John McLellan: Let’s bet our houses on it

Proposals for new housing often face vociferous objection, such as those seen at Craighouse. Picture: Greg Macvean
Proposals for new housing often face vociferous objection, such as those seen at Craighouse. Picture: Greg Macvean
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Something must be done about the onslaught of housing facing Edinburgh, says the chief of Edinburgh’s conservation pressure group.

That’s how housing developments on green sites were described by Cockburn Association director Marion Williams in a meeting to decide whether to approve a plan for 220 homes in Newcraighall.

Having cycled across it many times I know the site quite well and while the houses on the main street have a nice open view at the back, it’s not the most remarkable of fields.

Worn down by years of argument, the residents have reluctantly accepted that some development of the site is now inevitable, but with the number of homes planned going up from 160 the fear is that what was a relatively quiet old mining village will not be able to cope with such a large number of people and their inevitable vehicles.

It’s hard not to have sympathy with them, and one aspect of the plans for the area – the demolition of the old railway bridge which currently carries the cycle way to Queen Margaret University – seems too short-sighted.

But the Barratt scheme won approval by eight votes to three at the city council’s development management committee this week and so will in all probability now go ahead.

With more housing to come on a site over the road, the character of Newcraighall is about to change 
dramatically.

But a change of character doesn’t mean that the district can’t cope, and there isn’t a building built anywhere which doesn’t impact on its surroundings. Virtually every new house in the modern history of this city has been built on someone else’s view, after all.

Why all this matters now is because of the growing pressure on Edinburgh to provide new housing, increased by a spike in the council’s legal requirement from the Scottish Government.

As committee convener Ian Perry pointed out, if they don’t allow the houses to be built in Newcraighall, they have to be built somewhere else. And all over Edinburgh, parcels of open land are already secured by developers waiting for the opportunity to build, the vast majority of which would face vociferous local objection.

Take the fields at Liberton on the road to the Braids, currently home to horses where you can still find the remains of Edinburgh’s Second World War anti-aircraft battery. How a house builder would love to get going there but there is next to no chance any time soon because it is green-belt land and local opponents have long fought hard against the possibility.

Or go along the Lanark Road through Juniper Green and Currie to Balerno and the planning applications are lining up for every available plot because of the proximity to trunk roads and excellent local schools.

And, of course, there is the bitter row flaring up once again over the plans to develop the Craighouse campus site vacated by Napier University.

Much has been written about the need to build on brownfield sites before anywhere else, most persuasively by architect Malcolm Fraser, and there is no doubt that considerable opportunity remains to develop some of those sites.

Unfortunately, the owner of one of the largest, Forth Ports, now sees industrial use as the way forward and that in turn impacts on the potential for adjacent development.

Reports this week about a housing boom in the city are far from exaggerated. A friend recently sold his house, admittedly in desirable Craiglockhart, and experienced the kind of interest last shown in about 2005; 60 viewings in a weekend, eight notes of interest, four offers. If that doesn’t demonstrate pent-up demand I don’t know what does.

And so we come to what promises to be the mother of all stushies, the Murray Estates plan for the Garden District on the green belt to the west of the City Bypass.

This is land bounded by the A8 to the north, the bypass to the east and the M8 to the south. The only 
experience the vast majority of Edinburgh people have of this area is either whizzing past it on the train to Glasgow, or cutting down that nifty shortcut from the RBS HQ to Riccarton.

The problem Edinburgh faces is that to continue to grow it needs more houses and, given the brownfield sites can’t meet all the demand, the homes must go somewhere.

It might feel like an onslaught to Marion Williams, but for people who want to live and work in a growing city in homes they can afford, development is essential.

Those who argue the green belt must remain sacrosanct while fighting plans near mature communities seem to argue that it’s perfectly OK for them to be built in neighbouring authorities.

So the expansion of Edinburgh’s working population has actually been absorbed by Fife and West Lothian, creating more traffic travelling longer distances and more strain on public transport.

We now have a situation whereby every localised development in the city meets fierce opposition along the lines of “I like it where I live and I don’t want anyone else living here”. This is quickly followed by environmental opposition in principle every time a plan comes up for anywhere other than an old factory.

And the same people who complain when a local trader shuts up shop and the premises are turned into a charity shop or a cafe.

The heresy of building on a field aside, the Garden District plan answers those questions. It allows Edinburgh to meet its housing demand without impacting on existing communities. Crucially, it is right next to the city’s prime area for economic growth at Edinburgh Park, the international business gateway, Newbridge and the Gyle.

It’s probably got the best transport connections anywhere in Scotland. Not only is it on Scotland’s main road network but close to a railway station, a bus park-and-ride terminus, the tram route and the airport. And if you want to take the boat, the canal takes you to Fountainbridge.

And never mind the horticulture attraction, the sports development and the new school, it includes proper recreational parkland space so the houses are not all jammed into a tight site without any amenity.

Reading the comment streams on the stories this week, it also seems that the plan is unacceptable because Sir David Murray owns the land. Sure he’s a controversial figure, but that should not get in the way of the examination of what’s being proposed.

Businessman wants return on investment doesn’t seem to be much of an argument unless you still read Morning Star.

Of course it can’t be rushed through, but neither can Edinburgh stand still. We need major expansion that doesn’t destroy existing communities and preserves the best of what we have. Reject plans like the Garden District and get set for scores of Newcraighalls and Craighouses. And if there is one part of the city which can stand large-scale expansion, it’s where the transport and employment opportunities already exist and where the number of back yards affected are almost in single figures.

An onslaught of housing? Let Edinburgh flourish.

DIVIDING OPINION

HAVING criticised Councillor David Walker last week for his ill-judged intervention in support of a thug convicted of the most appalling torture, it is only fair that this be balanced by commendation for his contribution to the Newcraighall debate.

His points were measured and well argued, not calling for the plan for reasonable adjustments to be made to be thrown out.

That’s his job, not standing up for hoodlums, and if he could bring himself to make a public apology to his council colleagues and all the people he represents it would do his reputation much good.

He is a man who divides opinion amongst his Labour colleagues. Councillor Eric Milligan praised him for his submission, but from where I sat Councillor Angela Blacklock couldn’t look him in the eye.

REBELS WITHOUT A PAUSE

OPPONENTS of the Craighouse development this week issued a leaflet, complete with the campaign’s own mock-ups of what the housing plan for the site might look like.

Despite their best efforts some of it looks ok to me, other bits less so.

But some of the more excitable claims undermine the arguments, in particular an accusation that the Quartermile development has “left 75 per cent of the historic buildings still derelict or demolished”.

I took an unaccompanied tour round Quartermile, the old Royal Infirmary site, just a week or so ago and from what I could see the Craighouse claim is questionable to say the least.

Sure, the old Simpson Maternity Hospital was demolished, and having had two of my kids born there no-one was more sad to see it go than I. But the site is under construction right now.

Derelict historic buildings? As far as I can see practically every inch has been converted and the interest in the site continues to grow.

Quartermile did have its problems when the 2007-8 crash smashed the property market. Is the fact that Edinburgh experienced a slump amid the banking crash, in line with much of the Western World, a reason to fight development? I think not.

Need for guiding hand goes well beyond school

That Edinburgh is getting back on its feet should be something to celebrate but not everyone will be able to benefit. There are those who will struggle and being able to help will always be the mark of a decent society.

Where the haves and the have-nots meet has long been a feature of this city, going back hundreds of years when Old Town gentry lived on the top floors where the air was better than the basement floors where the poor folk slept.

Low-level criminality is a feature of urban life and our district is no different. We’ve had the usual petty vandalism like car windows being smashed and wing mirrors and wipers broken. Our car was one of 22 broken into in one evening last year.

Two of our neighbours have been burgled repeatedly and we’ve even had a window smashed by someone taking a pot-shot with a BB gun. Hey, you’re insured aren’t you….

Last week a young girl was caught looking for unlocked cars from which to steal. It was broad daylight and a neighbour found her just sitting in his car.

Hardly a criminal mastermind, it appears the girl is known to the police but is just someone who can’t cope with life. She had a job but couldn’t hold it down and now she’s desperate again.

She will go through the justice system and at some point will probably end up in Cornton Vale, if she hasn’t been there already. And then it will start all over again.

There has been deserved controversy in recent days over Scottish Government plans to appoint a state minder for every child.

But for some people, thankfully few in number, the need for a sympathetic guiding hand goes way beyond school years.