John McLellan: End the Capital planning stalemate

Ian Perry. Picture: Julie Bull
Ian Perry. Picture: Julie Bull
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THE development map and well-thumbed copies of old planning papers are spread across his desk in an eerie at the top of the City Chambers, overlooked by a post-apocalyptic picture of Edinburgh in ruins. Ian Perry’s harshest critics are quick to accuse him of doing his best to speed up the process.

But for someone who has been a councillor for close to 30 years – and who recovered from a severe stroke 15 years ago – the city’s planning chief shows no sign of losing his appetite for the job.

And when most people would be thinking about spending more time on the golf course or down the allotment, Perry is already determined to seek re-election in 2017. It would put him into his 70s by the end of his next term.

Not that the 64-year-old veteran of local politics is likely to be swayed by the bitter attacks to which he and his administration are subjected and as planning convener in as sensitive a place as Edinburgh, he’s never far away from the next rammy.

I first came across him back in the early 90s when, as environmental services convener, he was at the forefront of the decision to end the distribution of free bin bags in advance of the introduction of wheelie bins. He had little hesitation in ignoring an Evening News campaign for their reinstatement supported by thousands of readers who signed a petition.

“Aye, Keith Geddes [the then council leader] couldn’t believe it,” he chortles. “But you have to do what is right and that was the right decision. It’s no good just playing to the gallery and I think ultimately people respect you for it.”

A politician who does not court public opinion is a rare beast, and with the controversy sparked by the passing of the Local Development Plan by his committee last week, the mood of communities across the city is going to be fully tested in the very near future.

So too is the court of public opinion going to be a test for Communities Minister Alex Neil who now has the power to approve or reject the plan, and who is being urged by local MSP Colin Keir and new MP Michelle Thomson to block the housing development at Cammo which is part of it.

Perry will also soon be beating a path to Neil’s door in his role as chair of Sesplan, the group of South-East Scotland planning authorities responsible for drawing up framework and a vision for the future of the region.

At a meeting this week it was agreed that he and his deputy, the Borders SNP councillor Stuart Bell, would seek an urgent meeting with Neil to discuss how the cash logjam blocking development can be broken in order to deliver the Scottish Government’s growth targets for the area.

The problem is infrastructure, or the lack of money to pay for it. Without new roads, schools and surgeries houses can’t be built and while loss of green space is a big factor in local objections, so too are things like traffic congestion, local school capacity, health provision and flood prevention.

In West Edinburgh, traffic is the biggest concern and in West Lothian, according to planning chief Craig McCorriston, the problem is lack of spaces at denominational, ie Catholic, schools.

At the Sesplan meeting this week, councillors were unanimous that providing infrastructure was the biggest barrier to progress because the Government sees it as a local responsibility but councils can’t afford to build in advance and developers won’t foot the entire bill.

And so on Wednesday Edinburgh councillors rejected an application by Miller Homes for a small development at Gilmerton Road in Liberton because they refused to cover the £1.6m cost of expanding local schools which would have made the remaining £200,000 profit not worth the trouble.

And it would have put the house prices up by £10,000, compared to the £4000 extra which home buyers will be charged at Cala’s Alnwickhill estate less than a mile away.

So the deputation to Alex Neil is likely to make three requests, the first being that councils are allowed to levy what is known as a roof tax, whereby every developer pays an even amount per house to cover the infrastructure cost across an entire council area. In Edinburgh that currently stands at a minimum of £217m for the most basic improvements.

The second is that Neil helps set up an infrastructure fund so work can be done in advance, paid from the fund, which would allow developers to make contributions when the homes are sold.

Perry wants to see a partnership between the Government, its Scottish Futures Trust, Transport Scotland, local authorities, the banks and developers to establish the pot. That would make low-cost borrowing possible, get the roads and schools built, which would make homes easier to build and sell and which would help meet demand and keep prices under control.

And with unemployment in some areas now getting close to zero, attracting more skilled people to the area is a must if economic growth is to be sustained.

Perry’s third request would be that councils are left to make the final decision about what can or can’t be built. “The decisions we take are not final because they have to go to a reporter,” he says.

“We can agree targets set by central government but councils should be allowed to manage the process. We all want houses built but we need to be given more flexibility to make final decisions.”

“It is almost as if the Government does not trust us to make the right decisions but it would be more democratic to let us have the final say.”

Feelings ran high last week at the planning committee where the LDP was approved despite widespread unhappiness, summed up by new SNP leader Sandy Howat who described the plan as “mince” but then voted for it.

“It’s a result of frustration. It’s very difficult for us to respond to objections, to manage growth or protect green belt land when we do not have the final say.”

And so Perry expects Miller Homes to appeal the Gilmerton Road decision and to be successful, which will then leave the council with the problem of funding bigger local schools without the cash to do so.

As politicians have a nasty habit of saying, something must be done.

A life in public service

• Ian Perry was born in 1951 in Leith.

• After leaving school he did a variety of jobs before studying politics at Edinburgh University as a mature student.

• Qualified as a teacher and went to work in the Trades Union Congress education service at Stevenson College.

• Won a seat on the old district council in 1988 and has been a councillor ever since. He has been deputy leader, environmental services convener and chaired the council’s development company EDI.

• Survived a major stroke in 2000 which left him temporarily unable to walk.

• A standards investigation in 2008 cleared him of any wrongdoing after a complaint he’d failed to reveal he was working as a teacher at the Wester Hailes Education Centre. He’d been on secondment from Stevenson College.

• On Labour’s return to power in 2012, he was appointed planning convener.

Why aren’t we profiting more from festive success?

A staggering 3.6 million people are estimated to have visited Edinburgh’s Christmas attractions last year, which in a city with a total population of under 500,000 must rank as a stunning success.

A report to next week’s culture and sport committee shows the numbers at the two sites in St Andrew Square and Princes Street Gardens increased by an incredible one million on 2013. Entry to the sites is free, but sales for the paid-for attractions were also up 40 per cent to 541,151 tickets.

Was it the marketing, the quality of the events or the mild weather? Probably all three, but congratulations are certainly due.

The Christmas attractions are now dwarfing Edinburgh’s Hogmanay, which attracted 148,000 people over the three days, an estimated 64 per cent of whom were not from the city.

In total the council invests £1,312,456 in the events but receives a share of the profits in return… a princely, or should that be a Princes Streetly, sum of £28,754.

But without wishing rain on the torchlit parade, spending £1.3m to attract well over three million people and then making less than 30 grand from it sounds like an opportunity being missed.