The secret meetings that doomed Craighouse? – No Agendas, No Minutes, No Notes !

There has recently been a change of First Minister and also of the minister responsible for planning. The new minister, Marco Biagi, also has a different title, “Minister for Local Government & Community Empowerment”. We are hopeful that the new minister lives up to his new title and runs a much more community-empowering planning system in Scotland. We will be calling on Marco Biagi to explain the Scottish Government’s involvement in the Craighouse development. First, we will take you through the little we know of the unminuted, agendaless meetings that were common in the Craighouse planning process.

Our last post was about how at the start of the Craighouse hearing, the convenor asked the councillors to have a secret, unminuted, meeting about the Craighouse financial case for half an hour. But that wasn’t the only unminuted meeting about Craighouse.

Before the Craighouse site was sold, pre-sale meetings were held with prospective buyers at which about the high level of protections on the site was presented by council and government planners. Notes were taken and are available of the meetings with most potential acquirers. However, no notes can be found of the separate meetings with Mountgrange. Why were detailed notes taken of the other meetings, but not of the meetings with Mountgrange?

We also, previously, highlighted the meetings Mountgrange had with the Scottish Government, including finance minister John Swinney. We had a huge amount of difficulty getting hold of those meeting details via Freedom of Information legislation. Finally, we appealed to the Scottish Information Commissioner, which put enough pressure on the Scottish Government to get some of the information about those meetings released. However, two documents were still withheld.

After the meeting with John Swinney, a blog post by Manish Chande of Mountgrange appeared on John Swinney’s official blog  and an article appeared in The Herald, where Mountgrange‘s Manish Chande looked forward to the business opportunities of new infrastructure investment should Scotland vote for independence. The meetings with the Scottish Government and Mountgrange didn’t stop, instead they just stopped taking notes.

There were 2 further meetings between Historic Scotland and Mountgrange, sometimes with Edinburgh Council officials present. There were no notes, agendas or minutes of these meetings.

There was also a separate meeting between Mountgrange and the Chief Planner and Senior Planner from the Scottish Government. We are told by the Scottish Government under FoI: “Neither Historic Scotland nor Planning and Architecture Division hold any documents relating to the above noted meetings and the meetings were conducted without agenda or meeting notes”.

Derek Mackay (the planning mister at the time) on the 2nd October 2014, when asked about calling-in the Craighouse decision stated: “the general principle under which the planning system in Scotland operates is that decisions should be taken at the most appropriate local administrative level […]. The impacts of this application are local to the Craighouse area of Edinburgh”. If Craighouse is to be decided locally and only affects the local area (i.e. nothing to do with his officials or his department), why did his officials have unminuted agendaless meetings with the developer about the project?

Why was so much of the Craighouse planning process undertaken in secret? What was said in those meetings which politicians and public officials did not want the public to hear about? Clearly they were annoyed by having to release information under Freedom of Information legislation and resisted doing so as much as possible. But, if the politicians and officials have followed normal planning rules, why the secrecy?

We hope that the new Minister for Local Government & Community Empowerment stops planning decisions from being pushed through with unminuted agendaless meetings and brings about real transparency and community empowerment in the planning system.

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Convenor Ian Perry blocked committee members hearing arguments against Craighouse financial case

Planners and councillors voting for the Craighouse planning consent said they did so because it was the “minimum necessary to fund the long term future use of the category A listed buildings”. However, they had so little confidence in their own argument, they argued it in secret before the planning meeting and blocked anyone from presenting alternatives. In particular, Councillor Ian Perry, the convenor of the committee, asked officials to tell his fellow Labour councillors on the committee not to meet Friends of Craighouse to hear alternatives to Mountgrange’s proposals. When we did present our plans at the planning hearing in front of councillors, Ian Perry interrupts (before our allotted time is finished) to stop the figures being presented to councillors. Our presentation on alternative plans for the site is the only presentation Ian Perry interrupts and argues with before the time is up.

Clearly, Ian Perry and his officials had no confidence that their analysis of the financial argument for the Craighouse development would stand up to any scrutiny. So they ensured that councillors on the committee got no chance to hear any alternatives and that what officials said would be kept secret. Given that the figures produced by the Craighouse Partnership showed that the buildings were larger on the inside than the outside, it is not hard to see why Ian Perry and his officials had little confidence in their case. What is strange is: why would Ian Perry and officials be blocking alternatives and arguing the developer’s case in secret when it is the job of the developer to put their case for the developer’s financial benefit?

It started when Friends of Craighouse submitted a detailed financial rebuttal to the Scheme 2 application. We pointed out a series of mistakes in the figures, including that they had clearly impossible figures for the net and gross internal areas. We also pointed out the considerable financial contribution that the weddings business in New Craig could make to the long term viability of the site. Then scheme 3 went in, with net and gross internal area figures still impossibly wrong. Before the planning hearing, we worked with local business people, a bank and community buyout experts to put together a community plan to save the site. Given that the argument for the planning consent is that there is “no alternative” to saving the buildings, we put together an alternative. We then asked councillors on the planning committee to come to our presentation of the plans. Ian Perry obtained written advice to his fellow Labour councillors on the planning committee telling them not to hear our plans. This email, which we have, told councillors that attending a briefing where “untested alternatives are presented and the developer is not present” could bring the councillors’ “impartiality into question”. However, the Councillors Code of Conduct says that councillors on the committee should seek out alternative representations, from all sides, but not come to a decision until all the facts have been presented in the hearing. It is clear that officials were not wanting councillors to hear the side of the community and not wanting people to point out that their own figures have obvious errors in them.

In fact, the officials even wrote to councillors that following “due process” means basing decisions only on “the report and recommendations of the Head of Planning”. Officials are telling councillors that they should only base their decisions on what the Head of Planning tells them and not any other opinions, facts or advice. This is most definitely not what the law and Councillors Code of Conduct says. Ian Perry, as an experienced councillor, should know this.

A few days before the hearing, new figures were put into the application with the silly internal area errors corrected, but without correcting the nonsense valuations (A-listed buildings below average value for the area?) or the claims that a weddings business in New Craig would generate less than 7% profit, even if the building was provided for free with zero rent.

Given that we had not been able to present alternative plans to councillors before the hearing, we requested to present the plans at the hearing. Despite the fact that enabling development says the developer has to prove there is no alternative, officials denied us the any time to present alternatives. The only time available to discuss alternatives was given by Morningside and Merchiston community councils, but this time was interrupted by Ian Perry.

Then, we come to the hearing. The whole hearing was videoed, so you can see what happens next. Ian Perry tells the public that there is “something we need to sort out before we start the meeting”. All the councillors then disappear into another room. When they come back Ian Perry simply says “Sorry I apologise for that”. No explanation is given of what has happened. However, we later find out that this is where officials present the financial case for the development to the councillors. This is the only argument for the planning application, on all the other policy grounds the application would have to be turned down. But this is argued totally in secret. We are not even told this is what has been discussed. There are no minutes of this part of the meeting. In fact, Ian Perry’s only description is that the secret meeting is “before we start the meeting”. So, it doesn’t even form part of the planning hearing! It’s a private lobbying session by officials. It’s precisely this type of private briefing that the officials previously said that the councillors should not use to form their decision. So, the view of officials is that officials can have private briefings with councillors, but the public cannot.

It was clear to many of those watching the hearing that Ian Perry had made up his mind to grant the application before the hearing started. It is clear from his actions: interrupting our detailed arguments, blocking us presenting to Labour councillors and holding all arguments in favour of the development in secret. The whole hearing was stage managed to ensure that the decision-makers were never presented with any factual challenge to the nonsense being presented to them.

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Commercial lobbying ethics and responsibilities, why the industry needs proper regulation

Today, the Scottish Parliament will debate the regulation of the lobbying industry. Unethical lobbying leads to bad government. By providing inaccurate or untrue information to officials or politicians, bad decisions are made. It also locks communities and the public out of decisions because commercial lobbyists have disproportionate access and may make inaccurate claims which are not publicly known and therefore cannot be challenged.

But also, commercial lobbyists allow companies to hide their own actions. By acting as intermediaries, lobbyists can do and say things that otherwise reputable companies could not. With Craighouse, we have a commercial lobbyist claiming to be “ethical”, while acting for a different lobbyist whose ethics have been widely challenged, including in the House of Commons. But there is so much hidden and unclear, that we can’t even get a straight answer to which lobbying company works on Craighouse and who their client is. When a lobbyist says something, who are they saying it on behalf of and who takes responsibility? With Craighouse, finding this out gets very complicated very fast. For example, Napier University holds a financial interest in the Craighouse site, yet insists the lobbyist for the project is not acting on their behalf. But Invicta PA say they work for all of the Craighouse Partnership, which would include Napier. Napier University will financially benefit from this lobbyist’s activities, yet takes no responsibility for what the lobbyist says or does.

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Another Mountgrange company financially collapses

This month, another Mountgrange company collapsed financially. Mountgrange UK Ltd was put into voluntary liquidation because “it has been proved to the satisfaction of this meeting that the Company cannot, by reason of its liabilities, continue its business”. Duff and Phelps have been appointed as liquidators to wind up the company.

Creditors have until 2nd November 2014 to come forward with evidence of claims.

This particular company does not own Craighouse, so does not directly affect the ownership of the Craighouse site. The site itself is owned by an offshore investment fund, with Napier University having a financial interest in the site, too. Mountgrange UK Ltd was the company that funded the management company (Mountgrange Investment Management LLP) to raise the funds to buy sites like Craighouse in the first place. Neither the fund, nor its management company has been placed into any insolvency procedure.

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What next for Craighouse?

Our local politicians have failed to convince those in their own parties in power that they should support the community and not an off-shore tax-avoiding property speculator. They have failed to ensure that officials follow their own planning rules, policies and regulations. So what is next?

We have been told by the officials that our only option is Judicial Review, i.e., taking the decision to court. So many rules were broken in this case that we have an abundance of options for judicial review. We are working through the process of legal advice and have started fundraising for a full legal process.

Craighouse has achieved possibly the highest ever level of public engagement in a planning application in Scottish history. Thousands of people wrote in to planners and politicians urging them to do better for Edinburgh’s Seven Hills. Local politicians and community councils supported the community. National and local organizations supported the community in its desire to protect a beautiful site and its wildlife. But thousands of voters, experts, rafts of policies, rules and regulations is seemingly no match for millions of pounds of untaxed investment and the commercial lobbying that supports it.

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Politicians Urge Minister to Call In Craighouse

david key pictureDavid Key SNP Councillor of Craiglockhart and Fountainbridge Ward

“I would ask you to read the supporting documentation put before the committee. On every page there is at least one paragraph that points out that this application runs contrary to a large number of local and national planning guidelines and policies. There are breaches of the Local Development Plan. The settings of the Grade A listed buildings are spoilt by the proposed new build. And so it goes on. The surprise is that the planning officials then recommended approval for the application. The bigger surprise is that the Planning Committee approved that recommendation, albeit by a margin of 9 to 6.

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Community buyout plan still on track

Despite the disappointment of councillors voting to grant consent for the hugely unpopular Craighouse development, the community buyout plan for the site is continuing to gather momentum. The planning consent has no impact on theemail header 3 community’s right to buy the site under the Community Empowerment Bill. It also has no impact on the value the community would have to pay. Because the planning consent was argued on the basis of enabling development, then the value of the site (both with and without consent) is strictly the same: £4.7m. So, the community has the right to buy the Craighouse site for £4.7m whether the consent is granted or not, once the power is in force in Scotland in early 2015.

We have been getting some great people on board and lots of support. There will be more announcements coming from us on this, soon. Craighouse is likely to be put forwards as a flagship example of the new powers in the Community Empowerment Bill, so there is a lot of interest.DSC01258

We have already shown that we can make the Craighouse site viable long-term without new-build for a £4.7m site value, and that we can show enough financial return on that investment to make it viable.

In the meantime, please keep campaigning for the planning consent to be called-in, as this will protect the site from harm in the meantime, as well as restoring some trust in the planning system. It will also protect other sites from the terrible Craighouse precedent.

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Terrible National Planning Precedent Set by #Craighouse Decision

topPlease support the MSPs in getting Craighouse Called-In. It takes 5 mins to email to support their submission. All letters are really important. Click on this link for details and sample letter.

Terrible National Planning Precedent
Craighouse will be used as a precedent across Scotland, as has already been made clear  by the Director of the Scottish Property Federation. Enabling development, a concept conceived for turning derelict, uneconomically viable sites into viable sites, will now be used to turn economically viable sites into derelict ones in order to overturn planning regulations. Craighouse already had enabling development in the early 90s, to fund Napier’s conversion of the site for university use. They got a greenfield housing development (Meadowspot), a new building and a car-park, all on protected green space. They ran a weddings business in the buildings that Napier’s own figures showed fully funded the maintenance of the buildings. And they even got millions of grant funding from Historic Scotland and other public funders. But, given the opportunity to sell up for £10m plus a £3m bonus) by teaming up with an offshore property speculator on the Isle of Man, they took the money and ran. It’s easy to see why listed buildings owners and property developers across Scotland are excited about the new opportunities that the Craighouse planning decision has unlocked.

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Craighouse: Call-in with simple sample letter. Spread the word to everyone you know

Please support and spread the word. Click on this link!

 

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Please Write in Today and Share this Post to Support Our MSPs in demand for Call-In: #Craighouse Call-In

craighouseandtreeOur MSPs Alison Johnstone and Jim Eadie have written to Planning Minister Derek Mackay asking for the Craighouse application to be called in. The community is right behind them and greatly support our MSPs in this.

PLEASE write to minister Derek Mackay either through Jim and Alison or copied to them asking for Craighouse to be called in. A simple letter can be put in outlining some of the following issues in your own words. Please use your own words and say what you feel – there is more detail at the link at the bottom of this post for those that want to write something more detailed. (See below for how to write in)

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