Ian Murray: Trust at the heart of planning system

Craighouse Protestors outside City Chambers
Craighouse Protestors outside City Chambers
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The consideration of the proposals to develop the Craighouse campus have rumbled on for several years. Sadly, they reached a shocking conclusion in the City Chambers.

I have worked closely with the community councils, local residents – who had sent more than 1200 objections – and the effective Friends of Craighouse group over that period. What was clear throughout is that the local community were ­absolutely against it.

Those who worked so hard and so vociferously against the development will have joined me in being dismayed and outraged at the council’s approval.

Although changes to the proposals were brought forward by developers, the third and final proposal brought little improvement on its predecessors.

That is why I spoke out against it at the packed hearing. Even the council’s own planning report recognised the risks of this proposal.

Despite mentioning “detrimental” on 51 separate occasions, somehow, the council deemed it sufficient to emblazon the word “granted” on its front page. As a councillor, I ­previously served on the planning committee and it is the most damning planning report I’ve ever read.

Ultimately, the entire debate rested on the case for “enabling” development. That is the permission to build new houses in return for restoring and converting the seven grade A listed buildings on the site. Enabling Development as a concept is very new to Scotland so there is little to guide it. Whilst the salvation of the historic buildings is central, the wider problems, ranging from pressure on local schools and traffic congestion to flooding concerns and the setting aside of dozens of planning policies and protections on the site, meant it shouldn’t have been passed.

Despite such widespread and consistent opposition, local people have been let down due to the lack of a credible planning system. As I said to the committee, that ­public trust and confidence in the planning system was at stake given the overwhelming opposition. Now it has passed, where does that leave planning now?

I think the Scottish Government must look urgently at whether planning law is fit for purpose and I have written to the Scottish ­Government’s planning minister to ask him to look into these issues. If the ­position is to deliver a planning-led system then the Craighouse application should have been refused as it breached a plethora of ­planning-led policies.

The age old debate on third-party right of appeal must be looked at again to restore public confidence in the system. It would have to be designed to ensure that it could not be abused but in the context of Craighouse it could be used to ­re-examine the application based on the enabling development case.

The issue with Craighouse is not the only planning problem the city faces. The council’s Local Development Plan (LDP) which sets out housing development for the next 20 years is another case in point. In the LDP, green spaces across South Edinburgh have been proposed for development, in large part because the Scottish Government shifted the goalposts at the last minute to demand more land be found to build new homes.

I’m worried about the precedent the Craighouse approval sets for those protected green spaces and a further erosion of trust and confidence in planning.

In the meantime, the fight to save Craighouse looks bleak, but I will continue to support local residents in that battle. Frankly, if the planning system is broken, it’s about time it was fixed.

Ian Murray is the Labour MP for Edinburgh South