Caltongate, Angry Authors, Edinburgh World Heritage and that Missing Letter

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“Not hideous enough to reject”?

You may remember that we reported on the situation at Caltongate recently.

The controversial development – granted by the planning committee in January – is back in the news with a group of famous Scottish writers calling for it to be scrapped in the Independent and the Scotsman, while it was announced yesterday that UNESCO could be called in. There is also this very interesting article, asking why the developers at Caltongate are not being required to pay any rates.

At Friends of Craighouse, we have taken an interest in this particular development because it is a development that affects another very protected part of Edinburgh – the World Heritage Site –  and also because of its history and relationship to Mountgrange, who drew up the controversial masterplan, demolished buildings that were being used by the community and got planning consent for a very controversial development that included further demolition – of listed and historic buildings in and around the Royal Mile. After being granted consent, Mountgrange Capital went into administration to the tune of c. £70m in 2009 – leaving the area they demolished as an undeveloped hole in the ground which it has remained since.

There is a tendency by those in power to present these issues in terms of where we are now. But it’s also important to see the progression of events. Last year, the planning committee chose to renew Mountgrange’s highly controversial applications – which were due to expire – for new South African developers Artisan, which is mostly owned by Atterbury, a South African property developer. They did this despite everyone seeming in agreement that the old Mountgrange plans were economically unviable in the new economic climate. At the committee hearing – which I attended – they talked of doing this in order to help Artisan keep their land values up to help them with their investors.

This is not a planning reason and this renewal should not have happened. All but two Councillors on the committee – Councillor Bagshaw and Councillor Mowat – voted to renew them.

At the time, Councillor Maureen Child asked why the applications couldn’t be split up – i.e. why couldn’t some of the applications (I think there was a total of 15) be regranted, whilst others – in particular the demolition consents – be allowed to expire.

It was a good question and it was the Planning Convenor Ian Perry and officials who pushed against this with officials giving the impression they couldn’t be split and Ian Perry pretty much saying they just had to trust the developer. Here is a tweet from STV attending the meeting at the time:

perry tweet

It did not sound convincing to protestors at the time, who feared the continued threat of the demolitions consents could be used to put the community and those who care about conservation between a rock and a hard place in terms of any new application that came in.

And, indeed, a year later, this came to pass. It was Cllr Ian Perry again, pushing for the new Caltongate plan against the protests of a large portion of the planning committee and saying the development was  “good enough”.

No one on the planning committee was able to argue that this development constituted architectural excellence as befitted a World Heritage site. However, by renewing the previous consents – they had put themselves in a corner.

The development was passed although several Councillors were not convinced this time, including Vice Convenor, Sandy Howat, who said “good enough wasn’t good enough” for the World Heritage Site. The vote was tight at 8 to 6.

Caltongate is now the subject of massive controversy. 5,000 people signed a petition against it before the hearing. The development involves two budget hotels and another hotel, plus offices and architecture that Euan Leitch, presenting for the Architectural Heritage Society at the hearing, likened to building Edinburgh Park at the heart of the Old Town.

Most of Caltongate is a gapsite (created by Mountgrange) and no-one contests that this gapsite needs developing. However, the plans also affect existing historic and listed buildings including the beautiful Macrae Tenements on the Royal Mile which are to be demolished apart from a facade with a 2 storey “triumphal arch” (as Vice Convenor Howat called it at the hearing) smashed through it. The Sailor’s Ark will also be demolished and facaded – but also have modern stuff build on top of it – interfering with the historic impression given on the street front of the Royal Mile itself. The Canongate Venture will be saved (a good thing) but swamped by new development.

These were all sound buildings. The Canongate Venture was used by the community, the Sailor’s Ark was used by homeless services and the Macrae tenements provided social housing. The Council vacated these to make way for Mountgrange plans, then left them lying empty for years. Artisan was unable to provide any sensible justification for why the destruction of the listed buildings was really necessary when asked at the hearing.

This is – in other words – a development where the Council hope to make money by selling historic buildings that are now to be demolished or facaded or incorporated into a very modern office and retail development by an offshore South African developer with – you’ve guessed it – directors in the Isle of Man and funding via the British Virgin Islands.

At the hearing, Councillor Joanna Mowat (who, to her credit, refused to renew the old Mountgrange plans to Artisan last year) used the unfortunate phrase “not hideous enough to reject”. This phrase has now become irrevocably associated with the attitude of politicians and officials to planning in Edinburgh. Is this what planning in Scotland is reduced to? Can we not aspire to good architecture even in the World Heritage Site?

There is much quarreling going on in the papers and the comments on newspaper articles online. Some blame heritage groups and protestors for holding up the scheme which has lead to the gapsite for all these years. But, let’s look at the facts:

  • Mountgrange’s bad masterplan (passed).
  • Mountgrange unpopular plans (passed).
  • The renewal of these highly controversial plans to Artisan (passed).
  • The new plans – not “hideous enough to reject” (passed).

Far from holding things off, last year the entire Old Town Community Council resigned en masse explaining that they were not listened to at all, were overwhelmed with the number of developments they had to deal with – with no help from the Council. They believed that the residents – the “living city” of the old town – are being pushed out to make way for a vast over-provision of budget hotels and commercial space, without proper provision for the community who is living in the Canongate.

As for heritage groups – many have now been neutered. Historic Scotland does little to protect the historic environment and routinely fails to defend protected settings anymore (look at the recent debacle over Clyde Falls – another World Heritage Site). Whilst the charitable organisation, Edinburgh World Heritage – a previous battler for heritage and quality in the World Heritage site – have been left making whimpers of protest only.

Who is Edinburgh World Heritage?

Edinburgh World Heritage is an organisation with the role of championing and protecting the World Heritage Site. It previously did fight for quality in the World Heritage Site, yet in recent years on some of the biggest issues concerning the World Heritage Site it stays very quiet.

Despite having charitable status which should mean it is independent, Edinburgh World Heritage recieves considerable public funding – from the Council and Historic Scotland. Yet they appear to have little in the way of transparency or accountability – operating a policy of secret and internal register of interests that are not available to the public.

“The Chair emphasised the importance of transparency in recording all relevant interests in the register which might give rise to a potential conflict with the organisation, but recognised that the information provided might be sensitive, particularly regarding business interests. He therefore recommended that the register of interests should be a confidential document, available to trustees and staff, but not publicly available.” (From EWH’s minutes May 2013)

Their minutes are often highly redacted.

Their board of Trustees include the current Planning Convenor, Cllr Ian Perry, who led the charge to push through the renewal of Mountgrange’s plans last year and who pushed for the new plans for Artisan to be passed this year. The EWH Trustees also include the former Planning Committee Convenor, Trevor Davies – who passed Mountgrange’s masterplan and championed the original, highly controversial Mountgrange plans that triggered the UNESCO investigation  in the first place. This board also contains a certain William Gray Muir of Sundial Properties – who is presently trying to push through unacceptable newbuild against the policies and protections at Craighouse, and who threatened to sue me when I questioned the state of the Craighouse buildings a year or so back. In that legal letter, he demanded that I sign a gagging contract consisting of 6 points. One was that I would not suggest either verbally or in written form that he was an inappropriate person to be on the board of Edinburgh World Heritage and that I was not allowed verbally or in written form to suggest   “(e)  That Mountgrange had any control over the Canongate Venture and/or that any persons connected with the Craighouse Partnership was responsible for the Macrae Tenements being placed on the Buildings at Risk Register as a result of dilapidation.

(The point is Mountgrange applied for and obtained consent to demolish and part-demolish them!)

The question about Edinburgh World Heritage is: has this “charity” become too dominated by its relationship to the Council to do its job properly and independently? Is it remaining sufficiently independent from the interests of its Trustees?

Caltongate and Edinburgh World Heritage

During the Caltongate hearing, one of the issues that was raised by committee member Councillor Bagshaw was that of the World Heritage site and whether UNESCO had been consulted.

The officials told the committee that the plans presented met UNESCO’s requirements and were the result of extensive consultation with Historic Scotland and Edinburgh World Heritage. The impression was given that Edinburgh World Heritage was happy with the scheme.

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This ugly building is planned for near the Jeffrey St arches as part of the Caltongate development. Is this really the pinnacle of architectural design as expected in a World Heritage site? Looks more like a car showroom

First, UNESCO’s report from their visit in 2008 made it clear that they did not support the demolition of the listed buildings (facading notwithstanding) – and the Sailor’s Ark is listed and still to be demolished. Unesco also subsequently asked for a buffer zone around the World Heritage Site – something that seems to have been ignored by planning and Edinburgh World Heritage.

Second, the application was not the result of extensive consultation with Edinburgh World Heritage, as a missing letter from Edinburgh World Heritage showed.

“We noted in the letter of the 25th March a series of ways in which the draft proposals might be adapted to support the Outstanding Universal Value of the World Heritage Site. We do not see that the opportunity has been taken to do so.”

“…we do not believe the proposals take advantage of the opportunity presented to reconsider the site and have a positive impact on the World Heritage Site. The challenges we laid down in the letter of the 25th March have not been taken up, and indeed some of the elements in the public consultation that represented an improvement have been weakened.” (Adam Wilkinson, Edinburgh World Heritage, Sept 2013)

Only the more cautiously hopeful letter from Edinburgh World Heritage, written six months before in March (before they had seen the final plans) was made available to the public and to the committee members. This was copiously quoted by the developers in their application, giving the impression of EWH’s support.

But the critical Sept letter – the letter that actually responded to the actual plans themselves – was not made available either on the planning portal, or on the Edinburgh World Heritage website.

Why was it not published on the portal, or mentioned in the officials’ report or brought to the attention of the committee members? Why was it not mentioned by officials at the hearing when questioned by Cllr Bagshaw?

Is it not misleading the committee to say the plans were the result of consultation with Edinburgh World Heritage – when it is clear that none of EWH’s suggestions made in their March letter were taken up and EWH states the scheme had weakened since consultation stage? Yet the impression was actively given at the hearing by officials that Edinburgh World Heritage were happy with the scheme that was being submitted.

What Happened to the Edinburgh World Heritage Sept Letter and Why was it Not Made Available to the Public?

One of our members who is worried about the Caltongate development asked the Director of Edinburgh World Heritage, Adam Wilkinson, directly for Edinburgh World Heritage’s response to the application months before the hearing. But Wilkinson failed to send the letter until the day of the hearing itself – months later. He said it didn’t need to be made public because it would be on the planning portal, and therefore in the public domain and available to all.

But no copy of that letter appeared on the planning portal. No copy of that letter formed a part of the officials’ planning report. And no copy of that letter appeared on the Edinburgh World Heritage website either – for the information of their own members. It seems that Councillors on the committee weren’t aware of this letter either.

When asked by the Evening News, Cllr Ian Perry announced that he would investigate and that everything should have been circulated to the committee.

But nothing has been revealed about any result from such an investigation.

Instead, days later, Councillor Perry and Adam Wilkinson released a joint statement to the Evening News to say that the negative impact to the World Heritage Site was “minor”. But neither have explained why this letter was suppressed or how it failed to be released or made available on so many fronts.

How can EWH claim to be independent of its funders and trustees (as it is required to be as a charity) when it is writing a joint letter to the newspapers with a politician, who is the head of the Council’s planning committee and an EWH Trustee, to defend the Council in not making EWH’s views available to the planning committee or the general public?

If the committee had known EWH’s misgivings and the fact that the development would have a negative impact on the World Heritage Site – they may well have called for changes to the scheme. Even if they had recommended approval, they could have done so subject to changes or conditions that would have allowed them to counter the worst aspects (including the unjustifiable demolitions) of a scheme that even the supporting Councillors couldn’t praise beyond “not hideous enough to reject”. This choice, however, was taken away from them.

macrae tenements

The traditional view of the Macrae tenements in the Canongate – due to be demolished and facaded with a 2 storey “triumphal arch” put through the front

Big questions remain about the relationship between the Council and Edinburgh World Heritage and the part that the Planning Department played in suppressing information that should have been circulated to the committee and made publicly available.

Further questions remain about the role of Edinburgh World Heritage: its lack of transparency, its charitable status and its independence from its funders, the huge amount of public funding it receives without accompanying systems of accountability and transparency, and its failure to protect our most important sites – particularly when this may be against the interests of its board members.

What does this have to do with Craighouse?

Caltongate and Craighouse are two very different issues. However, Craighouse has also received its fair share of lack of proper process and transparency in decision-making.

From the failure to release what should have been publicly available paperwork about the “old consent”, to the Council’s renewal of that consent against statute (which we continue to challenge)…

From officials removing the Local Biodiversity designation over large areas of the site in the new Local Development Plan (based on zero assessment and a birdlist of one bird: the magpie), to the planning department’s refusal to enforce the removal of the unlawful 7ft barrier erected by The Craighouse Partnership despite the fact it had no planning permission….

Whether you believe in the bungle or bias theory, it is clear the planning system is routinely failing to operate in the public interest when it comes to large off-shore companies.

Most recently we have seen the Craighouse Partnership granted the right to put in a Scheme 3 under the same application – despite having already put in 2 incompetent schemes already. This means the developers are not penalised and do not have to pay for a new application. It also means the public don’t get to see the planning report that would have had to recommend the application be refused after the highly critical reports from Council experts on traffic and flooding, and from Scottish Natural Heritage (available to view on the portal).

It is clear the Craighouse Partnership’s application had little chance of being granted or getting through on appeal. So why are the Council apparently trying to help the developers get an enabling development through, when this is clearly not a true enabling development, rather than refusing the application or forcing them to put in a new application if they want to put in a further scheme? Why are they allowing yet another scheme under the same application – costing the Council more wasted time and money?

This decision appears to have been made by Planning Convenor Ian Perry and officials alone. Why was this decision made in this manner, without transparency or proper explanation to the public? Why wasn’t it put before the development management sub-committee meeting on the 26th Feb where it could have been discussed and considered properly?

Petition of “No Confidence in the City of Edinburgh Planning Department” Launched

A petition of no confidence in the City’s Planning Department has been launched, with Caltongate as a central example.

Thousands of people are signing and calling for investigations into the way planning operates and why bad, unpopular or failed developments are allowed all over our city.

https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/no-confidence-in-the-city-of-edinburgh-planning-department

At Friends of Craighouse, we want to be able to support the planning department. We believe that good, trained planners are absolutely essential. The problems of the system are not just due to planning officials but the lack of community power, the erosion of policies through blind and unscrutinised pro-development bias from higher up, the influence of lobbyists, political pressure and the lack of accountability of politicians and other bodies – which all plays a role in why we are seeing policy routinely trounced by private interests of off-shore funds – to the detriment of good development, policy, local communities and the city itself.

It’s too easy to just blame departments or Councils. It’s not easy to stand up against the private interests and pressures that dominate our current political system. However, it’s clear the planning system has lost the trust of the public and is failing to deliver great development for our city’s future and increasingly failing to protect our most special places – our seven hills, our Areas of Great Landscape Value, our World Heritage Site.

We need to give strong support to those who are doing the right thing – backing up policy, creating a system for good development, good architecture and wonderful places to live where development is needed – backed up by the strong protection of our historic fabric, seven hills and Edinburgh’s special places like Craighouse.

So, we urge everyone who is worried about what is happening to our beautiful city and to our special sites like Craighouse, to sign.

We sign, very much with the hope that the planning department will join with citizens to fight for our city, because good planning should be what we all want to see – good planners and communities alike.

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To remind us what we are fighting for – Craighouse, Site of Great Landscape Value and Edinburgh’s Seventh Hill

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One Response to Caltongate, Angry Authors, Edinburgh World Heritage and that Missing Letter

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