Alison Johnstone: This is not just a city for the rich

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Fancy spending the night in a room that would cost you around £1000 at the bottom of Edinburgh’s Calton Hill? My guess is that unless you’re someone like George Clooney paying the Capital a visit on one of your trips around the world, you might give it a miss.

The plan to convert the beloved Royal High School into a Four Seasons-style luxury hotel is just the latest in a series of planning proposals that have caused public outrage in Edinburgh. Attempts to build housing complexes on the green belt from Liberton to Currie, and plans to pave over a family home in Allan Park, have led to debate, conflict and controversy over the past few months.

Now, I’m not against progress and construction in principle. Edinburgh is a bustling, beautiful city that’s in a constant state of change. But I do see problems where planning decisions are dictated by corporate profits, without properly taking into account the needs of our communities.

The Greenbelt First proposals are a textbook example of vested business interests directing our town planning. We desperately need more homes, but why do these homes have to be built on green space that could be used for farming or outdoor activities, and that helps alleviate air pollution problems?

With plenty of brown land and empty properties we could make use of first, my inkling is that the greenbelt project is primarily driven by its potential for quick money-making.

The Royal High School is another case where business interest simply doesn’t align with the public good. Developers claim Edinburgh will lose out in the race to become a “prime” location if it’s not prepared to cater for global jet-setters, which is why the old school should be turned into an 
exclusive getaway rather than, for example, a music school.

I beg to disagree. Edinburgh is known for its history and culture, and while converting the landmark building into a music college may not fit with the international hotel companies’ desire for expansion, it would benefit our city greatly.

There is plenty of work to be done in Edinburgh. We should be looking at refurbishing empty homes, improving walking and cycling paths, and building smart, efficient housing on wasteland that’s currently sitting unused. We could be emulating German planning models that encourage small developments, rather than the all-aligning, all-dancing complexes that are on the table in the Capital. But, at the moment, our developers and authorities seem to show little interest in these opportunities.

As nice as it was to have Mr Clooney visit, Edinburgh is not a playing field for the rich and the powerful. It’s our city, where people go about their business and live their lives. The public opposition we’ve seen to so many recent development plans shows that the vision that decision-makers and big business have is out of touch with what Edinburgh residents consider valuable.

It’s time our leaders recognise that their job is to make Edinburgh work for the people who live in it, not for international elites and corporate bosses.

• Alison Johnstone is Green MSP for the Lothians