It was a decisive test of the new community right to buy legislation. The Royal Hospital for Sick Children – the Sick Kids to its friends – has been caring for children and families from Edinburgh and beyond for over 150 years. It has had an impact on thousands of families’ lives, including my family. It is right and proper that a modern, state-of-the-art hospital will be finished next year, removing the constraints the current Victorian building places on staff.
What of the beautiful buildings that make up the hospital, nestled between the Meadows and the Grange in my constituency? The NHS – in part to pay for the new hospital – were keen to sell it. It sounds like the start of a familiar story: a developer swoops in and the historic buildings become flats. The local community have been trying to write a different story: working to see how the site could be best used for the community, whether through influencing the plans of any developer, or – and this was the test – whether the community itself could be the next owner.
A trust was set up, with residents and community councils producing an inspiring plan of how the site could support local enterprise, co-operative housing and even healthcare provision. Most importantly, the site’s development would be in the control of the community most affected by the changes.
Unfortunately, the test of the new legislation failed. The board had lawyers, architects and investment consultants, but even they were daunted by the complexity of the legislation. So bureaucracy held up the community bid, and a developer snapped up the site.
The disappointment in the community is palpable, and those that I have worked with are frustrated by the process. We will continue to see what influence the community can have on the development of the site. However, early indications suggest that private student housing is on its way.
The Astley Ainslie Hospital is scheduled for closure in several years’ time. The site is huge, stretching across the south of the Grange. It has large green spaces, beautiful old trees and historic listed buildings. The site is used by the NHS as a hospital, but also enjoyed by the community as a place to walk or cycle.
So, another NHS sell-off, another planning disaster? The signs so far suggest not. The NHS have consistently sought and even encouraged local people’s views, many years before the site is due to be sold. The public meeting we held was standing room only with over 70 people packed in to hear about the site.
That gives me hope, that if the community groups and the public stay engaged, while NHS Lothian continue to be open in its process to that input, we can not only deliver development on the site that is consistent with the wider community’s wishes, but also rebuilds trust in the planning system too.
Daniel Johnson is Labour MSP for Edinbugh Southern