John McLellan: Joined up plan needed

An artist's impression of the St Leonard's Street student flats development

An artist's impression of the St Leonard's Street student flats development

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It gets rid of an eyesore, meets growing demand, supports a vital sector of the city economy and provides a new community facility, yet it has taken intervention from the Scottish Government for common sense to prevail and the go-ahead to be given.

The plan to build student flats on the site of the St Leonard’s Homebase store was vehemently opposed by locals and politicians and city planners threw out the plan earlier this year on a technicality.

They agreed there was a need and the new building was a lot better than what was there, but it was rejected because there were already too many students in the area and the new complex was not “adjacent” to existing university facilities.

Too many students near one of the UK’s most successful universities. Who would have thought?

Now the decision has been overturned by a government planning reporter, who makes it crystal clear why out-of-date regulations should not have been put before reason.

In upholding the appeal by Unite (the flats company, not the union), reporter John Martin makes many points which were apparent from the outset.

Most obviously, it took Mr Martin only 12 minutes to walk from the site to George Square and, as everyone knows, it’s actually closer than the less adjacent main Pollock Halls accommodation complex.

He also recognised that students living in what were once family homes is a problem which often lies at the heart of community objections.

“It is clear from the submissions of local residents that many of the tenements in nearby streets have a high proportion of houses in multiple occupation (HMOs) occupied by students, which are threatening the remaining family units to the point where they may no longer be attractive places to live,” he observed. There was, he said, “a continuing tendency for students to rely on HMOs in central tenement areas, which has resulted in a general loss of family housing in areas close to the University of Edinburgh where students prefer to live.”

So he has made a very valuable contribution to an often-fractious argument; that properly managed accommodation is part of the solution to the difficulties caused by students in HMOs, not an extension of the problem.

Blocking purpose-built developments is more likely to increase the chances of mature private properties being taken over by students, something the council cannot control, and the Scottish Government recognises.

Labour MSP Sarah Boyack has called for the council to make rules clearer and decisions less likely to be overturned, and new regulations are likely to be proposed by August which will focus on the definition of “adjacency” on which this case rested.

The council’s idea is to change the definition from “adjacent” to “adjoining” or at the least on the same street, but as the latest ruling talks about the Southside’s historic relationship with the university in general, this could easily be vulnerable to challenge.

The council wants more affordable homes in central sites but developers favour student flats because they get more bang for their buck and can usually outbid schemes for the general public.

To an extent the council is a victim of its own policies. First of all student flats do not need car parking so there is no objection on transport grounds and it means more flats can be built and therefore more income.

There is no requirement for affordable housing as with general housing schemes so again that improves profitability and also makes smaller sites viable which might otherwise remain derelict.

Thirdly, the council needs to maximise its own returns, so it has just sold a small parcel of land between the back of the Festival Theatre and the dual carriageway for £3m. It’s hardly a des res for most of us but overlooking Bristo Square it’s an undergraduate’s dream and so the purchaser will be putting up student flats.

Departing SNP MSP Marco Biagi argues that “more expensive commercial purpose-built student accommodation risks pushing up the going rate for rent” and while he might have a point about the general public, increasing supply for students should if anything keep prices down as long as there is choice of supplier.

According to council statistics, there are now 78,500 students of one kind or another in Edinburgh; 40,455 are university undergraduates, 15,960 are lucrative post-graduates and 17,000 come from outside the UK.

They all have to live somewhere and Edinburgh University reckons rents are between £360 and £700 a month. Unite’s rents start at £141 a week and go up to £226, so the University estimates could be on the low side.

No-one denies it’s a crucial sector – Edinburgh University alone employs 12,650 people and with Heriot-Watt, Napier and Queen Margaret Universities plus Edinburgh College, some 17,000 people are directly employed in higher and further education.

Ms Boyack is right to talk about striking a balance between stable communities and supporting the growth of the universities, but there was little in the local objections to this development which suggested rejection would make the St Leonard’s community any more stable or attractive.

Universities are big business and the only way for existing settled communities to thrive is to make sure there is as little incentive as possible for students to occupy what were once private homes. And that means encouraging purpose-built complexes, not putting up barriers.

Greens make a tasty snack to help staunch Hinds’ appetite

HER children might be grown up, but Councillor Lesley Hinds has not forgotten the message of eating your greens.

And she was in a hungry mood when chairing Tuesday’s transport and environment committee, which is the big one for the Green Party.

So first she batted off an impassioned plea from Green councillors Nigel Bagshaw and Chas Booth to allow a deputation from cycling pressure group Spokes to speak about the bus lane review.

When Cllr Booth asked: “What are our streets for? People or metal boxes?” Cllr Hinds looked fair pleased with herself when replying “Cars have people in them, I didn’t realise they ran by themselves.”

Then she suggested that an amendment from Cllr Booth about dog fouling which included international examples was perhaps driven by a desire for some foreign

fact-finding trips and was then dismissed as just an opportunity for Cllr Booth to Tweet.

The amendment duly defeated, the bit was well and truly between her teeth by the time another Green amendment came up, this time on landfill and recycling.

It was Cllr Booth’s turn to look chuffed with his own wit when accusing Edinburgh Council of “not knowing its three Rs from its elbow” (that’s reduce, reuse and recycle to the rest of us) and again Cllr Hinds accused him of looking for another Tweeting opportunity.

So there was no disguising her glee when that amendment too was defeated. It certainly beats dealing with Transport for Edinburgh.

Cammo verdict expected soon - we hope

WEST Edinburgh residents should know who has won the battle of Cammo fields within the next three weeks.

The application to build 670 homes on open land to the west of Maybury Road was taken out of council hands at the turn of the year and a Scottish Government reporter appointed to look into the plans.

According to a letter from communities minister Alex Neil to the Cammo Residents Association, which has helpfully been posted on their website, he received the reporter’s recommendation on April 22 and is continuing to study its contents.

When I inquired this week, his department issued this statement: “The appeal is still being considered and, therefore, ministers are not in a position to issue their decision as yet.

“There is no delay in the decision-making process as ministers aim to issue decisions on appeal cases within two months of receiving the reporter’s report and are still well within that timescale.”

So two months from April 22 gives you 17 days to go and while the two months isn’t binding, I’d be surprised if the announcement isn’t that week.

I’d also be surprised if the plan is rejected outright, but a wily operator like Neil is likely to find some sort of compromise for SNP politicians like Colin Keir and Michelle Thomson who have campaigned against it.

Green belt threat

WITH little fanfare, a decision was taken which could literally change the shape of Edinburgh.

A small meeting of councillors from across South East Scotland approved a report which lays out how the capital should expand in the next 20 years and it signals the beginning of the end for the unbroken green belt.

The authorities making up South-East Scotland have approved what’s known as their Main Issues Report which will form the basis of discussions over the next two years to agree how the region should develop.

The preferred plan is for corridors of development along transport arteries, a principle first explored at the turn of the century.

It means the city’s expansion will be in three main thrusts: between the A8 and M8, up the dual carriageways past Dalmeny and Kirkliston to South Queensferry and out to the east along the A1. Two further smaller prongs will extend down the A7 from Sheriffhall and along the A701 through Straiton.

From now until next Spring everyone will be able to have their say before the final recommendations are put to the Scottish Government in 2017.After further consultation the final Strategic Development Plan will be signed off in the summer of 2018.

While all the National attention will be on referenda European and Scottish, this is every bit as important to the lives of people in and around the capital city for years to come. It will be a political hot potato for both the Scottish elections next year and, if anyone still has the stamina, for the local elections in 2017.