My first year as Convener of the Planning Committee for the City of Edinburgh Council culminated in the decision to grant planning permission to build a new spectator stand for the Edinburgh Academicals rugby club on playing fields in Stockbridge.
The scheme includes a range of other facilities including a row of retail units. Although there were a significant number of people who supported the proposal, unfortunately the application was opposed by a large number of local residents and a Save Stockbridge campaign. The proposal split the community and whatever the decision it was not going to be popular. After three hours of sometimes heated debate, the committee voted to support the proposal.
Planning proposals have to be considered against a whole host of different policies. Edinburgh has more than 90 different planning policies, 21 of which were directly relevant to the Accies proposal. The consistent application of planning policy is absolutely essential to maintain the credibility of the council’s planning regime. If a proposal complies with these policies there is a presumption of support. If a proposal is contrary to any policy there must be a compelling reason for planning permission to be granted otherwise it is likely to be refused. For instance, the ‘Accies’ scheme involves the loss of open space. But, on balance the committee decided to approve due to the benefits to the local economy and wider community, including significant improvements to the remaining playing fields and Inverleith Park.
This decision brought into sharp focus how people see the planning process and the need for it to be open and transparent. On many occasions I have heard groups who oppose a planning application say they think planning officials are too close to developers and will help them get their application approved. Indeed this was a claim made about officials working on the ‘Accies’ application. On the other hand, developers have often said officials are uncooperative and are too rigid when applying policies. In a recent newspaper article the Scottish Building Federation described the planning system as a major drag on large-scale projects.
The time and resources required to submit and process a large planning application mean it is in everyone’s interest for developers to have detailed discussions with planning officials throughout the process. These discussions can help to ensure the right type of development comes forward and allows us to push for the best scheme. With larger applications discussions can take months.
Although it is important we engage with developers; communities must also feel they are listened to. I appreciate the difficulties facing them when confronted with large applications and the time and resources required. Although the Save Stockbridge campaign managed to engage an impressive group of experts, it is difficult for most to respond to the detail that accompanies a large proposal. In order to try and level the playing field we have been looking at ways to provide more support and we will soon launch a new Planning Concordat which sets out how community councils, developers, and the council can work together which I hope will help.
No politician likes to let down a large section of any community but I have learned over the years it is not always possible to take – what I would consider to be – the ‘correct decision’ and be ‘universally popular’ as well.
Ian Perry is planning convener at Edinburgh City Council