John McLellan: Craighouse conspiracy theories rubbish

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Corruption, backhanders and lies! Those dastardly Craighouse developers are at it again, according to conspiracy theorists about the scheme to turn the old hospital and university campus into a profitable housing estate.

“Proof” comes in the form of a document from estate agent Rettie, obtained by Green MSP Alison Johnstone, which apparently shows the total value of the homes to be created from the conversion of the listed buildings to be £38.2 million, not the £31.9m stated in plans submitted by the Craighouse Partnership last year.

Ah ha, say some commentators; this shows the developers are dishonest and the buildings could be profitably renovated without the need for any new development on the site.

But the Rettie report proves nothing of the sort. The £31.9m figure was a calculation based on current values produced by another estate agent, Knight Frank, when the application for planning permission was lodged.

After the go-ahead was granted last September, the Partnership engaged Rettie to conduct a further market analysis which actually put a slightly lower current valuation on the converted properties of £31.85m.

It was only when an assessment of possible house price inflation over the next five years, projected at 5.8 per cent annually, was applied to the plans that an average figure of £38.2m was reached. It might be higher or lower, and in these febrile political times no-one can be certain what will happen to the Edinburgh property market.

Rettie was not asked to produce a profit and loss account or calculate the rise in construction costs over the same period so it would be wrong to presume the £6m difference in current and projected prices is pure profit. In fact, according to the UK Government’s Business, Innovation and Skills department, inflation in the housing construction market was running at 7.2 per cent by September last year, largely because the industry contracted so much in the recession that demand on a much smaller number of suppliers has pushed up prices.

Yet confidence in the construction industry remains low and on that basis it is not inconceivable that it will not expand rapidly and so demand will continue to run ahead of supply. So on that basis it is entirely possible the profit from the conversions will actually be lower than last year’s projection as construction cost outpaces house prices. But that’s not very helpful for the Friends of Craighouse campaign.

Preparatory work has continued despite the threat of a judicial review of the planning procedure and physical construction work is expected to start before the end of the year.

The development team is currently working through the planning consent conditions, including a tree analysis and an archaeological plan now with the city archaeologist, with two-thirds already met.

Of course it’s feasible house prices will accelerate, especially if politically driven opposition to house building further hobbles supply at a time of rising demand – but what difference will that make? Markets rise and fall and it’s just good business sense for tests to be run during such a long-drawn out and expensive project.

As for the judicial review, in the five months since the decision, the fighting fund has raised £4200 towards an initial target of £8000 needed to prevent the action being exposed to massive legal costs, but still needs to find £25,000 to go to a full hearing. From the Friends of Craighouse website it appears that £2000 has been raised in the past week, with a further £2000 pledged.

Advising the campaign has been Glasgow-based human rights lawyer Frances McCartney, who also specialises in environmental planning and is on the board of both Friends of the Earth Scotland and the Environmental Law Centre Scotland. She was also appointed to the Parades Commission of Northern Ireland, so she’ll know what a fight is really like.

There is no time bar on applying for a judicial review so the Friends may yet have their day in court and the planning process reexamined. Whether that stops the development is another matter, but it will certainly cost the council time and money.

MILLIONS OF REASONS TO BE WARY OF TURNING HISTORIC BUILDINGS INTO SWISH HOTELS

Since Evening News and Scotsman staff left North Bridge for the last time in 1999, the history of the hotel into which the old place was converted has not been happy.

The company which took over the building went bust, largely because the conversion cost became so vast the business could never catch up, and now there are new fears about the hotel’s future.

Impressive though the place is, with 56 bedrooms the hotel is not huge and if borne out the reported problems might illustrate how difficult it is to make a building work when it is used for a purpose for which it wasn’t designed.

That is one of the reasons the Old Royal High School site is so problematic, because without scale and purpose-built accommodation the historic buildings don’t work as a hotel.

It’s also one reason the suggestion that the Craighouse buildings be turned into a hotel with no new construction would be an easy way to lose millions.

WHAT JUSTICE FOR FAMILIES OF LEGIONNAIRES’ DISEASE VICTIMS?

It has long remained a stain on the Scottish legal system that bereaved families hit by tragic events often have to fight for a proper public investigation into the deaths of their loved ones.

Unless the death is in custody or at work, Fatal Accident Inquiries (FAI) are not automatic because the Lord Advocate must be satisfied a public hearing is necessary.

Once again we have the situation where those most directly affected by a fatal incident have been left without answers and no guarantee public scrutiny will take place.

It has been announced that no criminal cases can be brought after the deaths of four people in the 2012 Gorgie Legionnaires’ disease outbreak.

Finding evidence of criminality was always going to be hard, especially against the background of the 2002 Barrow-in Furness Legionnaires’ deaths in which a poorly maintained vent at a council-run hall was blamed for killing seven people. Although the source was identified, manslaughter charges were unsuccessful and only one person was convicted, of breaching the Health and Safety at Work Act.

In the Gorgie case, the three-year investigation has failed to trace the source, the families are now left with no idea what happened and their representatives are demanding an FAI.

Aware the FAI system was inadequate, a review was conducted by senior judge Lord Cullen and reforms proposed. It took until last summer for a public consultation to be launched, but it was a process on which then justice secretary Kenny MacAskill, inset, imposed limits.

He wrote: “The purpose of an FAI is to establish the time, place and cause of death and, crucially, any precautions which might be taken in future to avoid deaths in similar circumstances… they are not intended to provide a venue for bereaved families to establish grounds for future civil action.”

Whether a family uses the result of an FAI for further action should not be any concern of the proceedings, but more fundamentally, the Cullen recommendations did not materially alter the principle that an FAI had to be granted. In England, however, inquests into all public deaths are automatic. Their system goes too far, in that families are often put through the ordeal of a hearing when the circumstances are clear, such as obvious suicides of people suffering from severe depressive illnesses, but surely a balance can be struck?

Six years after the Cullen report, the Inquiries into Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths etc (Scotland) Bill finally went before the Scottish Parliament last month and its proposals vary little from the original ones. Families will still have to jump through hoops to secure a proper public hearing from the Lord Advocate.

By contrast, no time was lost in ordering an FAI into the Glasgow bin lorry crash, even though from the interviews given by the driver it is unlikely to produce any more answers.

And what about the death in Saughton Jail last weekend? Hardly had the body arrived in the mortuary than the Scottish Prison Service announced it had been reported to the procurator fiscal for an FAI.

All right and proper, but not something available to the Gorgie families. So let’s hear a few Edinburgh MSPs sticking up for those people and make sure the new law abolishes a system which forces confused bereaved families to beg for something which should be theirs of right.

Potty play centre

No jokes about E numbers at the Tiki Tots nursery in Morningside, where police found cannabis plants worth £64,000 growing in the loft. But it puts a different slant on the expression heard from parents of small children that they were high as kites.