Alex Cole-Hamilton: We need to build communities, not just houses

Developers are poised to swoop on Cammo. Picture: Jon Savage
Developers are poised to swoop on Cammo. Picture: Jon Savage
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We need to talk about housing. While Edinburgh and Scotland as a whole have an undeniable and unmet need for housing, there’s something deeply troubling about how our city’s leaders seek to meet that challenge in the Capital.

Last week the council published its intention to adopt its local development plan and with it will come a rampant proliferation of new developments in my constituency of Edinburgh Western. At a stroke, huge swathes of much-loved and ancient green belt, at Cammo and in rural land around Queensferry and Kirkliston will be lost to the bulldozers. Whilst this would be tragic in and of itself, the pressure these new homes will place on arterial routes and essential services will prove utterly unsustainable.

I raised the threat to Cammo on the floor of the Scottish Parliament last week – the SNP government’s failure to protect the estate in its recent verdict on the local development plan will see applications lodged for the site within weeks. With literally thousands of new resident’s seeking to exit the new development in the morning rush hour, the escalation of gridlock at Barnton and Maybury, two of the most congested stretches of road outside the M25, will reach biblical proportions.

Then consider the proposed Garden City development at Gyle. The city’s planning committee voted this through against the advice of officials. This could see as many as 4000 new residents seeking to register with Ladywell medical practice, in whose footprint the Garden City is to be located. This is a well-regarded, exceptionally busy practice, only just coping with its existing patient roll. Anxious GPs there tell me they simply could not accommodate those sorts of numbers in their already over-stretched lists.

The point is, the SNP/Labour administration are trying to meet Edinburgh’s housing need by building huge numbers of houses, but not a single community. Despite the fact that no new medical centre has been established in my constituency in 45 years, scant regard is paid to the distress voiced by local GPs to the LDP and where these new houses will fall. Nor is much consideration afforded to the pressure that housing in the West of the city will put on St John’s Road or Queensferry Road, already ranked as two of the most polluted streets in the country. Small wonder then that my party has called for a moratorium on housebuilding in west Edinburgh until areas like Cammo are protected from housing entirely and the wider infrastructure issues can be resolved. But how do we resolve them?

Now for most people, planning legislation has the effect of a powerful sedative, and the Town and County Planning Act of 1997 is no exception, but it’s important. Section 75 of that Act, allows councils to insist on something called “planning gain” where they can demand that developers build things like primary schools in projects of a certain size. I think this could be expanded to explicitly include medical centres and access roads.

Now people come back at me and say: “We can’t recruit GPs to our existing practices, what hope have new medical centres?” The answer to that is simple. Our existing practices can’t recruit partners because they are on their knees and nobody wants to sign up for working their heart out to carry the work of three or four vacant posts. If we build new medical centres then they will immediately start to remove pressure on existing ones, making both attractive places to work again.

I’ve written to the Cabinet Secretary asking that the Government look seriously at what we could do with planning legislation to this end. Until such change is brought about then our city leaders will continue to build dormitories on areas of natural heritage that only worsen the plight of our groaning health services and transport infrastructure.

Alex Cole-Hamilton is the Liberal Democrat MSP for Edinburgh Western