John McLellan: Follow the old road

Caroline House and Waterfront Avenue gates. Picture: Scott Louden
Caroline House and Waterfront Avenue gates. Picture: Scott Louden
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It should be no surprise that transport minister Keith Brown has ruled out any government cash to extend the Edinburgh tram line.

With Transport Scotland’s priorities clearly focussed on national infrastructure, such a localised scheme was never going to be a top priority.

And after consistent SNP opposition to the scheme, it would be strange to backtrack on that now, when the system has still to go live.

Yet it still remains the case that what is good for Edinburgh is good for Scotland and for that reason, the Scottish Government would be well advised not to pull up the drawbridge as totally as it did in 2007.

Transport Scotland has a good record of delivery, and it is no coincidence that part of the reason the trams got back on track was its involvement. With or without central funding, any future development should include that agency.

After all, what’s bad for Edinburgh is bad for Scotland.

As I argued last week, the inescapable truth is we have been left with a foretaste of what might be and what remains at issue is how more people are moved around a sensitive city in an environmentally sustainable way.

And how is the potential identified in all the big brownfield sites to the north of the city to be unlocked?

The rough ground, broken fences and property signs on the gap sites are not pretty, but a tour round Ocean Terminal, the Western Harbour and Granton Waterfront shows the developments are not quite the disasters claimed by the likes of publisher Hugh Andrew.

The Western Harbour and Platinum Point in particular are impressive flats where young professionals can enjoy spectacular views.

Judging by the line of BMWs in the middle of the working day, there is a fair bit of cash around. And there are acres of space for more of the same.

Along at Granton, the juddering halt to the Waterfront masterplan is plain to see, with roads going nowhere and a water feature as a focal point for a complex which remains an architectural model.

Up the hill around the Scottish Gas headquarters (and they’ve got plenty of dosh; parent company Centrica made an operating profit of £2,695 million in 2013) there are more opportunities in an area transformed in the past decade.

Next door, the Jacobean mansion Caroline House, which used to hide at the end of a dirt track behind a rundown chip shop, now has magnificent new gates set into an avenue lined with beech trees.

And the irony is that looming over it all is the rusting old gas holder which is now a listed building and for which no-one has come up with a viable idea. A cultural venue? Oh please.

And yes, this is a structure praised, along with the appalling Argyle House on the West Port, by one of the most vocal opponents of the Caltongate scheme, Euan Leitch of the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland.

There are plenty of gap sites and sad-looking units in Granton, but it is not a ghost quarter like those in Ireland. Homes are still being built, shops are open and businesses are trading. Change is just not happening as fast as was once hoped.

But the key to the full transformation of north Edinburgh, a fast and modern transport system, is being locked away for the foreseeable future with the return of cash paid by builders as a premium for the tram link.

That is the clearest signal that the Granton Spur – or Line 1b to use its technical name – is all but dead, and that’s a tragedy. All there will be is the part-built junction at Roseburn.

Running along the track-bed of the old London Midland & Scottish rail line, the Granton line would have cost a fraction of the cost of digging up streets.

And it could have worked even better if the old line running parallel with Ferry Road was used to create a loop running to Ocean Terminal.

Go along the old line today and see how many flats have been built on either side of the route. Prime tram country.

The city council says it still hopes to have the line extended all the way to Leith by 2020, but I’m not so sure.

The city’s coffers are empty and the Scottish Government wants nothing to do with it (and if I’m reading the polls correctly there is every likelihood the SNP will still be in power by then, independent Scotland or not).

So what is to happen to those big sites and the opportunities they present? Maybe, like the conservation lobby, we should go back to Victorian times for inspiration.

Rather than ask builders to pay premiums, maybe a private partnership between developers, engineers and transport professionals can create the new districts we were led to expect with all the facilities they need.

Sensible people don’t expect the authorities to build every home, every shop and every office, so why should we expect them to provide all the infrastructure?

The great railway networks upon which we still depend were built
by Victorian entrepreneurs with private cash. Maybe that’s the way
forward.

THE OPTIMISTS AND THE PESSIMISTS

Getting things done needs a positive outlook and enthusiasm and if there is one person in Edinburgh who is a veritable geyser of both it is arts impresario Richard Demarco.

Never a man to hide his opinions or emotions, he has illuminated the city’s cultural life for almost as long as anyone can remember and it is fitting that his contribution was recognised with the presentation of the Edinburgh Award this week.

His boundless energy and imagination has brought so much light and colour to the city over so many decades and few deserve this accolade more than he.

In particular, his tireless help for Eastern European artists throughout the Cold War played a significant part in the triumph of creativity and free human spirit over totalitarianism.

Ricky was one of the first people I spoke to when, as editor of Scotland on Sunday back in 2003, I hatched a plan with our art critic Iain Gale to create a festival of the visual arts, then a glaring omission from the August programme.

He could not have been more supportive and with people like James Boyle at the Scottish Arts Council also giving encouragement (and cash) we managed to get an event off the ground in 2004 and I’m delighted the Edinburgh Art Festival it is now a firm fixture of the season.

And as one of the most prominent member of Edinburgh’s Scottish- Italian community, he was proud to be at the Holyroodhouse reception to welcome Pope Benedict to Scotland in 2010.

Guests were issued with coloured cards which, it transpired, directed them to one side of a rope or another. On the left meant you would meet His Holiness, on the right you were an onlooker.

As a mere journalist (and a lapsed Protestant!), I had no complaint about being on the onlooking side, as opposed to the faithful like composer James MacMillan. But there was Ricky on the same side as me, and I couldn’t help thinking few deserved to meet the Pope more than he.

Just in front, a rather well-known author, who shall remain nameless, spied his opportunity and stepped over the rope. I urged Ricky to do the same, but to no avail.

And so while some folk I knew to be regulars at Ibrox Park got to press the Holy flesh, Ricky could only watch on helplessly.

Thankfully he has now received proper recognition in his home town and the Edinburgh Award joins the CBE he was awarded in 2007 and the OBE in 1984. And then there is his honorary membership of the Order of Kentucky Colonels going back to 1976, which I’m presuming that has nothing to do with fried chicken.

So raise a glass to Richard Demarco, Edinburgh needs more like him. And can someone please organise an audience with the Pope?

Hans off

Another person who has done much to bring success to the city is departing EICC chief executive Hans Rissman, for whom there is now no turning back seeing as his job was advertised at the weekend.

Quietly-spoken, but passionate about his job nonetheless, he led the conference centre from the start and has overseen the difficult transformation from merely very good to internationally outstanding. The new exhibition space carved out beneath Morrison Street is truly jaw-dropping and the benefits it will bring are hard to underestimate.

His enthusiasm, good humour and leadership has been integral to the EICC’s success, and the staff I have met always speak of him with affection.

Hans might not get his paw-prints embedded in the City Chambers’ quadrangle like Ricky Demarco and JK Rowling, but his contribution to the city is unquestionable and he will be a very hard act to follow.

Back in time

Not such a ray of sunshine is Green councillor Gavin Corbett. He must have crunched on a bee in his muesli to unleash an unprovoked torrent of vitriol in the direction of ex-council leader Donald Anderson in the Evening News earlier this week.

According to Councillor Corbett, Mr Anderson’s view of the city’s future is “myopic” because he had the temerity to write an article celebrating the fact that dormant building projects are coming to life and the city’s retail sector is looking healthier than for some time.

Nowhere in Mr Anderson’s article was there an attack on anyone or criticism of anything; just a positive outlook for the coming years.

Yet for his trouble, Mr Anderson is described as “hollow” and he is taken to task for apparently revelling in developments which Councillor Corbett says will only create “here today, gone tomorrow” jobs and put small businesses at risk.

Just how developing shops, bars, hotels and homes on two significant gap sites puts the city’s economy at risk is quite beyond me.

What I do think puts the city’s prosperity at risk is when people purporting to be civic leaders do their best to talk down our prospects on the basis that some developments are not unique enough, whatever that’s supposed to mean.

So is nothing other than basket-weaving collectives appropriate for a city like this?

And should the construction of the New Town have been halted because it was beginning to look just like a bigger version of Bath? Ugh, how vulgar.

Councillor Corbett’s world must be a depressing place to live, where every investor is a potential enemy, every project a potential threat, and every sign of economic revival a step back from the return to mediaeval times eco warriors seem to crave.