John McLellan: Airport plan flight of fancy

The artist's impression of the development.
The artist's impression of the development.
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Who wants to live next to the airport? If you fancy a modern des res snuggled between the A8 and the flightpath then head up to a one-day exhibition next month for details of a massive new neighbourhood.

As revealed in yesterday’s News, the plan is for 2000 homes, along with shops, businesses, a hotel and an “educational campus”, which we can presume means a school, on a site between the RBS bridge and the airport road, bounded by the A8 to the south and the tram to the North.

A notice has been submitted to the city Council and a planning application will be sought in due course, but although the site is already earmarked for development it is likely to join the lengthening list of dilemmas in west Edinburgh.

The problem here will not be so much the standard complaints from existing residents about traffic congestion or school places, but the fact the land has already been designated as a special economic area. In short, the council expected it to be used for ­business development, not ­residential.

As part of the green belt the argument over just the principle of building on agricultural land, even if sandwiched between a dual carriageway and a busy runway, was hard won. With excellent connections to the rest of Scotland and, for that matter, the rest of the world, it should be the ideal location for a ­business base.

That’s why RBS built their HQ out there, taking advantage of the old Gogar Hospital’s ­status as a developed site to avoid environmental objections.

This new housing proposal across the road still comes under the title “International Business Gateway”, reflecting the original vision for a string of outward looking and ambitious companies plugged into worldwide markets. But by contrast, from the artist’s impressions the new outline looks like the kind of dense, peripheral housing development not seen since the 1970s

Having spoken to some people with an interest in the area, it appears even with all transport advantages, including tram stops at either end of the site, the demand for relocations is not a high as hoped and there are practical building issues that need to be tackled.

On the last local development map, apart from the clear designation as an area of economic importance, significant parts of the site are also marked as flood plains which if built on could push water onto the airport’s runways.

Therefore extensive culverting to divert rainwater towards the River Almond and down to the Forth will be needed if flights are not to be regularly disrupted. That means the construction price and eventual business lease costs will go up, so it’s fair to assume it’s easier to spread the cost across hundreds of houses for sale rather than a score of business plots.

Edinburgh Airport will be watching closely and if the flooding concerns are not properly dealt with they would rightly object. And the prospect of more residents also means the prospect of more objections in the future to further airport expansion, so even with flood issues addressed they are unlikely to be enthusiastic. The agent, GVA Grimley, will also be watching carefully as the Council wrestles with unpopular housing proposals nearby such as Cammo while government housing targets remain to be met.

This looks like an answer – a slow site already earmarked for development, far enough away from existing estates not to fan local protest and two thousand homes knocked off the city’s housing target. The problem is the city is thousands of houses short of the target and sites such as Cammo are still going to be needed. Build houses on the International Business Gateway AND at Cammo and the projected traffic ­problems become even worse.

Add to that the loss of what should be a key district for business growth and the idea doesn’t seem quite so straightforward. More details will be revealed at an exhibition the Airport Hilton Hotel on the afternoon of February 24 and until details are available judgement should be reserved.

But already up for consideration – and bitter objection – is the Garden District plan on Green Belt land owned by Sir David Murray on the other side of the A8. The Murray site is becoming increasingly important as the city struggles to meet both future housing demand and the need for sustainable economic development.

As any politician will tell you, their job is about choices and in west Edinburgh the choice will come down to finding the right balance between meeting demand, encouraging growth and maintaining an environment with which most people are happy.

Making everyone happy is impossible; it’s a question of how many the city is prepared to upset.

City policy should be more accommodating when it comes to students

When is it ok to express ill-informed prejudice against a minority of newcomers? The answer should be never, but often it appears it doesn’t apply to students.

They are fair game, aren’t they? Threatening our traditional communities with their loud drunken parties and braying Home Counties accents?

At least that’s what you’d believe by the kind of objections thrown up by those continuing to fight against plans for managed student flats across the city. And because students tend not to have a local champion, or are seen as immature irritants rather than part of the city’s economic fabric, it’s easy for politicians and officials to be swayed by local pressure.

And because many of them don’t vote in the constituency, why would a politician die in a ditch for them?

There is no doubt some students in houses in multiple occupancy in the wider population have caused problems – it’s inevitable the lifestyles of groups of young people away from home for the first time will sometimes conflict with the settled community, especially elderly people on their own.

But now we have something close to proof that managed student accommodation is the answer, not another manifestation of the problem.

The Unite student accommodation company, seeking to build a new block on the Homebase site in St Leonards, commissioned independent research firm NEMS to conduct a local attitude survey and while the sample was small, 177 people in South Edinburgh still represents a reasonable number.

They found that of those people living next to managed flats, 71 per cent said they were a good thing in principle. But 84 per cent said the students in the development nearest to them were either good or had no impact on the quality of their lives. In both cases only a small minority said they were a bad thing in general (five per cent) or had a directly negative impact (nine per cent).

It’s the nine per cent who will be turning up to protest meetings and signing petitions.

And when people living in South Edinburgh tenements were asked if they were supportive of students living in their area, 68 per cent were positive, 26 per cent were neutral and only four per cent were negative. But what does shoot up is the number of people in tenements who say the direct impact of students on them has been negative, up to 18 per cent.

It’s fair then, to presume the majority of people who have had a problem still want them about, just not in their close. Putting more students in managed flats with security staff surely addresses this.

I’m prepared to accept there are holes in the research, mainly down to sample size, and the work will be criticised because the commissioning company has a clear interest in putting as positive a gloss on the findings as possible.

But the issue of providing quality student accommodation in a city whose economy will increasingly be dominated by higher education needs to make decisions based on the best possible information, not the objections of what looks like a small minority of local people whose concern for the city’s future goes no further than their corner shop.

A paper on student accommodation went to the council’s planning department in December and very good it is too in quantifying the number of university students and where they live – 40,000 of them, some 12 per cent of the city’s population.

But it’s a planning paper, not an economic study, and fails to fully explore the importance of managed, quality accommodation in the intensely competitive international education market. It is also weak on likely future demand and on the impact of taking more students out of general housing stock.

The report sees the sector mainly through the prism of domestic undergraduates when the really big economic impact is in attracting fee-paying non-Scots, in particular post-graduates; people who can go anywhere if the course is right and the accommodation easy to come by.

With no tuition fees in Scotland, overseas students help pay the bills and if rooms are hard to obtain they go elsewhere. Edinburgh University is building a massive post-graduate centre on Holyrood Road specifically to make sure the facilities they receive are second to none.

So the city should commission its own thorough market research to remove all doubt as to what locals really think. Let’s ask a thousand Southside non-student residents what they really think before big decisions are left to pitch-fork wavers.

As it was put to me recently, we don’t have a student problem, we have an accommodation problem.