John McLellan: Craighouse progress versus envy

The empty Craighouse site is crumbling as the row over its redevelopment rumbles on. Picture: Neil Hanna
The empty Craighouse site is crumbling as the row over its redevelopment rumbles on. Picture: Neil Hanna
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‘Don’t you forget democracy,” said the gent as he walked his dogs into the grounds of Craighouse, the scene of a controversial and often bitter dispute about the future of the historic hospital and university site.

What attracted his attention was three men poring over site plans, two of them in business suits. They must be, whisper it, developers.

And, indeed, he was right. The third was me, another regular dog walker on Craiglockhart Hill being shown the latest plans for the site by the man behind the scheme to transform the crumbling hospital into an attractive place to live.

Willie Gray Muir of Sundial Properties is passionate about the work he has taken on at Craighouse. Edinburgh born and bred, his business specialises in the restoration of old properties, in particular sensitive listed buildings.

His firm is behind the conversion of the former Leith Academy building on Leith Links to 53 flats and has a long track record of work in the New Town and West End.

Craighouse is by some way the company’s biggest and certainly most contested development, and after months of discussions Mr Gray Muir is about to go into bat for its third incarnation with what he hopes will be a scheme which addresses the concerns of vocal local opposition.

So has he forgotten democracy? Not that I can ever recall an election for a property developer, but given the lengths to which he has gone I rather think not.

A new planning application has just been lodged, to be followed by a 28-day public consultation in which passions will inevitably run high once again.

Looking at the website of Friends of Craighouse Grounds and Wood (are they friends of the buildings too?), nothing short of the total abandonment of any new building will be acceptable so already there is next to no chance of agreement.

Take the view of consultant veterinary epidemiologist Nick Honhold in an article attacking the calculations behind the project: “If the Craighouse Partnership manages to come up with another set of figures for Scheme 3, then that will just demonstrate that we cannot trust a word they say.”

What can anyone do in the face of that kind of argument? It’s like the witch-burning scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But Sundial is going to give it a go anyway.

So what is planned now? The proposal to create new homes from scratch remains but the number is down to 81 (ah, a new figure, we can’t trust them, burn the witch, etc) and as far as I can see the main causes for concern have been addressed. Sensible opponents can claim a victory.

Gone is the idea of building right along the ridge from Craiglea Place and instead there is a terrace of four houses next to the existing properties behind the Merchants’ golf club. Gone, too, is the taller of the two new blocks next to the main gate.

This has been achieved by the removal of the council’s demand for underground parking beneath the new blocks at the gates, which was so costly an extra building had to be planned to generate enough revenue to cover the cost. Now the cars will go, guess where, on the existing car park.

If there is a doubt about the market for new flats in the Craighouse area, a measure can be taken from the Wemyss Properties development on Polwarth Terrace about two minutes’ drive away.

The development of 11 flats is on the vacant site once owned by the now defunct Heritor’s development company and is still under construction.

Even though they are incomplete, ten flats have been sold, one is reserved and only the £850,000 third-floor, four-bed penthouse is still for sale. With terraced houses on the street averaging £793,000 and flats £326,000 (according to Zoopla) that seems steep to me, but you never know.

Another requirement to use expensive dressed stone at the back of buildings no-one would see was also dropped, so Sundial has been able to drastically reduce the scale of new construction without hitting its return.

So it’s a win-win. The developer protects the investment, the impact on the hill is reduced and a viable plan to save the listed buildings is still on the table.

And save is not too strong a word. The buildings are already in a sorry state, with dry rot an increasing problem which cannot be addressed until proper permissions are in place.

In one building extensive decay is being caused by overhanging undergrowth, but imagine the outcry if it was cut back before permission had been given.

In the main building, water is now coming through into the main hall and on to the marble entrance stairs, but safety regulations prevent access to the roof without full scaffolding. Again, scaffold erection now would be regarded as jumping the gun.

Windows have been smashed, there are regular break-ins, and repeated vandalism, even before Napier University handed over the site, has meant those public benches which haven’t been destroyed have had to be removed.

Yes, don’t kids just love to take advantage of all Craighouse has to offer; so security alone will cost £250,000 a year.

Recently, the protest website featured some semi-anonymous locals expressing a variety of concerns, all designed to ramp up the emotions but which have straightforward answers.

Like nine-year-old Laura asks: “Where am I going to sledge?” Where you did before, Laura, because there are no plans to build on the slope.

Or what about five-year-old Nicolas who “cried a lot when he heard that they were going to try and build over the orchard”. Dry your eyes, young Nicolas. There are now no plans to build on the orchard.

“It’s so important for children to be able to run free away from roads,” says foster carer Sandra. Sure thing, Sandra. In fact, there will be far less road space on the site than there was when it was occupied by Napier University.

And Brian said he hopes he will be able to watch the fireworks from the benches. Yes, Brian, there will be benches if the local neddery (yes, there are a few in Morningside) don’t use them for firewood.

Will some trees go? Yes, but new ones will be planted (remember the uproar surrounding the removal of trees in the Grassmarket? No? Maybe that’s because the old ones which would have caused problems were replaced by perfectly acceptable new ones).

The woods will be handed over to the council which will take them on as an extension to the Craiglockhart nature reserve, the grassy slope will be protected by the Fields in Trust system and public access will be maintained as it is now.

Will Sundial, Napier University and the investor Mountgrange make money? They sure will, about £16 million in total from a cost of around £90m. Again, if there is a philosophical objection to reasonable profit there is nowhere to take the debate.

Don’t forget Napier’s Sighthill Campus which replaced Craighouse cost £60m to build.

Here is the Craighouse protest leader Rosy Barnes: “Granting more and more planning consents does not result in actual development or jobs. It results in money for the privileged few.”

This is not just a fight over green space, it’s old-fashioned politics of envy.

MAKE DRIVERS PAY FOR WAVERLEY ACCESS

So proud is Network Rail of its new facilities at Waverley that it feels emboldened to ban all vehicles from the station, citing the fact that no other comparable station has public road access.

At least it acknowledges that Waverley is the last to go entirely car free because of the difficulties with the site. But those same difficulties make the station very awkward for elderly and disabled people.

Now cars and taxis can’t get into the station, they have to wait for assistance to get to a lift, then further assistance to get to the street and then make their way to wherever the car or taxi might be.

And the same in reverse.

What was once a five-minute job can now take the best part of half an hour, leading to more congestion on the streets above.

Hasn’t Network Rail missed a trick here? Rather than just banning all access, shouldn’t it take a leaf out of the airport book and charge for access and at least give drivers the choice?

What we’ve been left with is maximum traffic impact on surrounding roads, maximum passenger inconvenience and no revenue stream.

Not much of a business proposition there.

Last week, it is alleged the new barriers caused a poor driver to panic, resulting in a fatal accident when he reversed out the station.

Had a charging system been in place that mistake might only have cost £1 rather than Rev Tom Sinclair his life.