Gina Davidson: Cowards of the council must go

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NEW year, same old council. Or same old planning cock-ups anyway. At least let’s assume it’s cock-up and not conspiracy that has led the local

authority ombudsman to question the “perversity” of the council’s actions in its dealings with the controversial Academicals development in Stockbridge’s Raeburn Place.

Not that it’s the first time the faceless, nameless planners have come in for criticism for the way they have dealt with this particular development. Two years ago they were accused of having an inappropriately close relationship with the developers, which was revealed by campaigners fighting the development. Their freedom of information request for e-mail conversations uncovered incredibly matey language and advice issuing from Waverley Court.

A council investigation cleared planning officers of any collusion with Raeburn Place Foundation Ltd, which is leading the development, but the issues raised were serious enough to change how the planners were to deal with developers in the future.

Yet now these same planning officials have been rapped by the local authority ombudsman for their failure to carry out – or to get the developer to carry out – a traffic assessment study. The kind of normal practice which is pretty vital when a large scale development is planned.

The reason for the failure of a traffic assessment being carried out is, said the ombudsman, “not entirely apparent”. While the transport planners at the council were willing to rely on their professional experience and guess that an increase in traffic wouldn’t be a problem because the development was just an “expansion” of what was already there, the ombudsman found that any straightforward assessment of the rules decreed a traffic impact study should be done.

It was best practice to “err on the side of caution”. Yet it wasn’t done. And, allegedly, even when councillors asked for one, it still never happened. The ombudsman also said that the advice planners gave to the developer on traffic “exceeded the extent of the advice and guidance officers would be expected to provide”. That doesn’t sound like impartial.

It was planning committee convener, councillor Ian Perry, who said that “the consistent application of planning policy is absolutely essential to maintain the credibility of the council’s planning regime” and that it needed to be “open and transparent”.

He was right on both counts, and yet the planners still seem to feel able to lead councillors down the path they prefer, rather than giving them all the information.

Major developments in Edinburgh are always bound to be controversial – especially given the apparent lack of good design. But the planning process is supposed to be straightforward, guided by rules and regulations, by which all sides have to be bound.

A traffic impact assessment at Stockbridge might not prove the nail in the coffin of the development, it might prove that traffic will rise negligibly, but it should have been done.

The development should now stop until it’s carried out. For it won’t be the developers or the councillors who will suffer from an increase in cars on Raeburn Place, it will be the people who live there. They deserve to have all their concerns put to rest.

As do the people of Cammo, who now have their fate resting in the hands of Alex Neil, left, the Scottish Government’s new housing and planning minister. He has called in the development of 670 new homes which was languishing on councillors’ desks, perhaps because they were too concerned of the political impact of such a big development in the west of the city.

Political cowardice and planning controversies have dogged this council for too long. It’s a new year, let’s see some change.

Stewart will be a long shot for Commons job

I AM conflicted by the news that former Hearts captain Michael Stewart is hoping for a career in politics.

Unlike some other new entrants to the political fray as a result of their involvement with the Yes campaign – comedy venue boss Tommy Shepherd, health campaigner Audrey Birt, former MSP and weatherman Lloyd Quinan and political blogger Kate Higgins – he comes to the scene with very little experience of politics and political wheeling and dealing.

He hopes to be selected as the SNP candidate in Edinburgh West, up against the council’s finance spokesman Alasdair Rankin and businesswoman Michelle Thomson. If he is, he’ll then have to take on incumbent Lib Dem MP Mike Crockart, as will Labour’s Cammy Day.

Stewart knows how to deal with pressure – you can’t play for Manchester United and not know how that feels – and while I think it’s essential for politics in general to have new voices, I still feel unsure about his abilities outside a football ground or TV sports studio.

Of course the decision will be made by SNP members at the hustings tomorrow. Perhaps he will be eloquent or passionate enough to make them give him some extra time, or maybe they’ll send him off and back to the changing rooms.

Take pride in our equal rights record

CAN I add my congratulations, admittedly belated, to Nate Richardson and Scott Read who tied the knot on Hogmanay and became one of the first same-sex couples to marry in Edinburgh.

Equal marriage legislation has been one of the most important changes the Scottish Parliament has made to Scottish society, giving same-sex couples the same rights as those of heterosexuals.

As a country, we should be proud of this milestone.

Blasphemy is just an opinion

Today is the 318th anniversary of the execution of Thomas Aikenhead in Edinburgh. Hanged for blasphemy aged 20, he was the last person in Britain to be executed for the “crime”.

He was, let’s face it, murdered for his opinion. The same happened in Paris.

We’ve come a long way. Others have that road still to travel.