastructure projects. Consequently, in what appears an attempt to reconcile the City’s dire financial predicament, the Council has attracted significant inward investment by offering prime public assets for the purpose of private development. Of particular note are the major developments featured in the ‘Edinburgh 12’ so called ‘initiative’.
In spite of Council promises regarding “cooperation, fairness, accountability and responsibility”, the inauspicious list of public assets (including listed buildings, brownfield sites, priceless greenbelt, and former Royal High School, a national monument), have been disposed of WITHOUT ANY public consultation to discuss alternative options. Associated development pressure has then been such as to overwhelm Citizens, civic organisations and evidently government agencies.
The case of the Royal High School alone has required such dedicated scrutiny as to divert critical attention from other contentious planning proposals, thereby precipitating deleterious development across the City which has typically failed to ‘enhance’ Outstanding Universal Value, as is otherwise stipulated in accord with the World Heritage status.
In spite of the duty of Edinburgh World Heritage Trust and Historic Environment Scotland to protect the Outstanding Universal Value of the City, UNESCO have expressed ‘strong concerns’ about the cumulative effects of development, stating that “the quality and pervasiveness of development projects being pursued without due consideration for conservation is deeply worrying”. Following similar concerns of UNESCO regarding the City of Liverpool (now featured on the ‘World Heritage In Danger’ list), this puts the future status of Edinburgh in doubt.
In the Old Town, with overbearing pressure from hotel and student developments, combined with the hundreds of homes lost to the short term ‘Buy to Let’ holiday market, all local councillors have voiced serious concerns regarding the future of this historic neighbourhood, at the heart of the nation. Residents of the Old Town are now enduring considerable stress and unable to maintain a decent quality of life. Many residents have now left in despair, exacerbating the decline of the community, exposing the Council as fundamentally failing in its civic duty to honour the Principles of Public Life; of always acting in the best interests of Citizens, safeguarding community, culture, heritage and natural resources.
In representing the voice of local residents, it is the opinion of the Old Town Community Council (OTCC), that the situation has become so serious as to have reached crisis point.
Proposed India Buildings Hotel
Of recent developments in the Old Town perhaps most contentious is the proposed India Buildings hotel on Victoria St, extending to the Cowgate, on land otherwise long set aside for the benefit of Edinburgh Central Library.
Besides further threatening the fragile local community, the OTCC considers this development so serious as to imperil the future of the Library; a building whose national and international importance as a ‘Beacon of Civilisation’, of greater public worth than castles and palaces, is key to Edinburgh’s reputation as a City of Literature and Enlightenment.
With no public consultation, the decision of Edinburgh Council to dispose of the land otherwise intended for the Library’s future development (Cowgate gap site), fundamentally compromises the ability of the Library to “grow in usefulness” and “provide the services expected of the principal library for a capital city in the 21‘ century”, while satisfying fire safety and disability access requirements. Having granted consent for the hotel, as a further insult the proposed development would overshadow the Library, whose motto with the bitterest irony is “Let There Be Light”, significantly blocking natural light and prime views of Edinburgh Castle. This assuredly condemns the Central Library to an ignoble, and potentially terminal fate and in so doing desecrates the finest gift to the nation of founder Andrew Carnegie, ruining his enlightened vision, carried through the ages, for the Common Good.
The developer claims the impact of the hotel on the Library will be’neutral’and that associated service vehicles will have only a “minor impact on air quality… and can be adequately serviced from the existing access from the Cowgate”, even though the Cowgate, as a major arterial medieval road, is already excessively in breach of Air Quality regulations.
Disregarding the concerns of the local community and the thousands of supporting objectors, the Council’s Planning Report, in support of the hotel development, concluded:
“The design of the new building is respectful and reflects the historic context and grain of this part of the city… There will be no adverse impact on the character or appearance of the conservation area or the setting of adjacent listed buildings. It will not significantly impact on the amenity of neighbouring residents and it will not introduce any implications in terms of road or pedestrian safety… There are no material considerations which outweigh this conclusion. It is recommended that this application be Granted.”
A cursory look at the developer’s townscape visual impact assessment, both in regards to the setting of the A listed Central Library and threat to public health and safety due to the proposed service access at the narrow lane abutting the Library, off the overburdened polluted Cowgate, reveals the Council’s planning judgement to be seriously flawed, evidently relying exclusively on the Applicant’s data and favouring economic development above all other consideration.
Considering the potentially devastating impact of the proposed development, the Application was firmly rejected by the OTCC and surrounding community council’s, all local ward Councillors, MSP’s and MP, the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland, Cockburn Association, Edinburgh Old Town Development Trust, Old Town Association and others, an opinion now supported by over 5000 Citizens through an on-line petition. Local MSP Andy Whitemen is quoted in the press as stating “it feels as if this one is the straw that broke the camel’s back”.
In spite of the strength of objection and the guiding Principles of Public Life, with ‘a presumption in favour of sustainable economic development’ embedded at the core of current planning legislation and a developer right of appeal, ensuring that private commercial interests typically prevail, councillors on the Development Management SubCommittee (DMSC) voted narrowly, by 8 votes to 6, in favour of the hotel.
Following this outcome, the OTCC and others repeatedly appealed to Scottish Ministers to intervene. However, in spite of the Library’s undoubted national, and indeed international importance, this request was declined, with a mere stock reply that “no issues of national significance would justify using the power of call-in in this particular case”.
With NO community right of appeal a Judicial Review was then actioned. However, in spite of the so called ‘independence’ of the Judiciary, under the current constraints of process, where only the legality, rather than the merits or the facts, are considered the Court repeatedly deferred to the conclusion of the Council’s planning judgement that “there would be no adverse impact”. Consequently, in spite of the very serious nature and evident glaring injustice of the case the Court declined to quash planning permission.
Though a statutory body, the Court declined to consider this assessment of Application 15/04445/FUL by the OTCC, which reveals key evidence, obtained through Freedom of Information requests since planning consent was granted, indicating that councillors were ‘significantly misled’. Endorsed by local MP Tommy Sheppard, the Assessment further reveals a clear conflict of interest, serious dereliction of government agencies to uphold the Principles of Public Lifeand failure of Edinburgh Council to honour coalition promises.
Having failed to achieve a satisfactory outcome through Judicial Review, the OTCC now considers it ‘expedient’, under exceptional circumstances, for Edinburgh Council/ Scottish Parliament to enact Section 65 of the Town and Country Planning Act (1997) Scotland, which would allow planning consent for Application 15/04445/FUL to be revoked.
Having comprehensively considered this case, the OTCC concludes that, while the proposed hotel could readily be relocated elsewhere, the only realistic option in safeguarding the future of Edinburgh Central Library would be to develop the Cowgate gap site for the benefit of the Library, as always intended, realising the aspiration of founder Andrew Carnegie and architect George Washington Browne.
Inspired by the recent award winning extension to Dunfermline’s Carnegie Library, alternative proposals could then be developed, as outlined in Appendix C, realising a world class re-visioning of Edinburgh Central Library as a ‘Beacon of Civilisation’, further enriching the City’s cultural reputation, investing in the enlightenment of future generations.
If the Council, having previously failed to safeguard the best interests of Edinburgh Central Library, declined to pursue such a vision for the Library, the local community would seek the opportunity using the Community Empowerment Act.
Given the international legacy of Carnegie and the widespread support of those who love this City, including JK Rowling (whose children’s books, inspired by the Old Town, have become the most popular in the history of publishing), the community is confident that sufficient funds can be raised through philanthropic endeavour to realise such a vision.
If common sense and decency will not prevail at a local level, having sought clarification regarding numerous related matters at a local level (Appendix A), in safeguarding the best interests of the public, the local community, the Library and UNESCO titles, the OTCC intends to pursue this matter with the European Commission and UNESCO.
Old Town Community Council – March 2018